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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Submarine Telegraphic Wire

Introduction:The text below is from an article published in The Times in 1849, an account of early experiments in laying cable in the English Channel.

See also Charles V. Walker's own description of his submarine telegraphy experiments, and this 1849 article in The Historic Times.

-- Bill Burns

Submarine Telegraphic Wire

The Times, January 11, 1849

Should modern science ever succeed in its bold design to throw an electric wire across the French Channel it is probable that the South-Eastern Company, from the proximity of their termini to the French shore, will have the honour of accomplishing this achievement, or that at any rate theirs will be the profit of the undertaking. It is perhaps premature to talk of connecting the two countries by the electric telegraph when the railways between the French capital and the ports of Calais and Boulogne are yet unprovided with indispensible appendage of the railway system. At present all that would be gained in point of time by a submarine telegraphic communication across the straits of Dover would be the two hours occupied in the sea voyage, an advantage that would scarcely be compensated by the expense and difficulty of the undertaking. But something was done yesterday towards proving the practicability of carrying a wire across the Channel, and the directors of the South-Eastern Railway Company have also shown that their attention has been practically directed to the subject.

The experiments which we are about to describe were made yesterday, at Folkestone harbour, under the direction of Mr Walker, the superintendent of the South-Eastern Company’s telegraphic system, and on board the Princess Clementine, one of the company’s fleet of steamers. Among the scientific and distinguished visitors present were, Sir Howard Douglas, Colonel Tylden RE, and other engineer officers from Dover, Colonel Beresford RA, Major Spiller RA, Captain Jackson RA, Captain Alderson Bailey, Lieutenant Essell RN, Mr Weekes, of Sandwich, Mr Renshaw, a director of the South-Eastern Company; Mr Hatcher, secretary of the Electric Telegraph Company; Dr Bachhoffner, &c. It was stated that among the residents of Folkestone who were upon the pier was M Caussidi√®re, ex-Prefect of Police, who appeared to regard the proceedings with great interest.

It was intended, if the sea had been sufficiently calm, to have taken the wire for two miles out to sea, but the wind having risen in the night and a smart breeze in the morning having caused a swell, it was considered that the steamer would have pitched and rolled so much that the safety of the wire would have been endangered, and that it would also have been impossible to manage the instrument so as to have kept the needles upright. Upwards of two miles of wire were, therefore, carried out in a small boat and submerged in the sea along the mouth of the harbour and at the side of the pier. One end of the wire was connected with a telegraphic instrument on the deck of the steamer, and the other end with the telegraphic wire communicating with London. The arrangements having been completed, about half-past 12 the telegraph was placed in communication with London, and a message was sent by Mr Walker to the chairman of the South-Eastern Company (Mr Macgregor) to apprise him that the experiment was entirely successful. A private message from The Times reporter was then made from London to Mr Walker, on board the steamer. Both messages passed through the couple of miles of wire “payed out” at sea and in the harbour. A continued correspondence was then kept up between the Princess Clementine and the stations of London, Ashford and Tunbridge, which was continued with the most perfect success at intervals for three or four hours, messages being interchanged between the steamer and all those stations. The bells at the electric telegraph offices at Tunbridge and London Bridge were vigorously rung by the instrument on board the Princess Clementine, and no greater difficulty was experienced in making the signals with the submarine wire than with the ordinary wires on land.

The wire employed was of the total length of 3,600 yards, and was made in accordance with a suggestion from Mr Walker, in order to obviate the difficulty experienced in working the telegraph wires in tunnels, where they are exposed, not to the effects of damp and water merely, but to water impregnated with earthy matters and with the acid vapours from the engine, causing a communication between the wires and allowing portions of the current to escape to the earth. The size of the wire used is No 16 copper wire, and its thickness when covered with gutta percha, is nearly a quarter of an inch in diameter. The wire used is to be employed in the Merstham tunnel, and a similar wire will be placed in all the tunnels on the line. - the Shakspeare [sic], Abbott’s Cliff and Martello tunnels being already provided with wire of this kind. The defective insulation of the wires against which this new wire was intended to provide has been the only serious practical difficulty which has had to be overcome in working the electric telegraph. Hitherto the working of the wire, as covered with gutta percha in the tunnels, has been very satisfactory, and its durability, and the complete insulation which it effects, appear to have suggested its applicability for the purposes of submarine telegraphic communication. The wire is patented by Mr Foster [sic, Forster], of the gutta percha manufactory at Streatham, who assisted at the experiments. Three or four specimens of wire were exhibited on board, one or two of them being probably better adapted to the experiment of a communication across the 30 miles of channel that the wire actually used. Among them were specimens of No 3 and No 4 galvanised iron wire, a three-twisted No 16 copper wire, and also the single copper wire used in the experiments today, but all of these being coated much more thickly with gutta percha than that actually used, some of them being in the whole nearly three-quarters of an inch in diameter. One of these Mr Walker proposes to lay down permanently across the Folkestone harbour in place of the wires now carried at the back of the Pavilion Hotel, in order thereby to connect the harbour station with the through communication by the mainland. We understand that the coil of two miles of wire used in the experiments yesterday will be in the library of the Royal Institution on the 19th of January, the first Friday of the session of that learned body. The power used on board was 72 plates of the sand battery with weak acid and water, one part acid to 15 parts water.

A needle telegraph fitted up with lightning conductors and moveable coils, upon a plan invented by Mr Walker, is deserving of a brief explanation. It is well known that the aurora borealis, as well as certain states of the atmosphere, affect the needles and cause them to hang many degrees out of the perpendicular. The deflection from these causes is generally so great that the needles are brought up close against the stops, and cannot be moved further in that direction. By the simple mounting of the galvanometric coils on moveable wheels the needle is easily brought to a perpendicular state by turning a stud and causing the coil to pass in a direction opposite to that to which the needles had been deflected. By this means the power of making telegraph deflections in both directions is regained, and the instrument may be worked without difficulty. The lightning conductor in Mr Walker’s invention consists of a vertical wire furnished with radiating points, and a bobbin of finer wire than any used elsewhere on the instrument. This is surrounded by a small brass cylinder connected with the earth, by which arrangement the lightning charge has the best possible course to earth. Any overcharge would burn the little coil of wire, and escape to the earth without injuring in instrument. This actually occurred at Tunbridge Wells during the last thunderstorm.

About 4 o’clock the submerged wire was drawn in and wound up without having sustained the least damage. Mr Renshaw expressed himself highly gratified with the perfect success of the experiment, and congratulated Mr Walker on the result, which he said he should have great pleasure in reporting to a meeting of his brother directors today. Everyone on board appeared to be equally satisfied with the experiments so far as they went, and which may be taken to establish the practical value of a submerged telegraph wire insulated by gutta percha.

With respect to the practical bearing of these experiments upon the possibility of establishing a telegraphic communication with the opposite coast, there appears to be no greater difficulty in running out and communicating along 30 miles of such wire than along two miles. All that would be requisite would be to determine the kind of wire proper to be used, by which would be most likely a twisted iron wire coated with gutta percha, as in some of the larger specimens exhibited yesterday. We hear that Mr Foster [sic. Forster] expresses himself so confidently respecting the complete insulation gained by his preparation that he is willing to find the gutta percha necessary for coating a wire of sufficient length to stretch across the Channel whenever the railway directors consent to supply the wire. The chief difficulty would probably be, not in effecting the communication, but in maintaining it, and we were therefore anxious to learn Mr Walker’s views respecting the probability of the fracture of the submerged wire by the dragging of ships’ anchors, the bites of the larger sea fish, and other casualties. Mr Walker would provide against these accidents by having two or three wires between each port, say Dover and Calais, or Folkestone and Boulogne. These wires he would run out in different tracks across the Channel, and by not making the communication dependent at either port upon a single wire, the possibilities would be greatly against their all being broken on the same day. In the event of one of the wires being fractured, the South-Eastern Company in their powerful fleet of steamers ready as their command at both ports possess the great facilities for promptly discovering and fishing up the broken wire, when its repair would be the work of a very short time.

When we remember that by connecting the two greatest capitals of Europe by means of the electric telegraph an instantaneous communication would be effected between London and¬† Paris, without in the least degree abridging the strength and security which Great Britain has derived from her insular position, we may look forward with some confidence and few misgivings to the ultimate success of the attempts of our men of science to send the electric current on its wondrous mission through the “sad sea waves”.

Last revised: 2 May, 2012

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