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

1850 Dover-Calais Cable

This first international cable, consisting of a single No.14 copper wire with gutta percha insulation and no armouring, was laid across the English Channel in 1850. It continued to attract attention for many years, even though it had worked only briefly.

In 1854 a section of the cable was recovered, cut into short lengths, mounted on card, and sold as souvenirs. In 1875 another length was recovered, and a number of samples are known; these are generally mounted in glass tubes. The samples are marked with either engraved brass or vulcanite ends, or a plaque bearing the 1875 date. See below for images of recovered cable samples from 1854 and 1875.

Willoughby Smith made electrical tests on a section of the core recovered in 1875, and remarked on its origin and properties at a meeting of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in London that same year. The report on the session: Relative Merits of Gutta-Percha and India-Rubber Joints, held on Wednesday 10th November 1875, includes this exchange:

The President: You have sent some specimens, can you inform us what this is?

Mr. Smith: The coil of wire which you hold in your hand is a portion of the gutta-percha-covered wire which was laid by way of experiment from Dover to Calais in 1850. As I was engaged in the manufacturing and laying of that, the first submarine line, I have always taken great interest in anything connected with it, and, having heard that a fishing-smack had recently picked up a length of the same and brought it into Dover, I applied to the Submarine Company, and their engineer kindly sent me the length now before you. Its present electrical resistance is 645.3 megohms per knot after one minute’s electrification, after twenty-four hours’ immersion in water kept at an uniform temperature of 75° Fahr. Considering that that length has been one of the waifs and strays in the English channel for twenty-five years without any protection, I think that its present condition speaks volumes for the durability and general suitability of gutta-percha for submarine telegraphy. The other specimens simply show the crude way in which the joints were made twenty-five years ago compared with the present system.

[Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers,1875, vol. 4, p. 343]

At the Edinburgh Internation Exhibition of 1889/90:

Telegraphic apparatus were shown, from the earliest primitive instruments to the present rapid transmitter, and specimen pieces of the line now known as the “fossil telegraph.” There was also shown a piece of the first submarine cable between Dover and Calais, picked up in 1875. In contrast to these the visitor saw specimens of the strong steel-sheathed cables of the present day.

A celebration in 1890 for the 50th anniversary of the Penny Post included an exhibit at the Guildhall in London of communications history:

Along the farthest stand are placed cases containing specimens of different submarine cables. The most interesting is the piece of the first cable laid between Dover and Calais in 1850. The gutta percha was not protected. It was sunk by means of lead weights attached at intervals throughout its length. The cable worked for one day only, and the specimen shown was picked up in 1875.

A portion is also shown of the first sheathed submarine cable laid between Dover and Calais the year after the laying of the before-mentioned failure. Other specimens include portions of the seven-wire Irish cable, and of the first cable to Holland. In connection with the cables is shown a piece of rock removed from a cable off Portland. The groove shows the outline of the sheathing of the cable, and has probably been cut into the rock by the continued friction of the cable.

The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company, which had custody of the recovered cable, was still presenting samples as late as 1896:

LI CHUNG TANG AT GREENWICH.

Early on Friday morning last, His Excellency Li Chung Tang left Charing Cross by special train for Greenwich, where, upon the invitation of the Eastern Extension, Great Northern, and Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Companies, he was entertained at the latter Company’s cable works, Enderby’s Wharf.

Mr. Shuter requested the ex-Viceroy to accept two cable curiosities, which were separately enclosed in glass tubes, with a small square of vulcanite at each end. The first was a piece of the experimental core laid in 1850 from Dover to Calais, which was recovered in 1875, having only worked for three days. The other souvenir was a piece of the 1858 Atlantic cable, picked up in August, 1880, by the Scotia.

[The Electrical Review, Vol. 39, No. 978, August 21, 1896, p. 229]

A piece of recovered cable was displayed by the GPO at the Manchester Electrical Exhibition in 1908:

THE EXHIBITION

To-morrow, at 10 a.m. [Saturday October 3rd, 1908], the doors of the Manchester Electrical Exhibition will be thrown open to the public. The official opening, as announced elsewhere, will take place on Monday. There is no need to waste words in discussing whether Cottonopolis was a suitable centre in which to hold such an event, for the enthusiasm that the electrical and allied trades have shown in connection with the matter for many months past amply justifies our own early expressed conviction that the vastness of electrical industrial opportunities, and its high position among provincial manufacturing centres, stamped the Manchester district as a very profitable field in which to demonstrate.

THE POST OFFICE EXHIBIT.

The General Post Office (Engineer-in-Chief’s Office) will have a representative exhibit of departmental instruments and apparatus of interest to telegraph and telephone engineers.

The historical apparatus forming the chief part of this exhibit includes the following:—Early form of lead-covered cable laid at Chalk Farm in 1840. Specimen of first submarine cable wire laid between Dover and Calais, 1850—picked up 1875. Sheerness Fort cable, recovered 1900.

[The Electrical Review, Vol. 63, No. 1,610, October 2, 1908, p. 545]

 


 

Souvenir card of 1850 cable, recovered in 1854:

Souvenir card for the 1850 cable, mounted
with a section of the cable recovered in 1854.
The card measures approximately 5" x 3.5"

Portion of the

Submarine Cable

Through
Which the First Message
Passed Between

France and England

24th September 1850


Manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company
Wharf Road, London

The original Cable of which this is part, having been replaced in 1852 by the one now in operation, has within this last few months been recovered from the Straits, having been immersed in the sea nearly FOUR years.

 
Note: Despite the text on the card, this cable was laid on 28 August 1850, and, having failed almost immediately, was actually replaced in 1851.

Cross section of the unarmoured cable core. It was so light that it had to be sunk using lead weights at regular intervals.

 


 

Three sections of 1850 cable, all recovered in 1875.
Note: each section is approximately 12" in length.

Part of the First Submarine Telegraph Wire
Laid between Dover and Calais
Laid in 1850     Picked up in 1875


Laid from Dover to Calais 1850. Picked up 1875
Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co. Limited
Mounted in glass tube with engraved vulcanite ends
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


Experimental Cable from Dover to Calais
Laid 1850 Recovered 1875
Detail of engraving

Images courtesy of Julia Elton

 


 

Contemporary Reports of the Cable Laying

From Scientific American, Volume 5, Issue 52, September 14, 1850

The Electric Telegraph in Europe

It is well known that various projects have been proposed for a Transatlantic Telegraph; this will be no easy matter, owing to the length of wires required. In the present state of Electric Telegraph science, it is impossible, owing to the distance of such a length of wire between the batteries. Between Calais in France, and Dover in England, the distance being no more than 25 miles, the project of an ocean telegraph is not only feasible, but the construction of one is in actual operation to unite France and England. The Telegraph is to be on Bain’s principle, now so well known in America. The telegraph, like steam navigation, will be the means of spreading rapidly the arts and sciences of civilized nations among all lands. The Dublin University Magazine says:

"When the powers of this improved telegraph shall be brought into full operation, and when the mode of intercommunication shall be available by the public in all parts of Europe, great changes in the social and commercial relations of the centres of commerce and population must be witnessed. Hitherto the use of the telegraph has been limited to the Government. The public has been altogether excluded from it. Such a system, however, cannot be of long duration, and the precursors of a speedy change are already apparent. A project of law has been presented to the Legislative Assembly, by the French Government, to open the telegraph to commerce and the public. Lines of electric telegraph have been constructed, and are already in operation, along the principal lines of railway in France. A commission has been appointed, by the Belgian Government, to report upon the means which ought to be adopted to construct lines of electric telegraph throughout that kingdom. Lines of considerable extent are in operation in the Prussian States, arid still more extended systems are in preparation. Measures are in progress for the establishment of lines of electric telegraphs in the territories of Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, Wirtemburg, Baden, and all the lesser states of Germany. The Emperor of Russia has issued orders for the construction of lines of telegraphic wires to connect St. Petersburg with Moscow, and with the Prussian, Saxon, and Austrian lines of telegraph."

From the Illustrated London News, 7 September 1850 [scans courtesy of Bill Glover].

Temporary station at Dover. Vessels preparing to set sail

Golia(t)h paying out the cable

The cable being taken up the cliffs at Cap Gris Nez

The Communicator or Dial Plate

Printing Apparatus

 

 

From Littell’s Living Age, Volume 27, Issue 338, November 9, 1850

Littell’s Living Age

Conducted By B. Littell.

E Pluribus Unum.

"These Publications Of The Day Should From Time To Time Be Winnowed, The Wheat Carefully Preserved, And The Chaff Thrown Away."

Vol. XXVII.

October, November, December, 1850.

Boston: Published By E. Littell & Company.
Philadelphia, Getz & Buck, 3 Hart’s Building.
New York, Dewitt & Davenport, Tribune Buildings.

Stereotyped By Hobart & Robbins.

 

The Congress And The Telegraph
by John Coleman.

On the 22d, 23d, and 24th of August, the Peace Congress discharged its cannonade of eloquence at Frankfort. On the last day, Saturday, Ka-Ge-Ga Bow (wow?) exhibited the Pipe of Peace gratuitously; Doctor Weil and Doctor Bodenstedt spoke French and English to the audience of strangers in a German town; and Mr. Cobden closed the firing with three cheers.

A couple of days afterwards, a steamer, the Goliah, quietly left Dover with some copper-wire on board; of which one end was fastened to the English shore, and the other end the Goliah was commissioned to make fast upon the shore of France. The day was fair, and the sea calm; the elements assisted in the work of peace. Communication by Electric Telegraph was soon complete from Dover to Cape Grisnez; and though an accident has since interrupted it, it is but for a time. The interruption is only so much experience making future failure unlikely. Some sunken rocks had been overlooked; but the mass of the wire remained firm in its position, neither drifted by the currents nor sunk in the sands. It will soon be again completed.

Contemporary illustration of the Goliah,
accompanied by Widgeon

Now the men at work upon the Goliah, unrolling from their cylinder that thirty miles of wire - the most valuable cargo, perhaps, ever yet carried in a vessel - appear to us to have been the real Peace Congress. To put it arithmetically, the crew of the Goliah was to the assembly in St. Paul’s at Frankfort, as lightning to stage-rosin.

England and France have tried many cements of friendship, some of them good, some indifferent enough. But as soon as they shall be effectually riveted with copper wire, we may hope that they will indeed stick together properly.

Believing as we do that nine in ten of all the quarrels in the world, between individuals or nations, are described truly by the phrase, misunderstanding has arisen - we are convinced that the more familiarly men become acquainted with each other, the more they will find out how much they have in common. Whatever extends and quickens interchange of thought, facilitates our knowledge of our neighbors, and brings peace. It is impossible to know a man and hate him. A full knowledge of the most wicked man alive would not make hate, but pity. "There goes my wicked self;" said the good and generous Jeremy Taylor, as a man of notoriously bad character passed him.

It is for this among other reasons that we resist every attempt to lessen opportunities of intercourse by interference with the post. We think the post-office a mighty peace-maker, and indispensable to peace. Until a cheap and facile postage circulation through the whole civilized world, assisted by electric telegraphs from land to land, has brought us all to see that man is but in ignorance his neighbor’s enemy, and has taught us all to feel the proper faith in our fellow-men of which we are deprived only by want of closer intercourse, there will of necessity be wars among us. No peace-treaty between France and England ever went so far to unite them as the voyage of the Goliah did on the 27th of last month.

All Europe ought to hold together; but it is unluckily in pieces, and some pieces are perpetually falling out. The safest jointing is with copper wire. Many more rivets are required, like that which Mr. Brett is putting in between France and England. His work finally accomplished, long may it share the channel’s bed, and sleep unharmed within its gutta-percha covering. May no storm reach, no anchor cleave, no fish or sunken rocks molest - that gutta-percha tube, the white man’s pipe of peace.

See also the Submarine Telegraph Company and Goliath pages.

Last revised: 9 July, 2014

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