Today, we run the race to link Europe and America
by telegraph. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Perry Collins followed the
gold rush from New York to California in 1849.
There he dived into new business interests. One was
a local telegraph line. Another was trade with
In 1856 he made a daring sleigh trip across the
breadth of Siberia, then wrote a book about it. On
a second trip, in 1859, he cooked up a bold plan
for establishing a telegraph link with Europe. He
would sink 75 miles of cable under the Bering
Strait and connect it to a new trans-Siberian
Cyrus Field had tried to
lay an Atlantic cable the year before. He'd failed.
Collins thought he could get around the troubles
Field had met in 3000 miles of ocean bottom. He
proposed to go West instead of East.
As Civil War gathered, we hurried to finish our
trans-American telegraph. War began in April.
Telegraph lines reached San Francisco in October.
They promptly bankrupted the Pony Express.
Field and Collins each went back to their projects
as the War ended. Field raised money for a new
cable under the Atlantic. Western Union backed
Russia had now finished her telegraph line from
Petersburg to Nikolaivsky on the Pacific Coast.
Western Union would try to run line from there to
the Bering Strait, under it, across Russian Alaska,
and down the West Coast to San Francisco.
The US/Russia venture began even before the Civil
War ended. When Lee sat down at Appomatox,
Collins's telegraph already reached from San
Francisco to Vancouver.
The race was on, and Collins sprinted out ahead of
Field. Field struggled with broken trans-Atlantic
cables while Collins's men fought endless winter.
They broke post-hole diggers in frozen soil. Supply
ships were crushed by ice. Yet wires got strung.
Finally, in July, 1866, Cyrus Field connected
England to America. When word reached Collins's
beleaguered people, many sat down and wept. Their
work seemed to've lost its purpose. A year later,
Western Union officially gave up the project.
Workers isolated in Siberia didn't find out until a
So we celebrate Field, who won the race. Who's ever
heard of Collins? Still, we bought Alaska from
Russia just as Western Union threw in the towel.
Collins had helped open our newest territory and
link us to it.
So do not weep for Collins. He went on to make wise
investments. Then he passed a fortune on to
Columbia University, NYU, and New York's
Presbyterian Hospital. He'd risked and lost. His
name may have faded, but let's not forget it
entirely. For, in the end, he helped make the race,
and he ran it -- very well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds