Skip to main content
No. 772:
Perry Collins

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 Siberia.

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 telegraph line.

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 Collins's plan.

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 month later.

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 work.

(Theme music)

White, J.I., American Vignettes: A Collection of Footnotes to History. Convent Station, N.J.: Travel Vision, 1976, pp. 63-67.

(Since I did this episode in 1993, a book-length account of Collins telegraph has come out. See: Dwyer, J. B., To Wire the World: Perry M. Collins and the North Pacific Telegraph Expedition. Praeger Publishers, 2000.)