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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 669

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This is the grave of Cyrus Field.

Born in 1819 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Field grew up the son of a clergyman. They weren’t exactly an elite family but the children were very high achieving. Field was the brother of the (awful) Supreme Court justice Stephen Field, the important lawyer David Dudley Field, and the famed Gilded Age travel author Henry Field. Field himself started in business as an errand boy in New York City when he was 15 but certainly had advantages as the younger brother of already successful people and he started working for his brothers. In 1840, he went into business as a paper manufacturer in Massachusetts. He also invested in a paper distribution firm. When it went under, he bought out his partners with money from his brother-in-law and soon became the leading paper distributor in New England.

Field soon became rich. He was able to effectively retire by 1853. He funded the trip to South America with Frederic Church where the famous artist was to make the sketches that he later turned into his epic paintings of the Andes. But what makes Field famous today is his work on the telegraph. He went all into this experimental technology upon his return from South America. It was already invented, but the technology and investment to run international lines was not there yet. Field and others, including Peter Cooper and of course Samuel Morse, made that happen. First, they connected Newfoundland to New York.

And then they focused on the transatlantic cable. Field’s boundless confidence helped gain British financial support for the project. Ireland and New York was finally connected in 1858. The line itself only lasted three weeks and then was not brought back online until 1866, but it was still a huge moment in the history of communication. Think about it a bit–the War of 1812 would not have happened at all had rapid communication existed. By the time the British knew that the U.S. had declared war, they had repealed the impressment orders that led to it. And then the war ended before the Battle of New Orleans, which never would have happened either. The communication revolution was huge and the world has never been the same. Still, Field’s reputation suffered during the Civil War because of anger that his rush to get the cable finished led to the use of cheap materials that caused it to fall apart. But when the second cable was laid in 1866, he got a gold medal from Congress.

Field basically lived his later years as a rich guy engaging in investments. He continued to invest in transportation technologies, including Jay Gould on railroads. However, the times passed him by and he, like so many in the Gilded Age, lost most of his fortune on bad investments. By the late 1880s, he was living modestly back home in Stockbridge. He died in 1892, at the age of 72.

Cyrus Field is buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the nation’s communication revolutions, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alexander Graham Bell is on his estate in Nova Scotia and Richard March Hoe, who invented the rotary press that allowed for the mass publishing of newspapers, is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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