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Field honored for transatlantic cable

At the present time, in this age of the Internet, we think nothing of contacting a person halfway around the world or visiting a website in some remote country. Yet, it is only in the past few decades that this remarkable change has come about. The revolution in communications, however, began more than 150 years ago…


Perhaps nothing so excited Americans in the 1840s as the telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse. It had spread like wildfire across the United States and Europe, but there was one great gap in this network: the Atlantic Ocean.

As early as 1843 Morse had predicted that the telegraph would eventually cross the ocean and establish instant communication between the Old and New Worlds. Morse’s ideas about an Atlantic telegraph line were not well known, but one person who gave them consideration was Cyrus Field. Mankind had dreamed for centuries of such a link and it was this one man who would bring the dream to reality.

Field (1819-1892) was born in Massachusetts but left for New York in 1835, where he was highly successful in the business world. Asked for help in finishing a 400-mile telegraphic link to Newfoundland, Field threw himself energetically into the new venture and the project was completed in 1856.

Field suggested that the cable then be extended to Ireland and from there to England and Western Europe. Associates thought him mad, but he won them over and secured a charter to establish a telegraphic link from the United States to England via Newfoundland. Field organized the Atlantic Telegraph Co. and the American and British governments thought the project so important that they loaned ships to the company.

During 1857 there were two attempts to lay the cable between Newfoundland and Ireland but both failed. On July 28 of the following year two ships met at mid-ocean, spliced their respective cables together, and then sailed for Ireland and America. This time they were successful and the line went into service on Aug. 16, 1858.

The first messages were between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan in which each congratulated the other for this magnificent enterprise. Within a short time, however, accolades had turned to brickbats as the line abruptly failed. Detractors said that it was a fraud and that even Queen Victoria had been taken in by the schemes of speculators.

Many were demoralized by the failure, but not Field. He had begun to raise the necessary funds once more when the American Civil War began in April 1861. It did not halt fund raising, however, and by war’s end in 1865 Field was ready to begin anew.

During the summer of 1865 cable-laying operations began, but were stopped when the cable snapped in a sudden storm. Once more out of money, Field went to the great English financier, Thomas Brassey, for help. Brassey promised to fund one-tenth of the expenses, no matter what the cost. With this critical backing, money once again flowed in for the project. On July 27, 1866, the cable was completed, this time to stay.

Field crossed the ocean no less than 50 times in accomplishing the crowning achievement of his life. Foreign nations awarded him numerous decorations but the most deserved and highest honors came at home. The U.S. Congress voted him a gold medal in March 1867.

Joseph Goldsborough Bruff, a Treasury staff artist, prepared designs for both sides of the medal by late July 1867 and, after approval by Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch and President Andrew Johnson, they were sent to the Philadelphia Mint. Chief engraver James Longacre declined to prepare the dies because of his advanced age so it was turned over to assistant engraver William Barber.

In September Barber journeyed to New York, where he sketched Field from life, and then returned to work on the models. Barber knew that many would look at this medal as an example of the best America could do and he was determined to meet the challenge.

The dies were finished in April 1868 and the four-inch medal (containing 26.8 ounces of pure gold, worth $554) was struck in early May. It was then forwarded to the Treasury. John J. Knox, Comptroller of the Currency and a dedicated numismatist, examined the medal and rejected it because there was “a slight defect on the knuckle of the forefinger of the hand holding the wreath.” The medal was put into a safe and everybody forgot about it. Except Field.

In late 1868 Field made inquiries about the medal but no one at the Treasury could remember what had happened to the first one. Another was quickly struck and presented to Field in December 1868. In 1874 the first medal was found and sent to the Mint for melting. Field learned about this and asked if he might have it for the intrinsic value, which proved acceptable to the Treasury. He now had two gold medals.

The Philadelphia Mint put the copper-bronzed Field medal on sale in 1869 but the large size caused a high price to be set and few collectors could afford one. In the 1920s, the diameter was reduced to three inches and quite a few were then sold to collectors. Four-inch medals, with the fine mahogany finish, sell for considerable sums. An uncirculated specimen in the April 2012 Heritage auction, for example, brought $1,495.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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