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

160th Anniversary
by Stewart Ash

160th Anniversary of the First Undersea Cable

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2010]

As the 28th August was the 160th Anniversary of the birth of our industry, it seemed appropriate to write something about the historic first cable lay. Almost every history of the cable industry begins with a summary of the Brett Brothers’ adventures, and a number of myths and legends have, through repetition, grown up and become accepted wisdom. The most apocryphal of these is the story that the cable failed because a French fisherman dragged it up on his anchor and, thinking it to be some new form of seaweed or sunken treasure (depending on the account), he chopped out a section and took it ashore as proof of his find. This may well have happened at some stage but the actual cause of failure was somewhat more prosaic. Therefore, rather than write yet another version of the story, we thought it might be more informative to reproduce some articles that were published in the British press at the time.


THE TIMES
Saturday 31st August 1850

On Wednesday evening (28th August), the possibility of communication between France and England by electric telegraph was practically established….. Some three thousand years ago Homer talked of ‘winged’ words; we doubt if even he imagined they would ever cleave their way through space at such a rate as this. The electric telegraph appears to us more like a miracle than any scientific discovery or mechanical achievement of our time. We scarcely taught ourselves to acquiesce in the idea that instantaneous communication between two points on solid land was a mere matter of course than it was gravely proposed to drop the communicating line and transmit intelligence along the bottom of the ocean. The jest or scheme of yesterday has become the fact of today. Great excitement prevailed throughout Europe when the first balloon carried up an adventurer into the skies. But there was no comparison between such an achievement and the present. Even the most enthusiastic projector must have entertained certain doubts as to the practical value of their aeronautic expedition. In the case of the submarine electric telegraph, the first and obvious effect of this instantaneous communication between two most civilised and powerful nations of the world will be to unite them so closely in a community of interest as to secure their co-operation in all designs that may promote the advancement of humanity and maintain the peace of the world.


THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS
Saturday 7th September 1850

SUBMARINE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH BETWEEN
DOVER AND CALAIS

In our Journal of last week we described the accomplishment of the first telegraphic despatch, clearly printed in Roman type, from Dover, and received at the temporary station at Cape Grinez, near Calais, on the evening of Wednesday week, at nine o’clock. We now give a very interesting series of Engravings illustrative of this great scientific triumph, the details of which will be found at page 186 of our last Number. Mr John W. Brett was present at the Dover Station, watching the progressive success of the operations until the final signal of its entire completion was made in a clearly-printed message at Cape Grinez.

The only conjectured difficulty on the route was at a point in mid-channel, called the Ridge, between which and another inequality the Varne, both well-known and dreaded by navigators, there is a deep submarine valley, surrounded by shifting sands, the one being seventeen miles and the other twelve miles in length. Here ships encounter danger, lose their anchors, and drift; and trolling nets of fishermen are frequently lost. The submarine telegraph line was, however, successfully submerged. On nearing Cape Grinez the soundings become very rugged and the coast dangerous; but by steady and cautious manipulation, the Goliath delivered her cargo of wire to be safely connected with the end of the tubing which had been laid at Cape Grinez, and run up the cliff to a temporary station at its summit. This was completed the same evening, and every accommodation was afforded by the officials at the lighthouse, in the use of lanterns and lamps, so that at nine o’clock the same evening (the 28th of August) a message was printed, in legible Roman letters, upon a long strip of paper, by Mr. Jacob Brett’s printing telegraph, in the station on the French coast, in the sight of numerous audiences of the French officials and others, amidst tremendous cheers of all present at the success; and three times three resounded on all sides for the Queen of Great Britain and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and the French nation. The line is in rapid course of completion by land from Grinez to Calais.

The originating of telegraphic communication between London and Paris, and the European continent, is due to the enterprise of an Anglo-French Company, en commandité, first established in Paris by Mr. Jacob Brett, who obtained a decree from the French Government under Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, which together with authorizations from the various departments of the English Government, confers on Mr. Brett, for a period of ten years, the exclusive rights of telegraphic communication between Dover and Calais. When the gigantic nature of the undertaking is considered, it cannot create much surprise that, at the time Messrs. Brett first proposed by letter to Sir Robert Peel to carry out this and similar projects, by submarine and subterranean telegraphs, great doubts existed in the minds of most of our leading men of the possibility of its accomplishment. The great problem is, however, now solved.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

The first Engraving shows the Temporary Station at Dover, with the two steamers preparing to start. In the second Engraving, is seen Goliath, accompanied by H.M. packet Widgeon “paying out” the electric wire. The third scene is a view from Cape Grinez, and the taking of the wire up the rock.

TEMPORARY STATION AT DOVER –
STEAMERS PREPARING TO START

“THE GOLIATH” STEAMER “PAYING OUT” THE ELECTRIC WIRE

 

THE ELECTRIC WIRE AT CAPE GRINEZ

In a letter from Dover, dated Wednesday the 4th inst., it is stated that the wire so successfully submerged last week has been cut asunder among the rocks at Cape Grinez, where the physical configuration of the French coast has been found unfavourable for it as a place of holdfast or fixture. All communication between coast and coast has consequently been suspended for the present. The precise point where the break took place is 200 yards out at sea, and just where the twenty miles of electric line that had been streamed out from Dover joins to a leaden tube, designed to protect it from the surge beating against the beach, and which serves the purpose of conveying it up the front of the cliff to the telegraph station on the top. This leaden conductor, it would appear, was of too soft a texture to resist the oscillation of the sea, and thereby became detached from the coil of gutta percha wire that was thought to have been safely encased in it. The occurrence was, of course, quickly detected by the sudden cessation of the series of communications that have been sustained since the sinking of the electric cable between here and Cape Grinez, though at first it was a perplexing point to discover at what precise spot the wire was broken or at fault. This, however, was done by hauling up the line at intervals, which disclosed the gratifying fact that since the first sinking it had remained in situ at the bottom of the sea, in consequence of the leaden weights or clamps that were strung to it at every 16th of a mile. The operation was accomplished by Messrs. Brett, Reid, Wollaston and Edwards, who attended to the management of the telegraph without intermission, and who are now, with their staff, removing the wire to a point near Calais , where from soundings, it has been ascertained that there are no rocks, and where the contour of the coast is favourable. It is thought that for the present leaden tube a tube of iron must be substituted, the present apparatus being considered too fragile to be permanently answerable. The experiment, as far as it has gone, proves the possibility of the gutta percha wire resisting the action of the salt water, of the fact of its being a perfect waterproof insulator, and that the weights on the wire are sufficient to prevent its being drifted away by the currents, and of sinking it in the sands. It is also intended to make use of the wire for commercial and newspaper purposes until the connexion of it with the telegraphs of the South Eastern and that now completed on the other side from Calais to Paris is effected. Should the one wire answer, it is intended to run 20 or 30 more, so as to have constant reserves in the event of accident in readiness. This huge reticulation of electric line will represent 400 miles of telegraph submerged in the sea; and as each will be a considerable distance apart, a total water width of six or eight miles in extent.

On Thursday afternoon, his Grace the Duke of Wellington visited the Telegraph. The wires are carried in temporarily at the terminus of the South-Eastern Railway. In the absence of Mr. Reid, the telegraph engineer, who superintended laying the wire across the Channel, his foreman showed the noble Duke the working of the instruments, and explained to him how the wires were insulated, and the plan adopted for laying them across. At the Duke’s request, he also furnished him with a specimen of the insulated wire. His Grace seemed highly pleased, and would, no doubt, appreciate this wonderful agency that could communicate in a second of time between this country and the Continent. On Tuesday, the Duke again visited the Telegraph, with a party of ladies; but there were no persons in attendance who could explain the operations.


THE TIMES
Monday 14th October 1850

All operations connected with this cable are now suspended until the spring. The interval will be employed in manufacturing the new wire cables and other apparatus so that the electric line may be completed by May.


In fact, the new cable was not installed until 19th October 1851 and an expectant public had to wait until 13th November 1851 before the first London to Paris Telegraph went into commercial service.

Article text copyright © 2016 Stewart Ash


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Last revised: 3 October, 2016

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