1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Field, Cyrus West

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FIELD, CYRUS WEST (1819-1892), American capitalist, projector of the first Atlantic cable, was born at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on the 30th of November 1819. He was a brother of David Dudley Field. At fifteen he became a clerk in the store of A. T. Stewart & Co., of New York, and stayed there three years; then worked for two years with his brother, Matthew Dickinson Field, in a paper-mill at Lee, Massachusetts; and in 1840 went into the paper business for himself at Westfield, Massachusetts, but almost immediately became a partner in E. Root & Co., wholesale paper dealers in New York City, who failed in the following year. Field soon afterwards formed with a brother-in-law the firm of Cyrus W. Field & Co., and in 1853 had accumulated $250,000, paid off the debts of the Root company and retired from active business, leaving his name and $100,000 with the concern. In the same year he travelled with Frederick E. Church, the artist, through South America. In 1854 he became interested, through his brother Matthew, a civil engineer, in the project of Frederick Newton Gisborne (1824-1892) for a telegraph across Newfoundland; and he was attracted by the idea of a trans-Atlantic telegraphic cable, as to which he consulted S. F. B. Morse and Matthew Fontaine Maury, head of the National Observatory at Washington. With Peter Cooper, Moses Taylor (1806-1882), Marshall Owen Roberts (1814-1880) and Chandler White, he formed the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company, which procured a more favourable charter than Gisborne's, and had a capital of $1,500,000. Having secured all the practicable landing rights on the American side of the ocean, he and John W. Brett, who was now his principal colleague, approached Sir Charles Bright (q.v.) in London, and in December 1856 the Atlantic Telegraph Company was organized by them in Great Britain, a government grant being secured of £14,000 annually for government messages, to be reduced to £10,000 annually when the cable should pay a 6% yearly dividend; similar grants were made by the United States government. Unsuccessful attempts to lay the cable were made in August 1857 and in June 1858, but the complete cable was laid between the 7th of July and the 5th of August 1858; for a time messages were transmitted, but in October the cable became useless, owing to the failure of its electrical insulation. Field, however, did not abandon the enterprise, and finally in July 1866, after a futile attempt in the previous year, a cable was laid and brought successfully into use. From the Congress of the United States he received a gold medal and a vote of thanks, and he received many other honours both at home and abroad. In 1877 he bought a controlling interest in the New York Elevated Railroad Company, controlling the Third and Ninth Avenue lines, of which he was president in 1877-1880. He worked with Jay Gould for the completion of the Wabash railway, and at the time of his greatest stock activity bought The New York Evening Express and The Mail and combined them as The Mail and Express, which he controlled for six years. In 1879 Field suffered financially by Samuel J. Tilden's heavy sales (during Field's absence in Europe) of “Elevated” stock, which forced the price down from 200 to 164; but Field lost much more in the great “Manhattan squeeze” of the 24th of June 1887, when Jay Gould and Russell Sage, who had been supposed to be his backers in an attempt to bring the Elevated stock to 200, forsook him, and the price fell from 156½ to 114 in half an hour. Field died in New York on the 12th of July 1892.

See the biography by his daughter, Isabella (Field) Judson, Cyrus W. Field, His Life and Work (New York, 1896); H. M. Field, History of the Atlantic Telegraph (New York, 1866); and Charles Bright, The Story of the Atlantic Cable (New York, 1903).