More than 90 years ago, when Macy’s sponsored its first Thanksgiving Day Parade, the floats and marchers went right up Broadway. Parades had been a New York tradition since Irish soldiers first marched on St. Patrick’s Day in 1762, and the largest and most memorable among them took over Manhattan’s main thoroughfare, the one that cuts through the city’s mostly regular street grid.
But one of the greatest parades to ever march up Broadway—one that “exceeded everything in the way of public display ever seen in this country,” according to one newspaper correspondent—has for the most part been forgotten. In 1858, New York hosted one of its most boisterous and ebullient celebrations, the “Cable Carnival,” which honored a length of cable that connected North America to Europe for the first time.
The electric telegraph machine first started to gain popularity in the 1830s, and by the 1850s telegraph networks crisscrossed much of the United States and large parts of Europe. But intercontinental communication still took the form of letters shipped across the ocean, which meant that the fastest message from London to New York required a couple of weeks to reach its destination.
In 1854, Cyrus W. Field, a wealthy businessmen, started considering the possibility of a transatlantic telegraph cable. He had first been approached about funding a line from New York to Newfoundland, but when he learned that the distance from Newfoundland to Ireland was one of the shortest paths across the ocean, he started dreaming of a longer-distance connection. In 1857, a fleet of ships set out from Ireland, spooling out behind them a cable approximately 1,600 miles long.
In August of the next year, the cable made landfall…
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