The Chamber of Commerce of New York

The Science of Industry > The Atlantic Cable

THE MEMBERS of the Chamber of Commerce, in the nineteenth century, were applied scientists, keenly interested in promoting technological innovations, and always asking how each forward step might lengthen the stride of business. In 1859, they petitioned the City to build a “Time and Weather Observatory” at the Battery. Such an institution, naturally, would “promote the interests of commerce,” but it would also prove useful “for benevolent, scientific and useful purposes, and not for profit.” The institution would “be an honor to this city, and of such general usefulness as to make it difficult to specify an class of the community not benefited by it.”

But, not all science was equal. The Chamber reluctantly decided to oppose a contemporary petition to build an observatory in Central Park. “[B]eing engaged in forwarding the plan of a Nautical (or Time and Weather) Observatory at the Battery,” the members wrote, the Chamber “thinks it inexpedient to abandon the one plan for the other, and believes that any combination or connection of the two will be found injurious to the interests of both.”

In this instance, the Chamber had acknowledged “the magnificent project of an observatory at the Central Park,” and had expressed “much desire for its success,” but had chosen to support the Battery observatory because of its “direct commercial utility.”

With the Chamber’s greatest project of the day – the laying of the Atlantic Cable – there was no conflict between technology and commerce.

Led by Cyrus Field – an executive at Western Union and a member of the Chamber – the effort to lay a telegraph cable beneath the water from Ireland to Newfoundland required years of effort and expense, as well as cooperation from the British and American navies. In 1858, it was completed. The new telegraph could transmit a word per minute – at a dollar a word. The result, said A.A. Low, was the perfect combination of “the money of the Capitalist, the science and the skill of the Electrician, and the indomitable perseverance of the Sailor.”

Almost perfect. After only four hundred messages, the cable ceased functioning. New lines were sunk in the following years, and in 1866 permanent success was finally achieved.

Three decades later, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned the most famous portrait in its collection, “The Atlantic Cable Projectors,” a group portrait that carefully itemized each participant’s specific role in the enterprise:

The painting represents a meeting of the Atlantic Cable Projectors at the residence of Mr. Cyrus W. Field on Gramercy Park. Mr. Peter Cooper is presiding. Mr. Field is calling attention to a chart of Trinity Bay, pointing to Heart’s Content as a safe harbor for landing the cable. Mr. David Dudley Field stands by the President with a law book. Mr. Chandler White is handing estimates of expense to Mr. Marshall O. Roberts; next to whom, at the table, is Mr. Moses Taylor, listening to Mr. Field’s argument; near whom, at the end of the table, stands Mr. Wilson G. Hunt, who, though he joined them some time after their first organization, remained a staunch supporter of the project to the end. Prof. Samuel F. B. Morse, the Electrician of the Company, is standing behind Mr. Roberts, and by his side Mr. Daniel Huntington, the artist, sketching.

The size of the canvas is seven feet three inches by nine feet.


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