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The pioneers of submarine telegraphy had to contend with unprecedented conditions, and it was only after repeated failures that cable communications were established between the Old World and the New

A MODERN CABLE SHIP, the Faraday is a vessel of 5,533 tons gross

A MODERN CABLE SHIP, the Faraday is a vessel of 5,533 tons gross. The bows are equipped with special sheaves and paying-out gear for laying submarine cables. Similar apparatus is fitted at the stern, but the ship answers her helm better when cable is paid out from the bow.

THE experiments which led to the laying of the first submarine cables and the trials and accidents which beset those responsible for them form one of the finest chapters in the history of engineering. The early telegraph engineers had to work in the dark. There had been nobody whose previous experience could teach them, and when they made mistakes they were faced with inevitable and often unmitigated failure.

Cooke and Wheatstone in 1837 built the first practical electric telegraph - beside the Great Western Railway from London to West Drayton (Middlesex). They extended it later to Slough, in Buckinghamshire. The simple wire suspended from porcelain insulators was useless for underwater purposes, and for many years electricians had been experimenting with means to convey electric current along a subaqueous cable. As far back as 1811, Schilling and Sommering had made a trial with a wire cable which was sheathed in rubber.

In 1838 Dr. William O’Shaughnessy (afterwards Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke, FRS) conducted an interesting experiment for the East India Company, laying an underwater cable across the River Hooghly at Calcutta. Against the action of the water, he covered his wire with pitch; then he enclosed it within a split cane, finally wrapping tarred yarn round the outside. This system was reinvented, independently, by Wheatstone, some time later, and he described it in the course of a proposal for a Dover-Calais telegraph, made before the House of Commons.

In 1842 Professor Morse succeeded in transmitting an electric current beneath and across New York Harbour. He surrounded his wire with tarred hemp and gave it an outer sheathing of rubber. Three years later came another interesting American experiment. Ezra Cornell laid an electric cable across the Hudson River between New York and Fort Lee. He used two copper wires, enclosed in cotton and insulated with rubber, the whole being contained in a lead pipe. As an experiment, it worked well for a while, but in the following year the cable was damaged beyond repair by drifting ice. In that year, 1846, Charles West succeeded in trans-mitting telegraph messages to a ship in Portsmouth Harbour through a rubber insulated wire which he paid out by hand. These beginnings may be said to represent the genesis of underwater telegraphy.

The late ‘forties saw an important contribution to the science of submarine telegraphy, namely, the application of gutta-percha as an insulating material. Werner von Siemens invented a machine for applying gutta-percha to wire. In 1849 mines were fired in the harbour at Kiel, Germany, by detonators connected with an electric cable enclosed in gutta-percha. Almost at the same time, C. V. Walker, then Electrical Engineer to the South Eastern Railway, laid a two-miles gutta-percha-covered wire through the English Channel to Folkestone, the seaward extremity being on board the cable ship Princess Clementine. The shoreward end was connected up with the railway telegraph, and telegrams were exchanged between Walker in the ship and the telegraph office in London, eighty-three miles away.

A decided fillip to submarine telegraphy was given during 1850-51 by T. R. Crampton’s completion of the Dover-Calais cable. Crampton was primarily a railway engineer, being the originator of the Crampton type of locomotive, extensively built in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. In electrical engineering, too, Crrampton was equally resourceful and enterprising. The necessary capital amounted to £15,000, and of this, Crampton himself raised half. In the early ‘fifties such an enterprise as this was a speculation of speculations.

Wild-Cat Schemes

The Crampton cable consisted of four copper wires, each covered with a double layer of gutta-percha, the interstices between the four being filled up with tarred Russian hemp. These four insulated wires formed the core of the cable. They were armoured on the outside by ten No. 1 gauge galvanized wires wound round the central bundle in a spiral. This was a great advance on previous cables, and became a prototype that stood the test of years. It was one thing to lay a telegraph cable across a harbour or a river, or even across the English Channel. To bridge the ocean in the same way was quite another matter. Yet it is a continual peculiarity of modern engineering that the first successful applications of anything on a small scale are almost immediately followed by similar applications on a large scale.

The steamship was yet quite young when the first Atlantic crossings took place. Trunk railways were being built over long distances only ten years after Stephenson had built the Rocket. Ten years again separated the first flight across the Channel and the first flight across the Atlantic.

The shortest distance between the British Isles and Newfoundland is rather less than 2,000 miles. Soundings and surveys had been taking place over some time, and connecting lines had already been laid on land at both ends of the potential Atlantic cable, when in 1856 the Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed.

THE CABLE STORAGE TANK in a cable ship is circular and the cable is wound carefully into positionCharles Bright was appointed Engineer-in-Chief, with Wildman Whitehouse as Electrician. Bright was almost at once made the target for all the wild and wonderful theories concocted by wiseacres on both sides of the Atlantic. Everybody gave him advice, most of which was bad and even fantastic. Self-Styled inventors and “experts” were present in great force. Charles Bright, however, was proof against any wild-cat schemes, though their promoters must have worried him and wasted his time a good deal. He plotted the course of the cable between Valentia Harbour, in the south-west of Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. The distance between these two points is 1,640 sea miles, and Bright reckoned that 2,500 miles of cable would be sufficient to cover this gap, allowing for all inequalities of the sea floor. The bed of the Atlantic abounds in banks and huge deeps, beginning, in a westerly direction, with an enormous submarine cliff some distance beyond the west of Ireland.

THE CABLE STORAGE TANK in a cable ship is circular and the cable is wound carefully into position. Each layer is coated with whitewash as it is paid in, to prevent sticking. A tank such as this will contain about 300 miles of cable.

The far-sighted engineer urged the adoption of a heavy cable, weighing 392 lb per sea mile, with insulation of the same weight. The company, however, was in a hurry to get the work done and overruled him, so that he had to content himself with a 107 lb per mile cable with 261 lb gutta-percha insulation. In the course of time, bitter experience was to prove the correctness of the engineer’s original estimate. The cable, as it was built, had a central core made up of seven strands of copper wire, having a combined thickness equal to No. 14 gauge. Manufacture of the cable began in February 1857. The copper core with its insulation of gutta-percha was surrounded by hemp saturated with pitch, tar, wax and linseed oil, and finally armoured on the outside with eighteen strands of iron wire rope, each strand containing seven wires and having a diameter equal to No. 14 gauge.

This cable was then drawn, finally, through a fresh mixture of tar. Thus finished, it weighed 1 ton per sea mile in air, and no more than 13·4 cwt per sea mile in salt water. The shoreward ends of the cable were much more heavily armoured than the main section, the sheathing consisting of twelve No. 0 gauge wires, giving it a weight of 9 tons per mile. This heavy sheathing was adopted for ten miles at the Irish end and for fifteen miles at the Newfoundland end. Even so, it was found in the light of subsequent practice that this was barely half the amount of armouring needed over these sections.

The contract allowed only four months for the spinning and assembly of the entire cable, which was to be ready by June 1857. About 20,500 miles of copper wire were needed for the 2,500 miles of cable, all but 300 tons of gutta-percha, and for the sheathing 367,000 miles of wire had to be drawn from 1,687 tons of charcoal iron, this being laid up into 50,000 miles of strand. The contract price for the whole cable came to £225,000, the core costing £40 and the armoured sheathing £50 a mile.

Cable Snaps in Mid-Ocean

As the cable was manufactured, each finished length was coiled and stowed in a huge circular tank, in readiness for shipment. Bright and Whitehouse were much harassed by the absurdly short time allowed them, the result of an unlucky arrangement with business interests on the other side of the Atlantic. Within that short while they had also to devise apparatus for paying out the cable, and to choose cable ships. The Admiralty and the United States Government each offered a ship for cable-laying, the British ship being the warship Agamemnon, and the American the steam frigate Niagara.

HMS Agamemnon was a screw steamer of what was then the latest design. She had spacious hold space, essential for a cable ship. As auxiliaries, the U.S. Navy provided the paddle frigate Susquehanna and the Admiralty HMS Leopard and HMS Cyclops the latter a sounding vessel. Paying-out machines were fitted to the Agamemnon and the Niagara, and to prevent the screws from damaging the cable should it come in contact with them by accident, the screws were shielded by strange looking external guards, which the men promptly nicknamed “crinolines”, after the items of feminine equipment then in fashion.

Loading of the two cable ships - the Agamemnon in the Thames and the Niagara in the Mersey - took place during the first three weeks of July 1857, and its completion was signalized by great celebrations on the part of all concerned. The two vessels, with their precious freight, met at Queenstown (now Cobh) on July 30. The ends of their respective coiled cables were temporarily joined and messages were flashed through the entire length of the Atlantic cable.

ONCE THE LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD, the Great Eastern was used for laying the first successful Atlantic cable

ONCE THE LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD, the Great Eastern, of 27,384 tons displacement, was used for laying the first successful Atlantic cable. In July 1865 this vessel left Ireland to lay a new cable, but when more than 1,000 miles had been laid the cable parted. In the following year the cable was finally laid.

The story of how the Agamemnon and the Niagara tried, and tried again, and eventually did lay the cable, is one of the greatest in the annals of shipping. The European end was landed on August 5, 1857. Bright wanted the two ships to meet in mid-ocean, where the two ends of the cable were to be spliced. The vessels were then to steam away from each other, the Agamemnon towards Ireland and the Niagara towards Newfoundland. Once again his better judgment was set aside. The directors decreed that the Niagara should lay the cable from Valentia to a point in the middle of the Atlantic, whence the Agamemnon should continue the work until she reached the American side.

Alter one false start, the ships got away properly, telegraphing back to the shore messages of their progress. The start was made on August 6. Day after day, in beautiful weather, the laying went on. By 3.45pm on August 11, Niagara had laid 380 miles of cable, transmission of signals through it being perfect all the time. Then, on that fateful afternoon, the cable, now going down into depths sounded at 2,000 fathoms (12,000 feet), suddenly snapped. The work of the Niagara, inaugurated with such rejoicings, had suddenly finished in an anticlimax.

The disconsolate “Wire Squadron” steamed to Plymouth. Later Bright went to Valentia Harbour with a little paddle steamer, and succeeded in recovering about fifty miles of the lost cable. New capital had to be raised, under great difficulties, for the public was fighting shyer than ever of this admittedly risky enterprise, and Bright resolutely set himself to devise some better means for paying out the cable. The existing apparatus had been the same as that used for laying short-distance sections, to which the peculiar difficulties entailed by the vast depths and distances of the Atlantic did not apply. Bright fitted a brake in which a lever exercised a constant holding power that remained in perfect proportion to the weight attached to it. He also rigged a dynamometer which controlled and indicated the strain entailed by paying out. Moreover, experiments were conducted by Professor Thomson to test the conductivity of the copper strands, so that all copper wire below a certain standard of conductivity was rejected. This was the first example of organized conductor testing to be carried out in a cable factory.

Another Set-Back

By the end of May 1858, 3,000 miles of cable were coiled in the two ships. This time Bright’s original plan for splicing the two ends and allowing the two ships to steam away from each other was adopted, and successful trials of this arrangement took place in the Bay of Biscay on May 31, 1858. On June 3 the ships set sail for a mid-ocean rendezvous. There followed an appalling storm, in which the Agamemnon nearly capsized. As it was, part of her precious cargo shifted, as did a large proportion of her coal. Many of her crew were injured, and timbers were started all over the vessel, so that her cabins were swimming in water for days on end. It was only by a series of fortunate events that the battered Agamemnon, on June 25, was able to rejoin the Niagara and the assistant vessels, which were this time the Gorgon and the Valourous.

On the following morning, the Niagara’s cable was conveyed on board the Agamemnon and the splice was made. After all the disappointments which had gone before, a gloom seemed to have settled over every one, and there was no celebration beyond the binding of a lucky sixpence into the cable. The cable broke when the two ships had each paid out three miles of it.

The vessels joined each other again and a fresh splice was made. Once again they steamed slowly apart. Everything worked beautifully until 3.40am on June 27, when Professor Thomson reported that current had ceased to flow in the cable. “A gun and a blue light”, reported a newspaper, “warned the Valourous of what had happened . . . and that the first part of the Atlantic Cable had been laid and effectually lost.”

IN THE CABLE FACTORY thousands of miles of wire are sheathed for submarine workEach vessel carried a considerable spare mileage of cable, against accidents of this kind. The arrangement was that they should continue operations until 250 miles of cable had been lost, after which both were to return to Ireland. Once again the Agamemnon and the Niagara returned to the rendezvous, and once again the wearisome and by now quite unceremonial business of splicing the two ends was gone through. That was on June 28. There had been no fault on either vessel. The cable had parted mysteriously and completely somewhere down in the pitch darkness of the miles-deep Atlantic. There had been no failure of the human element this time, and though this spared someone’s personal feelings, it was all the more disheartening to think of Nature being the enemy. There was something beyond soft and harmless ooze down there in the black Atlantic deeps.

IN THE CABLE FACTORY thousands of miles of wire are sheathed for submarine work. In this Woolwich (London) factory, a specially manufactured cable, with a double casing of lead, is being prepared for armouring in wire. The cable is designed for use in the Irish Sea, between Blackpool (Lancashire) and Douglas, Isle of Man.

The two ships headed away from each other, and, as before, everything went as smoothly as possible. Yet nobody yet dared to dream of success. Sure enough, when the Agamemnon had laid 146 miles of cable, another break took place. She returned to the rendezvous, but the master of the Niagara had decided that the limit had been reached. The Niagara reached Ireland on July 5, and on July 12 the disconsolate company of the Agamemnon also reached port.

The fate of the Atlantic cable now hung in the balance. The chairman of the company advised abandonment of the whole enterprise. Only the original projectors still kept faith. On July 17,1858, the squadron once again left Valentia Harbour. Their move was described as “a mad freak of stubborn ignorance”, among other epithets, and was “regarded with mixed feelings of derision and pity.” Yet this time they succeeded. On July 29, the splice was made, and for the last time the cable sank into the depths, weighted with a 32 lb shot. This significant act was watched without enthusiasm by the dejected company. Cautiously the two ships steamed away, one eastwards and the other westwards, with their companion vessels in attendance. In the afternoon, a large whale, making straight for the cable, passed the Agamemnon. Every one held his breath, while the huge animal swam under the stern, just grazing the cable, but doing no damage. There was one bad scare through a sudden cessation of electrical continuity, but this was later found to have been due to a defect in the apparatus on the Niagara.

Ireland and Newfoundland United

On July 31 a gale blew up, and for three days it was expected that the cable would part as the stern of the labouring vessel pitched upwards. On August 2, the Agamemnon narrowly missed collision with an American schooner, the Chieftain, which bore right down on her with no other object than to see what she was doing. One other accident was narrowly avoided through similar ignorance on the part of another vessel. On the morning of August 5, the mountains of Kerry rose high before the Agamemnon, and at 3pm on the afternoon of that day, Bright himself brought the cable ashore.

At the other end, the Niagara met with no storms, whales or mismanaged schooners, but a certain amount of anxiety was caused by large icebergs on the Grand Banks. She dropped anchor in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, on August 5, and the cable was carried ashore.

Great enthusiasm greeted the long-last completion of the arduous and doubtful task. Engineers and navigators alike were feted on both sides of the Atlantic, though what they all felt they needed was a complete rest over an indefinitely long period. A few days later, Bright was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in the absence of Queen Victoria. Bright was just twenty-six years of age at the time.

Now came the second tragedy. Wild-man Whitehouse used currents at a high tension and the simple insulation was insufficient to bear the strain. Signals grew weaker, and to strengthen them the voltage was increased, thereby hastening the end of the cable which had cost so much pain and time to lay. For a brief period, the cable showed the world how man’s communications could make nothing of distance. Then the signals began to fade. They grew fainter and fainter. They became so weak as to be unintelligible. The great Atlantic cable was dead.

RESHIPMENT OF THE ATLANTIC CABLE on board the United States steam frigate Niagara (right) and HMS Agamemnon (left) in Keyham Basin, Plymouth

RESHIPMENT OF THE ATLANTIC CABLE on board the United States steam frigate Niagara (right) and HMS Agamemnon (left) in Keyham Basin, Plymouth, Devon. The paying-out gear can be seen at the bows of the Niagara and at the stern of the Agamemnon. Their first attempt had been unsuccessful, but on August 5, 1858, the first Atlantic cable was laid.

Tests suggested that the main leak in the cable was situated about 300 miles west of Ireland at a depth of about two miles. There appeared to be no fracture of the cable, as it was still possible to pass weak currents through it. Whitehouse’s huge 5-feet induction coils had wrecked the cable. Sir Charles Bright compared the usage it had received to getting up high-pressure steam in a low-pressure boiler.

It was the year 1865 that saw the laying of the first successful Atlantic cable. The type of cable adopted, on the recommendation of Sir Charles Bright and others who were called into consultation, consisted of an armoured copper core, the armour consisting of iron wire, each separate strand being encased in hemp. The weight of conductor and insulator came to 300 lb and 400 lb per mile respectively.

As for the laying of this cable, it was decided that one vessel should accomplish it throughout. In all the world there was only one ship large enough to carry the whole cable. That ship was Brunel’s premature giant, the Great Eastern, of 27,384 tons displacement. Cable-laying activities came to provide the one bright chapter in her undeservedly sad history. She was the perfect cable ship, at least by contemporary standards. The cable was shipped on board the Great Eastern at Greenwich, and on July 23, 1865, she left for the south of Ireland. At the point where the shore cable had already been laid by the steamer Caroline, the Great Eastern effected a connexion. Then, accompanied by HMS Terrible and HMS Sphinx, she turned her head towards the open sea. A fault in the cable was discovered when the great ship had paid out about eighty-four miles. After about ten and a half miles had been hauled in again the faulty section was cut out. The cable was spliced again and paying out was resumed. The defect consisted of an iron wire perforating the cable through from one side to the other. When 716 miles had been laid, the same tiling occurred again, and the fault was the same also. This happened a third time when the ship was two-thirds of the way across, having laid 1,186 miles of cable.

Average Depth of 1,400 Fathoms

A far more serious mishap occurred one day. There was a heavy swell and, to add to existing troubles, a breakdown took place on board. The cable was damaged by the movement of the steamer and, before this additional trouble could be remedied, the cable had parted and disappeared into the depths.

Repeated efforts were made to fish for it with grapnels, but without avail. The grapnels had succeeded in hooking the cable, however; it was the rope that broke. All was not lost, however. The Atlantic Telegraph Company, which had sponsored this first attempt, was absorbed into a new concern, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

For the purpose of grappling the lost cable, twenty miles of rope, composed of forty-nine hemp-covered iron wires, were provided. The Great Eastern had her single screw covered by a “crinoline” (she had both paddle and screw propulsion), and the hauling-in machinery consisted of two drums driven by a pair of 70 horse-power steam engines. On June 30, 1866, the Great Eastern, followed by the auxiliaries Medway and Albany, arrived at Valentia Harbour, where the ships were met by HMS Terrible and by HMS Racoon. The Great Eastern took the shore cable on board on July 13 and headed for the open sea. Fourteen days later, the great steamer arrived off Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, having laid 1,852 sea miles of cable, at an average depth of 1,400 fathoms.

On August 13 the Great Eastern, once more in mid-Atlantic, began dragging operations for the lost 1865 cable. Several times it was hooked, only to be lost before it could be shipped. Yet on August 31 the cable was successfully brought on board, when the grapnel had been lowered for the thirtieth time. The cable had been hooked at a depth of two miles. This message was shortly after flashed through the previously lost cable to the listening operators in Ireland, who had almost given up hope: “Ship to shore; I have much pleasure in speaking to you through the 1865 cable. Just going to make splice.”

Such was the beginning of the history of inter-continental communications. The Atlantic cable pioneers, in the face of so much that was discouraging, even heartbreaking, persevered to bring about one of the most revolutionary innovations of modern times. It is a story in which all concerned acquitted themselves brilliantly.

the famous Great Eastern was designed by I. K. Brunei and launched in 1858

PROPELLED BY SCREW AND PADDLES, the famous Great Eastern was designed by I. K. Brunei and launched in 1858. Her life, however, was disappointing, except for her outstanding success as a cable ship. She left Valentia Harbour, Ireland, on July 13, 1866, and fourteen days later arrived at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, having laid 1,852 sea miles of cable.

[From part 45 and part 46, published 4 and 11 January 1938]

You can read more on “Central Telegraph Office”, “Giant of the Ether” and “Telephone Pioneers in America” on this website.

You can read more on Laying the Ocean Cables, Cable Ships at Work, and the Cable Ship Faraday in Shipping Wonders of the World.

The First Atlantic Cable