In 1854, inspired by the ambitious, but failed, efforts of Frederick Gisborne, founder of the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company, to link Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with a combined overland and undersea cable, Cyrus Field, a wealthy New York merchant, drew up a plan for a transatlantic undersea link.
Ten years earlier, Professor Samuel B. Morse, creator of Morse code, had suggested that "a telegraphic communication line could certainly be established across the Atlantic Ocean." To determine the plausibility of his plan, Field called upon the expertise of both Morse and Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury, director of the National Observatory in Washington D.C. and a leading oceanographer.
Maury, who had also foreseen the possibility of laying an undersea cable, had already conducted wind, current, and depth soundings between Newfoundland and southwest Ireland. Most of the 1600 nautical mile span was determined to be a flat plateau. Which Maury named the Telegraphic Plateau with the deepest stretch, just off the coast of Ireland, plunging to some 14,000 feet?
Field's first attempt, in August 1857, failed. In 1858, Field tried again, investing more than $2.5 million. Instead of laying the cable directly from one coast to the other, engineers decided to begin in mid-Atlantic with two ships, the Niagara and the Agamemnon, laying the cable out in both directions towards the Irish and Newfoundland coastlines. After at least three false starts due to cable breaks, the two ships finally reached their destinations. Hearts Bay, Trinity, Newfoundland and Valencia, Ireland within days of each other. The cable worked for nearly four weeks before it went dead.
Discouraged but not defeated, Field found new financing, and in 1866 successfully laid a second cable. On July 27, 1866 he sent this message to his team in Ireland: "We arrived here at nine o'clock this morning. All is well. Thank God, the cable is laid and is in perfect working order". This time the cable enhanced on the receiving ends by an instrument called a marine galvanometer remained in service, transmitting up to 20 words per minute. Communication between the United Sates and Europe was a reality, but expensive. The cost of sending the first telegrams from Europe overseas was £20.