American Experience (1988– )
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The Great Transatlantic Cable 

The story of Cyrus Field and the creation of the transatlantic telegraph line.


Peter Jones


David Axelrod


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Episode cast overview, first billed only:
Linda Hunt ... Self - Narrator (voice)
Daniel Czitrom Daniel Czitrom ... Self - Historian
Gillian Cookson Gillian Cookson ... Self - Historian
John Steele Gordon John Steele Gordon ... Self - Author of "A Thread Across the Ocean"
Bernard Finn Bernard Finn ... Self - Smithsonian Institute
Donard De Cogan Donard De Cogan ... Self - Engineer
Colin Hempstead Colin Hempstead ... Self - Engineer
John Mackay ... Cyrus Field
Mike McColl ... Voice of Cyrus Field (voice) (as Michael McColl)
Alex Allen Alex Allen ... Re-enactor
Jonathan Beedell Jonathan Beedell ... Re-enactor
John Berry John Berry ... Re-enactor
Martyn Bill Martyn Bill ... Re-enactor
Amy Booth Amy Booth ... Re-enactor
Mark Bryan Mark Bryan ... Re-enactor


The story of Cyrus Field and the creation of the transatlantic telegraph line.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

telegraph | reenactment | See All (2) »

User Reviews

Triumph of an Inspired Amateur
4 January 2015 | by GoingbeggingSee all my reviews

The brains behind the first transatlantic cable knew nothing about electricity, metallurgy, or ships or the sea. He didn't even realize that Canada was so close to Ireland until someone showed him a globe. All he had was a small fortune from the paper business (too small, as it turned out) and an unusual degree of trust from his highly ethical business record. But in fact, neither Cyrus Field nor anyone else involved in this ambitious project knew anything of the risks ahead. Field later said that if he'd known half the problems to come, he'd have stayed out of it.

Most people ridiculed the scheme as unworkable. A cross-channel cable between England and France had been launched, to an enthusiastic reception. But trans-ocean just sounded like fantasy. Only by one vote did Congress allow him the use of a steam frigate to lay the cable. Meanwhile nobody had thought much about insulation. This would need latex from one particular tree in Malaya, and therefore had to be imported from Britain. Neither had anyone foreseen that the sheer quantity of iron in those great coils would affect the ship's compass, sending it off course. Still, from a tent on the Irish coast in August 1858, they were able to pass on a telegraphed greeting from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan.

But only days later, the signals grew weak, and they decided to strengthen the electrical charge. This pierced the insulation, bringing the whole system to a halt. The sense of anti-climax was so great that the team were accused of having faked the whole operation, perhaps as part of a stock-market fraud. Only Field kept his nerve. "Our cable is not dead. It only slumbers."

Before a new effort could be organised, America was plunged into civil war, and it is fascinating indeed to imagine alternative outcomes to that conflict, with news transmitted to Europe instantly and negotiations conducted almost in realtime. But the war also stimulated the development of battlefield telegraph, and the new technology proved useful to Field when work resumed. This time, he had some unexpected luck in the shape of Brunel's huge vessel, the Great Eastern - which turned out much too huge to be practical for anything, except laying transatlantic cable! But once again, the signal was lost. By now, however, they had worked out a method for raising the cable to the surface for inspection. They found that the insulation had been pierced again, this time by some nails. Some suspected sabotage, but it turned out to be a manufacturing fault. Finally, in July 1866, the new and much-improved cable entered service.

This film makes good use of its 1-hour running time, the only unnecessary part being a retro 'catch-up' on the development of the land-based telegraph. Narration and commentary is of a high standard, generated by a particularly good team of historians and engineers.

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Official Sites:

PBS [United States]



Release Date:

11 April 2005 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Green Umbrella Ltd., WGBH See more »
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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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