In the early 1800’s, trade goods, military mails, and communications between the Americas and Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean on an irregular basis in square-rigged ships. Dependent on the whim of the ship’s master, generally whenever his hold was filled with cargo, ships would then sail out on the deepening tide and a far reach across the Atlantic. The journey from Falmouth, England, to New York took an average of seven weeks. Correspondence prepared in London in early June might be read in Boston by late July. Going in the other direction, sailing along the Gulf Stream with prevailing westerly winds reduced the travel time from America to Europe to only half as long.
Following the war of 1812 and the lifting of England’s wartime blockade, demands on shipping to meet the growing needs of commerce, trade, and the conveyance of correspondence between the Americas and Europe increased substantially. Enterprising merchants developed a system of packet ships that left on fixed and regular schedules between the continents, making correspondence between nations, businesses, and individuals both more reliable and faster. Shipping firms such as the Black Ball Line, the Red Star Line, and the Union Line competed for the transatlantic business trade. Sleekly designed clipper ships, and by the middle of the 19th century steamships, increased the speed of Atlantic crossings. In 1850, it took Edward and Orra Hitchcock just two weeks to travel by steamship from Boston, Massachusetts, to Liverpool, England.
The Atlantic was fast becoming a highway for the interchange of correspondence and ideas as well as cargo, business travelers, and immigrants. Edward Hitchcock and other Amherst college professors could read about the Crimean War in the London Gazette just over twenty days after it was published 3,500 miles away. Embassies and far-flung business partners also benefited from the sharing of more up-to-date information, but communications remained slower than competitive markets and government relations needed.
As trade and communication expanded between Boston and Paris, Mexico and Portugal, and England and the Canadian provinces, nations and peoples began to feel more connected on a global scale. The demand for faster and more reliable communication continued to grow. Europeans began experimenting with undersea telegraph cables, and it was only a matter of time before the attempt was made to lay a transatlantic cable. An enterprising merchant from western Massachusetts undertook the project with the help of Samuel Morse and enthusiastic participation from the British government. After a series of failures, the first successful cable was laid in 1858. Although it worked for only two weeks before failing, uninterrupted transatlantic communication became a reality after 1866, when no fewer than fifteen undersea cables created a reliable and instantaneous mode of communication connecting every country in Europe and every business and government office in every city of America.