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

Current Bibliography and Reviews

This bibliography includes recent and current books on submarine telegraphy and related subjects.  As a convenience to site visitors, books in print may be ordered from various on-line sources by clicking on the link at the end of each review.

Other out-of-print books listed in the main bibliography may also be available; please email me to check.

Featured Reviews

Müller, Simone M. Wiring the World. The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks. Columbia University Press, 20162. 384 pages, hardcover.

From the publisher's website (full review to follow):

The successful laying of a transatlantic cable in 1866 remade world communications. A message could travel across the ocean in minutes, shrinking the space between continents, cultures, and nations. An eclectic group of engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and media visionaries then developed this technology into a telecommunications system that spread a particular vision of civilization—but not everyone wanted to wire the world the same way.

Wiring the World is a cultural and social history that explores how the large Anglo-American cable companies won out over alternative visions. Bitter rivalries emerged over telegram prices, visions for world peace, scientific innovation, and the role of the nation-state. Such struggles determined the growth of cable technology, which in turn influenced world history. Filled with fascinating characters and new insights into pivotal events, Wiring the World traces globalization's diverse paths and close ties to business and politics.

Available from amazon.com

Publisher’s website (includes Google Preview of the book

 

Blum, Andrew. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Harper Collins, 2012. 294 pages, hardcover.

On the Atlantic Cable website we start at the very beginning of worldwide communications in the 1850s and end up with the Internet. In Tubes, Andrew Blum does almost exactly the opposite.

Discommoded by a sudden loss of connectivity, and intrigued by what lies beyond the network wires behind his couch, Blum decides to investigate what the Internet actually is and where it might be found. Most users would be content to look this up on Wikipedia then go back to posting on Facebook, but some of us have to dig deeper, and the author ends up on a two-year quest which takes him all over the USA, across the Atlantic to Europe, and 140 years back in time.

He starts in Milwaukee, where TeleGeography’s wall maps of the Internet’s architecture, network traffic patterns, and physical interconnections are printed. With these insights into the underlying structure of the network, he plans an itinerary to investigate every aspect of modern connectivity, from the PC at home or work through copper and fiber to the local ISP, from there to the larger networks and the Internet exchanges which tie together the major systems, and on to the worldwide network.

Blum learns about the hardware, the software, and the politics of interconnection, meets the gurus who run everything, and, inevitably, finds himself discovering the history not just of the Internet, but of the network itself, which in one form or another follows a direct line from 1850 to the present day. In California he visits the birthplace of the Internet at UCLA and interviews one of its founders. In Manhattan he watches cable being run through the underground ducts which have been in place since the 19th century and now carry fiber optic cable; he follows the cables to their hubs, and on to the coastal cable stations where the circuits in the sea begin their path around the world.

This brings him to the telegraph museum in Porthcurno, Cornwall, to discover the history of some of the 19th century cables which circled the world (although the first cables there were laid in 1870, some years after the original Atlantic cables of 1858/65/66, which all landed in Ireland). Nearby he visits the landing place of the Atlantic Crossing cable at Whitesands cable station, and back in New York he travels out to Long Island in search of the other end of the same cable.

Still on the trail of the infrastructure, Blum travels to Lisbon to watch a section of the West Africa Cable System being landed from CS Peter Faber, the current vessel being the third cableship of that name. This operation would be recognizable by the cable engineers of the 19th century; the technology has changed, but not the technique, which is still labor intensive.

Finally the author pursues the Cloud - that seemingly nebulous place where all information resides, but actually contained in vast datahouses constructed where fiber is plentiful and power is cheap. He finds secrecy and openness - Google will not let him beyond the lunchroom of their vast facility in The Dalles in Oregon, while Facebook gives him a tour of the heart of its new data center not far away.

The book’s narrative moves from the network to the equipment, from the engineers to the pioneers, from the smallest details to the overview, from the latest technology to the earliest, but Andrew Blum puts it all together into a coherent whole which is both readable and informative. Tubes is highly recommended for anyone who has ever wondered just where those cables behind their couch end up.

Available from amazon.com

Author’s website

 

Rees, Jim. The Life of Captain Robert Halpin. Arklow, Ireland: Dee-Jay Publications, 2009. 179pp plus 10pp illustrations, softcover.

This biography of Robert Halpin has been long out of print, but is now available again direct from the author and publisher, Jim Rees.

Halpin was First Officer of the Great Eastern on the Atlantic cable expeditions of 1865 and 1866, and Captain of the ship for subsequent cable voyages in 1869 and 1874. This period saw the long-distance undersea cable industry rise from the failures on the Atlantic route in 1857 and 1858, through the temporary setback of 1865, to the ultimate triumph of the successful voyage of 1866. After this, the laying of long cables became routine—and highly profitable.

Based largely on Halpin’s private papers, the book tells the story of a boy born to an innkeeper in the port of Wicklow on Ireland’s west coast, who went to sea at age 11 in 1847 and rose to be captain of the mightiest ship ever built, Brunel’s Great Eastern. The author weaves a good mix of personal, professional, and topical details, resulting in a very readable account of Halpin’s life at sea and on land.

Publisher’s website

 

Rowe, Ted. Connecting the Continents: Heart’s Content and the Atlantic Cable. Creative Publishers, 2009. 158 pages, softcover.

The importance of Heart’s Content as the site of the first permanent Atlantic Cable station in North America (established in 1866), and its leading role in transatlantic communications for almost a hundred years following, makes it surprising that in all that time no-one has written about the interconnected history of the cable station and the village. Ted Rowe, who grew up in Heart’s Content, has now remedied this lack in Connecting the Continents, a readable yet well-annotated look at how the highest of high-tech Victorian industries found itself in a tiny Newfoundland fishing village, and what happened next.

The book begins with a chapter on the origins of the Atlantic Cable project (a story which will be familiar to readers of this website), and continues with a brief history of Heart’s Content prior to the arrival of the cable. Following a description of the landing of the 1866 cable at Heart’s Content by the Great Eastern, the rest of the book weaves together the stories of the British cable men and the Newfoundland fishermen and villagers. As at the other end of the cable, in Valentia, Ireland, these two quite different communities initially remained separate, but the author shows through many personal stories how over the next hundred years they came together both at work and socially.

Finally, with the closing of the cable station in 1965, the village became a very different place; as the author notes: “Closing the station removed a large part of what made Heart’s Content what it was.” Fortunately, all was not lost; in 1966 a citizen’s committee proposed that the station, now mothballed with all its equipment intact, should become a communications museum. With the support of the Newfoundland government and help from Bernard Finn of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum opened in 1974, and it remains today one of only three such museums in the world.

As a Heart’s Content native, Ted Rowe brings a unique perspective to this, the greatest of cable stories, and Connecting the Continents reveals many details of the Atlantic Cable history not to be found elsewhere.

Publisher’s website

 

Lundy, Bert. Telegraph, Telephone, and Wireless: How Telecom Changed the World. BookSurge Publishing , 2009. 584 pages, softcover.

Bert Lundy takes on a big task in examining the entire history of telecommunications and its effects on commerce, government, and society, but succeeds admirably in this informative and readable book.

The book begins with a brief section on early mechanical and optical telegraphs, which were the first attempts to speed up long distance communication, and quickly moves into the meat of the subject with a detailed section on electrical telegraphy in Britain and America. As well as the technical details, Mr Lundy gives an insight into the politics and business rivalries of the early industry.

The Atlantic Telegraph is given its own long section, appropriate to the importance of long-distance submarine telegraphy in opening up worldwide communications in the last half of the 19th century. Despite the invention of the telephone, described in the book’s next section, cable telegraphy was the predominant carrier of international message traffic well into the 1950s.

With the next section, on the telephone, the author gets into technology that is still familiar today, describing not only the invention of the instrument and the vast communications system that sprang from it in the United States, but also the predominance and monopoly of AT&T and its eventual breakup. The last part of this section covers the opening up of the telephone industry, which eventually resulted in the vast array and diversity of personal communications devices that we enjoy today.

Almost concurrent with the rise of the telephone was that of wireless communication. In the final section of his book Mr Lundy takes us from the 18th and 19th century’s first experiments on electricity through the development of the theories of its propagation in various media and the early efforts to communicate "wirelessly". He describes how this led to the beginnings of communication by radio in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and how this was followed by the commercialization of the broadcast industry in the 1920s and 30s.

In his concluding chapter the author gives some further thoughts on each of the major developments in telecommunications over the last 200 years, and what lessons we might learn from history.

Available from amazon.com

Author’s website

 

Flood, Raymond, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker, eds. Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy. Oxford University Press, 2008. 376 pages, hardcover.

Conceived in 2007, just 100 years after Kelvin’s death, this scholarly anthology is made up of sixteen chapters divided into three sections. Each essay is written by an expert in one of three fields; Kelvin’s Life, Labours, and Legacy, as the title suggests. As the editors’ preface notes, the contributors include historians of science and of mathematics, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers.

While any researcher of cable history cannot fail to be interested in Kelvin’s entire life and career, each section of the book has one chapter of particular relevance to his work in our field.

In Life, Peter Bowler focuses on William Thomson’s older brother James, who spent most of his career as an engineer, and discusses the influences he had on William. Labours has a lengthy piece by Bernard Crossland titled Kelvin and Engineering, much of which considers Thomson’s work on the Atlantic cable. Finally, in Legacy, editor Andrew Whitaker sums up Kelvin’s career, including thoughts on his contributions to engineering and invention.

This is not to say that the remaining chapters lack interest. While a single-author work such as David Lindley’s Degrees Kelvin (see below) can present a unified, in-depth view of William Thomson’s life and career, the format of Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy allows sixteen different voices to be heard, presenting new insights into Kelvin’s long and varied work in many fields.

Available from amazon.com

 

Winseck, Dwayne R and Robert M. Pike. Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860-1930. Duke University Press, 2007. 429 pp., softcover.

Dwayne R. Winseck and Robert M. Pike begin their examination of global communications in 1860, when short cable routes were well established but longer runs had yet to prove successful. Just ten years later, cables were in use to many parts of the world, and by the end of the century the global telegraph network was in place. In Communication and Empire the authors analyze the connections between the development of a worldwide communication infrastructure, the creation of national telegraph and wireless systems, and the establishment of news agencies and the content they provided, and contend that the rise of the global system was driven largely by commercial rather than imperialistic motives.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the first experiments in radio communication and the development of faster telegraph cables and short undersea telephone cables. By 1930, the end of the period under review, the worldwide cable and wireless network was a routine business (although intercontinental cable telephony would have to wait for the technical developments of the 1950s). While the cable business was for historical reasons centered in and controlled from Great Britain for most of this period, Winseck and Pike describe and analyse the actions of companies and cartels in many different parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, as well as Europe and North America. Extensive chapter notes and a detailed bibliography illustrate the depth of the authors’ research in corporate and government archives.

The complex history related in Communication and Empire illustrates how cable companies exploited or transcended national policies in the creation of the global cable network, how private corporations and government agencies interacted, and how individual reformers fought to eliminate cartels and harmonize the regulation of world communications. Concluding its examination of communications history at the beginning of the modern era, the book shows how the foundations of today’s global media network were already well established by 1930.

Available from amazon.com

 

HOWE, Daniel Walker: What Hath God Wrought - The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford University Press, 2007. 904 pp., hardcover.

Readers familiar with Samuel Morse’s famous first telegraph message: "What hath God wrought!" should not assume that this newest volume in the Oxford History of the United States series concerns itself solely with telegraphy or communications. Rather, the book offers a broad history of the country during a period of unprecedented improvements in transportation and communication, and examines the effects of these changes on the economy, business, politics, religion, and the American way of life.

Available from amazon.com

 

Holly, Bill. Love Letters To Spike - A Telegrapher’s Lament, With a Brief, Eclectic History of Communications in the Seacoast. Placenames Press, Portsmouth NH, 2004. 84 pp, softcover.

America was at war - with Mexico. The Portsmouth Navy Yard was on the verge of closure. Herb Waldron was broke, in love with Grace Glen, and had come to Portsmouth to seek his fortune. Grace was great, but both his fortune and Portsmouth were found wanting.

Herbert D. Waldron plied his craft as a telegrapher at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for three months in the spring of 1914. Over thirty of Herb’s letters come down to us today, written to his sweetheart Grace, his beloved "Spike," back home in Hartford, Connecticut. Faithfully reproduced with all their inaccuracies intact, and with author Bill Holly’s research and commentary, a young, lower middle class working man’s love letters provide a unique snapshot of 1914 Portsmouth and environs. The story is well-illustrated with many rare period photographs and engravings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Although Herbert Waldron worked at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and lived in town at a boarding house, his complaints of homesickness, which appear in many of his letters, would have been familiar to many young cable telegraphers of the time, who were even more isolated from family and friends than their landline colleagues. Cable stations were generally built in isolated coastal locations, for the convenience of the cable, not the operators. In one of his letters Herb relates a visit to the Direct Cable Company’s station at Rye Beach, New Hampshire: "They certainly live out in the wilderness. It is an hours ride on the car to cable road, and then you get off and walk a mile and a half and then you are there". Author Bill Holly rounds out this tale with details of the cable and its operators, and documents and photographs from the period.

Available directly from the author.

 

MURRAY, Barbara: Gifts and Bones. Soames Point Press, Toronto, 2006. 283 pp, softcover.

Publisher’s description: Newfoundland, 1902. Right up until the night of Tuesday, October 14th, Natty Cooke had thought that young Brian Stevens suffered a mental affliction. All that beating at the air with his hands, all those delusions of long-ago transatlantic cable ships. As the maid in the Stevens household, she had befriended Brian, and it was a good thing considering how his family treated him. But on that evening of October 14th, Natty Cooke discovered the horrible truth about Brian. And then, suddenly, Natty was gone. Bea MacDonald, the new maid, is compelled to investigate the disappearance of her friend. She discovers disturbing information about Brian. And blackmail. And murder. With her young cousin Jean as her Morse code interpreter, and their peculiar relative, Mildred, as a constant companion, Bea begins to unravel the mystery of the Stevens household. But what will happen to Bea when she finally discovers the truth about Brian?

Available from amazon.com

 

Cable Lay & Maintenance Vessels of the World. Clarkson Research Services Limited, 2006. 88 pp, A4 softcover.

Now in its third edition, dated 2006/2007, this book is the only reference of its kind for currently operating cable ships. The publisher, Clarkson Research Services Limited, has offices in England and the USA and offers a wide range of research resources for the shipping and offshore industries in both printed and electronic formats. While the target audience for this book is primarily companies which supply these industries, it is also a most useful reference for readers whose interest in the cable laying business is more academic.

The book includes detailed listings for 102 cable vessels and opens with indexes by ship name and by company name of owners, managers, and charterers with full contact details. The body of the book is organized alphabetically by ship name; the page for each ship has in most cases a photograph and/or deck plan, and contains detailed information on all aspects of the vessel.

A typical entry begins with general information on the owner, date built, builder’s name, vessel type, classification, flag and call sign, then continues with details of tonnage/dimensions, capacities/consumption, machinery fitted, mooring and positioning systems, cranes and lifting equipment , cable laying equipment, ploughing/burial/observation equipment, accommodation, and additional data not covered by the above.

For historical information the cable ship researcher can refer to the two editions of Kenneth Haigh’s pioneering Cableships & Submarine Cables, the later of which dates to 1978, and Norman Middlemiss’s book Cableships, published in 2000. Clarkson’s Cable Lay & Maintenance Vessels of the World brings the literature up to date as of 2006 .

 

RUSSELL, W.H.: The Atlantic Telegraph. Illustrated by Robert Dudley. Nonsuch Publishing (Trafalgar Square in the USA), 2005. 127 pp + 16 pp full-colour illustrations.

Written in 1865 by the war correspondent of the Times (London), William H. Russell, this book tells the story of the 1865 attempt to lay the Atlantic Cable from Great Eastern, Brunel’s mammoth ship converted to cable laying for the purpose. After relating the details of the failed attempts to lay the cable in 1857/58, the book describes and illustrates the expedition of 1865. While it, too, ended in failure, it showed that the ship was capable of completing the task, and the cable was successfully laid the following year.

The original edition of this book is hard to find and priced beyond the means of most readers, and the 1975 reprint had only black and white illustrations, losing the depth and tone of the original tinted lithographs. Nonsuch Publishing is to be commended for issuing this handsome edition; while the illustrations are reduced in size from the originals, they are printed in high resolution on glossy paper, allowing the reader to appreciate the skill of the artist, Robert Dudley.

A preview of the illustrations may be seen on the Russell page on this site, but Russell’s well-paced telling of the story and the full-colour illustrations make this a book worth owning.

Available in the USA from amazon.com; for UK readers amazon.co.uk

 

HEARN, Chester G.: Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable.
Westport, Praeger Publishers 2004. 280pp.

As we approach and pass significant anniversaries in the history of submarine telegraphy much interest is being shown in the events of almost 150 years ago; Chester Hearn’s book on the Atlantic Cable is the third such in as many years. In his preface to the book, Hearn notes that his interest in the cable came from the research for an earlier book: Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans. Maury, of course, was the oceanographer whose favorable report on the conditions of the Atlantic sea bed encouraged Cyrus Field to pursue the laying of an Atlantic cable, and he continued to collaborate with Field, offering advice and assistance in dealing with the US Navy as Field gathered the resources he needed for the vast project.

Using for its sources both contemporary accounts of the cable story, and archival papers and business records of such participants as Cyrus Field and Samuel Morse, Circuits in the Sea gives a detailed and comprehensive report of the enterprise from it shaky beginnings in 1854 to its successful conclusion twelve years later. The book follows a strict chronology, beginning with a brief description of the origins of land line telegraphy in the US and Britain and the subsequent development in England of the first undersea cables in 1850 and 1851. It then moves quickly to the start of the Atlantic cable story with details of Frederick Gisborne’s work in Newfoundland which led to his meeting with Cyrus Field in early 1854, and the remainder of the book takes us through the successful completion of the Atlantic cable in 1866. A brief "Summing Up" chapter mentions the evolution of the submarine cable in the following years, and brings the reader to Field’s death in 1892.

For the interested reader, Circuits in the Sea is a worthy addition to the list of cable histories. For the researcher, each chapter has many notes giving the source of information and quoted material, and the book also has an extensive list of sources and a comprehensive bibliography, the only deficiency, perhaps, being a lack of on-line references.

Available from amazon.com

 

AVERY, John G.: The Cable Ships of Turnchapel
Southampton, Beech Books 2004. 34pp.

Local history books are often a source of information which can not be found elsewhere, and John Avery’s book on the cable ships which were based over the years at the deep anchorage of Turnchapel Wharves, Plymouth, is no exception. Inspired by the author’s experiences of visiting the port as a boy, followed by his career in the customs service which took him on board many cable ships, the book gives a brief history of some of the famous ships which were based at Turnchapel, illustrated with numerous black and white photographs. As well as giving historical information on the ships, the author shares his own stories and those of crew members over the years.

Mackay-Bennett postcard

This short but interesting volume is available directly from the author, and purchase of the book also brings a signed postcard created by John Avery showing the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and its link to the Titanic. The book is £4.00 plus postage at cost (PayPal accepted), and can be mailed anywhere in the world. Contact John Avery through the Atlantic Cable website, or visit John Avery's website.

 

ANDERSEN, Eva Wistoff, FRILANDER, Søren, & GØRICKE, Jan Hybertz:
Den store søslange (The Great Sea-Serpent) - Pictures from the infancy of telegraphy.
Copenhagen, Denmark, Post & Tele Museum 2004. 90 pp.

Written to accompany an exhibition at the Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen and the corresponding web-exhibition, The Great Sea-Serpent is much more than a catalog of the exhibit. With Danish and English texts on facing pages, the book traces the history of 150 years of telegraphic communications within Denmark, and in the wider context of worldwide links.

Well-illustrated with images from the exhibition, the book gives a comprehensive overview of the development of telegraphy in Denmark, much of which has not been previously documented in English, and provides a good starting point for further research.

 

LINDLEY, David: Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy.
Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press 2004. 352 pp.

To cable historians, William Thomson, later knighted and eventually elevated to the peerage as Lord Kelvin, is a key figure in the field. Thomson developed the first theories of electrical propagation on long undersea cables, devised the mirror galvanometer which enabled reliable communication on the first cables, followed that with the siphon recorder and many other inventions. He sailed on a number of cable expeditions, and provided consulting services to cable companies for many years, and died a wealthy man as a result.

But how did a Cambridge-educated mathematician and theoretical physicist become an engineer and industrialist? David Lindley’s new biography of Kelvin, the first in many years, traces the prodigy’s early education in science (encouraged by his father, a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University), through his early career as an academic, to his work on cable theory and engineering, and finally his diverse activities in later life as an internationally famous industrialist, scientist and engineer.

Thomson’s introduction to the cable industry is a Connections story: In 1854, Astronomer Royal George Airy, hoping to use the new cross-Channel cables to synchronize astronomical observations between London and Paris, but discouraged by the fuzzy signals through the cables, asked telegraph engineer Latimer Clark to investigate the problem. Clark invited Michael Faraday to visit the cable works and observe experiments in transmitting signals through underwater cables. Faraday determined qualitatively that the cable was acting like a Leyden jar, storing electrical charge because of the proximity of the water to the insulated conductor and published a paper on the subject, but did not develop a rigorous theory. Faraday’s results were briefly mentioned to Thomson at a scientific meeting that same year, but Thomson did not have time to consider them until some time later, when, characteristically for him, he dashed off in a couple of days the complete theory of the transmission of a pulse of electricity through an insulated underwater cable. This Thompson did while staying at his estate on the coast of Scotland, without access to publications or experimental apparatus.

By 1854, the prospect of a cable across the Atlantic was much in discussion. Various schemes were proposed, and Cyrus Field began raising capital in Britain and America for a company to lay the cable. By December of that year, Thomson and his associates had applied for a patent on a remedy for cable problems, and Thomson published a paper on the subject in 1855. Throughout the preparation for the first Atlantic Cable expedition, Thomson developed and refined his theories (although working independently of the companies making the cable), and by 1857 he was actively involved in engineering research on the properties of copper. In 1858 he took out his second patent, for the mirror galvanometer, and his success in cable engineering was assured. He sailed on a number of cable-laying expeditions, licensed his patents to the cable companies, and sold them equipment of his own manufacture.

This was by no means the end of Thomson’s contributions to pure science, but as Lindley makes clear, the financial and social rewards of his successful ventures in the burgeoning cable industry drew Thomson more into engineering and manufacturing activities, and by the time of his death in 1907 (having been created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892) he was regarded as a holdover from an earlier age of science, unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, with reservations about the existence of atoms, and at odds with other scientists on the age of the earth.

Although this review has focused mainly on Kelvin’s work on cable engineering, Lindley’s book reconciles all the facets of Kelvin’s personal and professional life, from brilliant forward-thinker to engineer to opinionated old man, and gives an insightful account of the career of this 19th century scientific hero.

Available from amazon.com

Publisher's website

 

COOKSON, Gillian. The Cable: The Wire That Changed The World.
Stroud, Tempus Publishing 2003. 160 pp. + 32 pp. color plates.

The Atlantic Cable, one of the great engineering feats of the Victorian era, is often thought of as an American project. While it’s true that the impetus came from New York merchant Cyrus Field, and Field remained a constant force behind the cable for the 12 years it took for it to succeed, the engineering, manufacture, and laying of the cable were, for the most part, conducted by British companies. It’s curious, then, that most histories of the cable have been written by Americans.

Gill Cookson, a British historian and researcher who has previously written articles on submarine telegraphy, as well as the definitive biography of cable engineer Fleeming Jenkin (see below), is well-qualified to redress this balance with her new book, The Cable. Published in time for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the project, The Cable tells the story of the Atlantic Cable, from the first vague proposals in the 1840s, through the pioneering days of the 1850s, to the eventual success of the 1860s. Written for a general audience, the book is a lively narrative of the failures and frustrations, the agonizing delays caused by financial, political, and technical problems, and the ultimate success of 1866, establishing the communications link between the Americas and Europe which by gradual evolution became today’s fiber optic network circling the world.

As well as being a readable and entertaining history of the events, the book puts into context the development of materials, equipment, and cable-laying technique, the British and American financial and political climates which influenced the laying of the cable, and the persistence of Cyrus Field in seeing the project to its conclusion. With numerous black and white illustrations, and a full-color 32-page section of reproductions of early drawings and photographs of cable manufacture and laying, The Cable is perhaps the best view so far of this "audacious endeavour".

Available from amazon.com

SILVERMAN, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse
New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2003. 503pp.

When Morse’s telegraph came into public view in 1844, the response was almost universally enthusiastic, newspaper correspondents predicting reduction in crime, global peace, and the redemption of mankind. Henry David Thoreau seems to have been the lone dissenter, believing that sender and receiver might have "nothing important to communicate", a philosophy which may well still apply today.

Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of Samuel Morse, the first in 60 years, puts the development of the electric telegraph firmly into context in Morse’s life. Morse, son of a preacher and geographer, seems to have been a disappointment to his parents, and often to himself. A painter of considerable ability, he never received the recognition he felt he deserved, and eventually gave up painting. His telegraph enterprises were dogged by disappointments and lawsuits, and Morse forever had to defend his claims as inventor of the electric telegraph.

Despite these trials, by the 1850s Morse’s fame was widespread. Having predicted the eventual expansion of the telegraph to other continents (in an 1842 letter to the Secretary of the Treasury), Morse was invited by Cyrus Field in 1854 to become one of the principals in the first Atlantic Telegraph company. Field needed Morse’s participation to lend credibility to the enterprise, rather than for his technical abilities, and once Morse’s name was associated with the project, he was treated rather badly. Silverman traces Morse’s involvement with Field, and shows how Field and his associates took advantage of Morse’s enthusiasm for the project; using him as an unpaid consultant, extracting from him concessions for the use of his landline telegraph network in the furtherance of the Atlantic cable enterprise, and eventually dumping Morse without compensation. The book has considerable detail of the first cable experiments and expeditions from Morse’s perspective, and provides a valuable alternative view of the cable history.

Comprehensive in its scope, and with its sources well-documented, Lightning Man is a welcome addition to the history of telegraphy and submarine cables.

Available from amazon.com

 

Bibliography & Reference

Author Title Publisher Purchase
Clarkson Research Services Limited Cable Lay & Maintenance Vessels of the World Clarkson Research Services Limited, 2006, 88 pp, A4 softcover.
 
Review: A comprehensive listing of all vessels involved in today’s cable industry.
 
HARRIS, Robert Dalton and DeBLOIS, Diane An Atlantic Telegraph: The Transcendental Cable Schoharie, NY, The Ephemera Society of America, Inc., 1994, 80 pp., quarto.
Available from The Ephemera Society
Review: A well-illustrated guide to the contemporary ephemera of the Cable Era: pamphlets, sermons, parade broadsides, the popular press, much more.  A required reference for the collector.
 
STERLING, Christopher H. and SHIERS, George History of Telecommunications Technology - An Annotated Bibliography Lanham, MD and London, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2000, xii + 333 pp.  ISBN: 0810837811

Available from amazon.com

Review: An essential work for the collector or researcher of communications history.   Christopher Sterling has updated and more tightly focused George Shiers’ pioneering 1972 bibliography of the communications field.  The book has a comprehensive listing of submarine telegraphy source material from 1855 through today - technical books, company histories, biographies, magazine articles, websites.  Other sections of the book include telephony, electromagnetic waves, radio, electron tubes, television, and newer media.
 

 History & Biography

AVERY, John G. The Cable Ships of Turnchapel Southampton, Beech Books 2004, 34pp. Ordering information

Local history books are often a source of information which can not be found elsewhere, and John Avery’s book on the cable ships which were based over the years at the deep anchorage of Turnchapel Wharves, Plymouth, is no exception. Inspired by the author’s experiences of visiting the port as a boy, followed by his career in the customs service which took him on board many cable ships, the book gives a brief history of some of the famous ships which were based at Turnchapel, illustrated with numerous black and white photographs. As well as giving historical information on the ships, the author shares his own stories and those of crew members over the years.

This short but interesting volume is available directly from the author, and purchase of the book also brings a signed postcard created by John Avery showing the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and its link to the Titanic. The book is £4.00 plus postage at cost (PayPal accepted), and can be mailed anywhere in the world.

 
BEAUCHAMP, Ken History of Telegraphy London, Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001, 413pp. Available from amazon.com
Review: This book, number 26 in the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ History of Technology series, records the growth of telegraphy over two centuries, depicting the discoveries and ingenuity of the experimenters and engineers involved, the equipment they designed and built, and the organization, applications and effects on society. The two main phases - cable-based techniques that began in the early 19th century and then wireless transmission in the 20th century - parallel the changes in voice and information communications seen recently. Modern methods of data compaction, coding and encryption in today’s communications all have their roots in the techniques of the telegraph pioneers.  The book provides an excellent overview of telegraphy from the earliest mechanical systems to the beginnings of the Internet.

The history of submarine cables is well-covered in its own chapter of 47 pages; the bibliography in this chapter includes some useful references to more obscure sources.   This chapter also includes information on early technology of submarine cables, the discovery of gutta percha insulation, the first cable to cross the English Channel and other short cables, the first oceanic cables, theory and techniques of transmission, Thomson’s mirror galvanometer, cable-laying technology, the cables to North America, India, China and Japan, Africa, and Australia.  Like the rest of the book, the submarine cable chapter contains many illustrations and diagrams from contemporary publications.

The book gives a comprehensive overview of the history of telegraphy; the extensive bibliographies at the end of each chapter provide ample resources for more detailed research.

 
COOKSON, Gillian The Cable: The Wire That Changed The World
Stroud, Tempus Publishing 2003, 160 pp. + 32 pp. color plates.
Available from amazon.com
Review: The Atlantic Cable, one of the great engineering feats of the Victorian era, is often thought of as an American project. While it’s true that the impetus came from New York merchant Cyrus Field, and Field remained a constant force behind the cable for the 12 years it took for it to succeed, the engineering, manufacture, and laying of the cable were, for the most part, conducted by British companies. It’s curious, then, that most histories of the cable have been written by Americans.

Gill Cookson, a British historian and researcher who has previously written articles on submarine telegraphy, as well as the definitive biography of cable engineer Fleeming Jenkin (see below), is well-qualified to redress this balance with her new book, The Cable. Published in time for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the project, The Cable tells the story of the Atlantic Cable, from the first vague proposals in the 1840s, through the pioneering days of the 1850s, to the eventual success of the 1860s. Written for a general audience, the book is a lively narrative of the failures and frustrations, the agonizing delays caused by financial, political, and technical problems, and the ultimate success of 1866, establishing the communications link between the Americas and Europe which by gradual evolution became today’s fiber optic network circling the world.

As well as being a readable and entertaining history of the events, the book puts into context the development of materials, equipment, and cable-laying technique, the British and American financial and political climates which influenced the laying of the cable, and the persistence of Cyrus Field in seeing the project to its conclusion. With numerous black and white illustrations, and a full-color 32-page section of reproductions of early drawings and photographs of cable manufacture and laying, The Cable is perhaps the best view so far of this "audacious endeavour".

 
COOKSON, Gillian & HEMPSTEAD, Colin A. A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and the Birth of Electrical Engineering Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000, xii + 217 pp.
Available from amazon.com
Review: Fleeming Jenkin was one of the early British electrical engineers,  instrumental in the successful laying of many submarine telegraph cables.   His career began in 1857 at Newall and Co., during the period in which the company was making the first Atlantic Cable.  He was subsequently in partnership with William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and  C.F. Varley, developing many of the theories of submarine cable working, and supplying instruments and consulting services to most of the cable-laying companies.

Jenkin received 37 patents between 1860 and 1886; and continued his electrical engineering work while a professor at Edinburgh University.  He published papers in many other fields including civil engineering, economics, speech research, and the theatre.  He was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Jenkin’s first biography in 1887, shortly after Jenkin’s death; this was more of a personal memoir and did not do justice to Jenkin’s many technical achievements.  Click here to read the Project Gutenberg version of Stevenson’s memoir.

Cookson and Hempstead’s biography of Jenkin is an excellent view of his life in all its aspects.  Extensively researched from many primary sources, it gives details of the work of the electrical engineering pioneers of the Victorian era and provides a clear picture of the birth of a major industry.

 
DAVIS, L.J. Fleet Fire: Thomas Edison and the Pioneers of the Electric Revolution New York, Arcade Publishing, 2003. 350pp. Available from amazon.com
Review: In a breezy, readable style reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections, the author tells the story of the harnessing of electricity, from Benjamin Franklin’s kite to Guglielmo Marconi and the beginnings of radio. Playing no national favorites, the book debunks some popular myths about Morse and Edison, and places developments in Britain and Europe in context with those in America.
Samuel Morse and the development of landline telegraphy have their own 52-page chapter, and the story of Cyrus Field and the Atlantic Cable occupies a further 49 pages. Covering all aspects of the history of electricity, Fleet Fire is an entertaining and informative study. The book has endnotes, a bibliography, and, appropriately, a web-page listing of related material.
 
DWYER, John B. To Wire theWorld:
Perry M. Collins and the North Pacific Telegraph Expedition
Westport, CT, Praeger, 2001. 183pp.   Available from amazon.com
From the author’s preface: "My goal was to tell the story of this nineteenth-century, multicountry, trans-Pacific adventure in its entirety, with a primary focus on first-hand accounts of experiences in British Columbia, Russian America, Siberia, and at sea, by those who participated in exploring, surveying, and building Western Union’s North Pacific telegraph line."
 
GORDON, John Steele A Thread Across the Ocean New York, NY, Walker, 2002. 240pp. Available from amazon.com
Review: Appropriately, John Steele Gordon’s book on the Atlantic Cable has been published in the 150th anniversary year of the genesis of the Cable project. In the spring of 1852 Frederick Gisborne began constructing a telegraph line across Newfoundland with the intention of connecting St John’s, very nearly the easternmost point in North America, with the Canadian mainland, and thence to New York. Messages carried by ships sailing from Europe could then be telegraphed from St. John’s to New York, rather than from Halifax, Nova Scotia, thus cutting two days off the transmission time.

Gisborne encountered many difficulties in attempting to run his telegraph line across the rugged terrain of Newfoundland, and had to abandon the project when he ran out of money. Travelling to New York in search of investors, he met Cyrus Field, who was unenthusiastic about building a line across Newfoundland, but realized that a line from Newfoundland to Europe would be highly profitable, shortening the message time from several weeks to just a few minutes.
In 1854 Field took over Gisborne’s company, assumed $50,000 in debts, and obtained a 50-year exclusive charter from the Newfoundland government for both land lines and submarine cables, starting a project that was to take him over 12 years to conclude.

While the story of the cable has been told many times, beginning in 1855 with Mullaly’s book on the first expeditions to Newfoundland, most of these contemporary books are out of print and hard to find. Gordon’s book draws on these early writings on the cable, but the author adds much background information to place the historical events in context, and includes explanations of technical details not known at the time to illustrate the problems encountered by the early cable engineers. The book begins with a brief summary of the early attempts at remote communication, mentioning the first undersea cable of 1850 between England and France, but soon gets into the main story of Cyrus Field and his partners, which the author tells in a readable and lively style. A Thread Across the Ocean concludes with a short epilogue on Field’s later life, and notes on the further development of submaring cables to the present day. The book is illustrated throughout with period photographs and engravings, is fully annotated, and has a useful bibliography.

 
HEARN, Chester G. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable Westport, Praeger Publishers 2004, 280pp. Available from amazon.com

Review: As we approach and pass significant anniversaries in the history of submarine telegraphy much interest is being shown in the events of almost 150 years ago; Chester Hearn’s book on the Atlantic Cable is the third such in as many years. In his preface to the book, Hearn notes that his interest in the cable came from the research for an earlier book: Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans. Maury, of course, was the oceanographer whose favorable report on the conditions of the Atlantic sea bed encouraged Cyrus Field to pursue the laying of an Atlantic cable, and he continued to collaborate with Field, offering advice and assistance in dealing with the US Navy as Field gathered the resources he needed for the vast project.

Using for its sources both contemporary accounts of the cable story, and archival papers and business records of such participants as Cyrus Field and Samuel Morse, Circuits in the Sea gives a detailed and comprehensive report of the enterprise from it shaky beginnings in 1854 to its successful conclusion twelve years later. The book follows a strict chronology, beginning with a brief description of the origins of land line telegraphy in the US and Britain and the subsequent development in England of the first undersea cables in 1850 and 1851. It then moves quickly to the start of the Atlantic cable story with details of Frederick Gisborne’s work in Newfoundland which led to his meeting with Cyrus Field in early 1854, and the remainder of the book takes us through the successful completion of the Atlantic cable in 1866. A brief "Summing Up" chapter mentions the evolution of the submarine cable in the following years, and brings the reader to Field’s death in 1892.

For the interested reader, Circuits in the Sea is a worthy addition to the list of cable histories. For the researcher, each chapter has many notes giving the source of information and quoted material, and the book also has an extensive list of sources and a comprehensive bibliography, the only deficiency, perhaps, being a lack of on-line references.

 
HECHT, Jeff City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. 316pp. Available from amazon.com
Review: Fiber optics, the backbone of local and international communications and of the Internet, seems like a new technology, but in this comprehensive history of the field Jeff Hecht describes the Victorian origins of light guiding via jets of water.  In the first half of the 20th century a number of researchers independently discovered flexible glass fibers, and with the introduction of the laser in the 1950s long-distance optical communication became a possibility.  The main section of the book focuses on the work of researchers in Britain, Japan, and the United States from the 1950s through the 1980s as they overcome many technical problems and develop the beginnings of modern fiber optic cables, documenting the failures, the dead-ends, and the ultimate success in the early 1980s.  A chapter on fiber optic submarine cables is of particular interest to readers of this site.

Extensively researched and annotated, with much material from primary sources, City of Light is accessible to the non-technical reader, yet has enough detail and links to additional sources to satisfy students of engineering history. 

 
HISTORY CHANNEL Transatlantic Cable: 2500 Miles of Copper History Channel, "Modern Marvels" videotape, 50 minutes.

 

 
Summary: In 1866, after several previous efforts failed, a fragile copper line was successfully stretched between Valencia, Ireland and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. It was a long-awaited triumph for Cyrus West Field, the visionary behind the project, and the beginning of a new era in global communications. Transatlantic Cable tells the incredible tale of how Field realized his dream, overcoming sabotage, accidents and disaster along the way.
The program also describes how, in the 1950s, AT&T perfected a vacuum tube amplifier that could work under the heavy pressures of the deep Atlantic Ocean making possible the first transatlantic telephone cable.
Finally, it traces the development of the world’s longest communications link, a 17,000-mile fiber optic cable finished in 1997 that crosses three continents, touches 12 countries, and can carry up to 600,000 simultaneous phone calls per section.
 
LINDLEY, David Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy

Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press 2004, 352 pp.
Read the book on line courtesy of the National Academies Press.

Available from amazon.com
Review: To cable historians, William Thomson, later knighted and eventually elevated to the peerage as Lord Kelvin, is a key figure in the field. Thomson developed the first theories of electrical propagation on long undersea cables, devised the mirror galvanometer which enabled reliable communication on the first cables, followed that with the siphon recorder and many other inventions. He sailed on a number of cable expeditions, and provided consulting services to cable companies for many years, and died a wealthy man as a result.

But how did a Cambridge-educated mathematician and theoretical physicist become an engineer and industrialist? David Lindley’s new biography of Kelvin, the first in many years, traces the prodigy’s early education in science (encouraged by his father, a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University), through his early career as an academic, to his work on cable theory and engineering, and finally his diverse activities in later life as an internationally famous industrialist, scientist and engineer.

Thomson’s introduction to the cable industry is a Connections story: In 1854, Astronomer Royal George Airy, hoping to use the new cross-Channel cables to synchronize astronomical observations between London and Paris, but discouraged by the fuzzy signals through the cables, asked telegraph engineer Latimer Clark to investigate the problem. Clark invited Michael Faraday to visit the cable works and observe experiments in transmitting signals through underwater cables. Faraday determined qualitatively that the cable was acting like a Leyden jar, storing electrical charge because of the proximity of the water to the insulated conductor and published a paper on the subject, but did not develope a rigorous theory. Faraday’s results were briefly mentioned to Thomson at a scientific meeting that same year, but Thomson did not have time to consider them until some time later, when, characteristically for him, he dashed off in a couple of days the complete theory of the transmission of a pulse of electricity through an insulated underwater cable. This Thompson did while staying at his estate on the coast of Scotland, without access to publications or experimental apparatus.

By 1854, the prospect of a cable across the Atlantic was much in discussion. Various schemes were proposed, and Cyrus Field began rasing capital in Britain and America for a company to lay the cable. By December of that year, Thomson and his associates had applied for a patent on a remedy for cable problems, and Thomson published a paper on the subject in 1855. Throughout the preparation for the first Atlantic Cable expedition, Thomson developed and refined his theories (although working independently of the companies making the cable), and by 1857 he was actively involved in engineering research on the properties of copper. In 1858 he took out his second patent, for the mirror galvanometer, and his success in cable engineering was assured. He sailed on a number of cable-laying expeditions, licensed his patents to the cable companies, and sold them equipment of his own manufacture.

This was by no means the end of Thomson’s contributions to pure science, but as Lindley makes clear, the financial and social rewards of his successful ventures in the burgeoning cable industry drew Thomson more into engineering and manufacturing activities, and by the time of his death in 1907 (having been created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892) he was regarded as a holdover from an earlier age of science, unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, with reservations about the existence of atoms, and at odds with other scientists on the age of the earth.

Although this review has focused mainly on Kelvin’s work on cable engineering, Lindley’s book reconciles all the facets of Kelvin’s personal and professional life, from brilliant forward-thinker to engineer to opinionated old man, and gives an insightful account of the career of this 19th century scientific hero.

 
McCARTHY, Michael, GALGAY, Frank, OKEEFE, Jack The Voice of Generations.  A History of Communications in Newfoundland St. John’s, Robinson-Blackmore, 1994.  A history from the first telegraph line to the present time.  
 
MAVER Jr., William American Telegraphy & Encyclopedia of the Telegraph New York, Maver Publishing Company, 1912, 563 pp. Reprinted 1997 by Lindsay Publications Inc.  Perhaps the best single book on telegraphy in general; includes a chapter on submarine telegraphy.

Available from amazon.com

 
MILLS, Mary

Greenwich Marsh: The 300 Years Before the Dome

London.
A history of the Greenwich Peninsula, including information on Enderbys Wharf and Glass, Elliot, makers of the first Atlantic Cable.  The Enderbys Wharf site today is occupied by cable makers Alcatel Submarine Networks.
Available from amazon.com
 
NEERING, Rosemary Continental Dash - The Russian-American Telegraph Ganges, BC, Horsdal & Schubart, 1989, xii + 233 pp.  The history of the unsuccessful competitor to the Atlantic cable. Available from amazon.com
 
OSLIN, George P. The Story of Telecommunications Macon, Mercer University Press, 1992, 507 pp.  Oslin, born in 1899,  was involved in telecommunications for many years, and personally spoke to Thomas Edison, to Martin Cahoon (who was on the Great Eastern’s Atlantic Cable laying voyage), to Morse’s grand-daughter, and many others.   An excellent overview of the field, currently available in paperback. Available from amazon.com
 
PRESCOTT, George B. History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph Boston, Ticknor & Fields, 1866, 508 pp. Reprinted 1972 by Frank Jones.  Another excellent single-volume reference to telegraphy, with two chapters on submarine cables. Available from amazon.com
 
RUSSELL, William H. (Illustrations by Robert Dudley) The Atlantic Telegraph Nonsuch Publishing (Trafalgar Square in the USA), 2005, 127 pp + 16 pp full-colour illustrations. Available in the USA from amazon.com; for UK readers amazon.co.uk
Review: Written in 1865 by the war correspondent of the Times (London), William H. Russell, this book tells the story of the 1865 attempt to lay the Atlantic Cable from Great Eastern, Brunel’s mammoth ship converted to cable laying for the purpose. After relating the details of the failed attempts to lay the cable in 1857/58, the book describes and illustrates the expedition of 1865. While it, too, ended in failure, it showed that the ship was capable of completing the task, and the cable was successfully laid the following year.

The original edition of this book is hard to find and priced beyond the means of most readers, and the 1975 reprint had only black and white illustrations, losing the depth and tone of the original tinted lithographs. Nonsuch Publishing is to be commended for issuing this handsome edition; while the illustrations are reduced in size from the originals, they are printed in high resolution on glossy paper, allowing the reader to appreciate the skill of the artist, Robert Dudley.

A preview of the illustrations may be seen on the Russell page on this site, but Russell’s well-paced telling of the story and the full-colour illustrations make this a book worth owning.

 
SCOTT, R. Bruce Gentlemen on Imperial Service Victoria, Sono Nis Press, 1994. 131 pp.  A Story of the Trans-Pacific Telecommunications Cable, told in their own words by those who served. Available from amazon.com
 
SILVERMAN, Kenneth Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2003. 503pp. Available from amazon.com
Review: When Morse’s telegraph came into public view in 1844, the response was almost universally enthusiastic, newspaper correspondents predicting reduction in crime, global peace, and the redemption of mankind. Henry David Thoreau seems to have been the lone dissenter, believing that sender and receiver might have "nothing important to communicate", a philosophy which may well still apply today.

Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of Samuel Morse, the first in 60 years, puts the development of the electric telegraph firmly into context in Morse’s life. Morse, son of a preacher and geographer, seems to have been a disappointment to his parents, and often to himself. A painter of considerable ability, he never received the recognition he felt he deserved, and eventually gave up painting. His telegraph enterprises were dogged by disappointments and lawsuits, and Morse forever had to defend his claims as inventor of the electric telegraph.

Despite these trials, by the 1850s Morse’s fame was widespread. Having predicted the eventual expansion of the telegraph to other continents (in an 1842 letter to the Secretary of the Treasury), Morse was invited by Cyrus Field in 1854 to become one of the principals in the first Atlantic Telegraph company. Field needed Morse’s participation to lend credibility to the enterprise, rather than for his technical abilities, and once Morse’s name was associated with the project, he was treated rather badly. Silverman traces Morse’s involvement with Field, and shows how Field and his associates took advantage of Morse’s enthusiasm for the project; using him as an unpaid consultant, extracting from him concessions for the use of his landline telegraph network in the furtherance of the Atlantic cable enterprise, and eventually dumping Morse without compensation. The book has considerable detail of the first cable experiments and expeditions from Morse’s perspective, and provides a valuable alternative view of the cable history.

Comprehensive in its scope, and with its sources well-documented, Lightning Man is a welcome addition to the history of telegraphy and submarine cables.

 
TARRANT, D.R. Atlantic Sentinel.   Newfoundland’s Role in Transatlantic Cable Communication St. John’s, Flanker Press, 1999.   The history of submarine cable communications in Newfoundland from 1856 to the present.

Available from FTL Design - click here to email me

 
WINSECK, Dwayne R and PIKE, Robert M Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860-1930 Duke University Press, 2007. 429 pp., softcover

Available from amazon.com

 

Last revised: 10 June, 2016

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