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

Further Evidence in the Defence of Wildman Whitehouse?
by Allan Green

Introduction:Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed chief electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

While there were other factors, the historical record generally reports that Whitehouse’s insistence on using high voltage induction coils was ultimately responsible for the failure of the cable. Allan Green is researching Whitehouse’s life and work, and has recently discovered a letter from William Thomson ( Lord Kelvin) to the Board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, dated August 21st 1858, which casts a little more light on the situation.

This was first published on the Porthcurno Research blog, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Allan Green.

--Bill Burns

Archive material relating to William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) is located in several places in the UK as mentioned in an earlier blog. The significance of one document held in the Porthcurno Alcatel Archive (Document Reference 74/1) only became clear to me as I was working on a paper about the relationship between Thomson and Wildman Whitehouse during their time together working on the Atlantic telegraph cable 1857/8.

I believe this document to be the “long report” referred to by S P Thompson 1876, 2nd Edition Vol 1. p369: “The Life of Lord Kelvin” where he mentions that Thomson was “disposed to defend Whitehouse telegraphing twice and dispatching a long report”. I have been unable to find any references to this report being cited previously and it may well have been suppressed by the Board of the ATC.

How it came to be among the Alcatel ( Enderbys wharf ) papers I cannot say but it does set out very clearly that in many respects Thomson remained a strong supporter of Whitehouse and sought to defend him against the rest of the Board.

Transcript of the manuscript letter from William Thomson in Valencia addressed to the Board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company and dated August 21st 1858 [Allan Green's emphasis]:

Gentlemen, Immediately on my arrival here at 9 o’clock this morning I proceeded to the Telegraph Station and took all the means afforded by the signal book and the evidence of the operators on duty, to learn the true state of affairs. This I found as you were appraised by my telegram much more satisfactory than we expected. What surprised me, and entirely altered the conclusion I had formed in London from seeing the recorded messages was that no relay was used, but that the records had been made by the hands of an observer watching the indications of my own galvanometer. You may remember that on each occasion, when I expressed my conviction that a fault at, or near the home end of the cable could not account for the failure of the currents to Newfoundland without also preventing any sensible effects from Newfoundland, I stated as the sole ground for this opinion, that the signals were received here by the recording relay through its highly resisting coil. It was natural for me to suppose that the records were made by the recording instrument which I saw in use, for the purpose immediately before I left Valencia, when readable signals had just begun to come, and on that supposition I could come to no other conclusion than I stated. As soon as I found that on the contrary that, they were receiving here on an instrument with only 50 yards instead of two miles or upward of resistive wire I saw that my reasoning must be inverted (?) and that it might well be that strong currents from the other side would enter and pass through the Valencia receiving instrument, with a sufficiently bad fault in the cable close to the end to exhaust the outward current to a very low degree. Thus if the resistance in the induction coils or battery is equal to 90 miles of line, and that of the receiving galvanometer only 6 miles, a fault close to the home end equivalent to an “earth” through a resistance of 15 miles would only reduce the received current to 5/7 of what it would be with perfect insulation; but the same fault would reduce the currents transmitted from the Valencia battery to 1/8 part of what they would be, and would enfeeble the effects received in Newfoundland in exactly the same proportion. With the actual arrangements here, of which we in London were not cognizant, it was therefore right to look for the cause of the weakness of currents complained of on the other side in the manner in which Mr Whitehouse did look for it. I think in the vexation of hearing of the cable being under-run, we were all too hasty in coming to the conclusion that a mistake had been committed. When I telegraphed to you that I should send you good reasons by post for re-considering Tuesday’s decision I had seen enough to convince me that it was the want of the peculiar arrangements for receiving which Mr Whitehouse had carried into practice during my absence, that made the reading of the signals so uncertain in Newfoundland, while on this side, all that came were read with ease. I accordingly sent a message to Mr de Sauty, ordering that my land galvanometer should be immediately prepared and put into circuit. During the whole day I tried by repetitions of this message, to have its meaning made known. It was sent time after time with no other reply than “repeat”, or “your signals are unreadable” until at last by working very slowly and giving various clauses over and over again, the operators succeeded in conveying my order to the other side. Immediately after that we got the message “land galvanometer in circuit, signals beautiful” We next had “send faster”, “send faster” several times, and until we tried them with about as high a speed as we can read at here, we had “understand” in reply to what we sent. I have thus ascertained that all they had to do to remove the difficulty they felt in reading our messages was, to receive in the same way as Mr Whitehouse and I had arranged at this end for receiving theirs. I mention this at present, not because of the gratification I feel that my own instrument should have been the first on each side by which Transatlantic messages have been read with continuous accuracy; but because I think it only an act of justice to Mr Whitehouse, to remove the erroneous impression that it was to superior skill on the other side that the successful conveyance of messages in one direction were due. I said to some of your number that it might turn out to be on the contrary a want of skill there that prevented the reading of our messages, but with no facts adduced, my conjecture had but little weight. Now I believe, if the truth as to facts in each of the cases to which I have alluded had been known to members of the Board on Tuesday, they would have taken quite a different view of the whole subject, and would have come to no such conclusion as that which I now think unfortunately was allowed to pass. I still think the manner in which Mr Whitehouse acted with reference to Mr France’s visit was not at all right. But that it constituted such a positive breach of orders as to justify his summary dismission (sic) from office, cannot I think be maintained in so far as I know it was no by a Resolution of the Board that Mr France was requested to come here. I hope in the whole management of our affairs that an improved system may be adopted by which much smoother and more efficient action may be secured. In the meantime when a great result has been achieved, and when one of our most devoted officers, conducting his own proper business in a thoroughly sufficient and successful manner under the most harassing circumstances that can be conceived, falls into some errors of judgement, as regards the responsibility of his office, and the authority he is bound to obey, it would be a very ungracious act on our part to carry into execution so severe a judgement as that which was adopted last Tuesday under circumstances of considerable irritation. For my own part I must now altogether withdraw the consent I most reluctantly gave, and I do so as an act to which I am compelled by a sense of justice. Two out of the three points of the case then before us are now disproved and a reconsideration of the case is in my opinion necessary. I may suggest that a Committee should be appointed to enquire into the circumstances which have been before us, and that their report should be submitted either to the next General Board Meeting or to a Special Meeting summoned for the purpose of receiving it, and that in the meantime Mr Whitehouse be requested to cooperate with me in carrying out the business of the electrical department. I remain Gentlemen,
Yours faithfully, (Sgd) William Thomson .

ALLAN GREEN
19th January 2012


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Last revised: 17 February, 2012

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