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

The Atlantic Telegraph
Mr. Brett's Rejoinder to Mr. Whitehouse

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he often styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed 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, it is generally accepted that Whitehouse’s insistence on using high voltage induction coils was ultimately responsible for the failure of the cable. The Board of Directors of the Company fired Whitehouse and issued a statement censuring him, to which he replied publicly in the form of letters to the British newspapers Daily News and The Times. This correspondence was subsequently issued by Whitehouse as a pamphlet.

On 23 September 1858 both the Daily News and the Morning Chronicle published a response by John W. Brett to Whitehouse's “effusions”, as he put it. The full text of Brett's letter is below.

—Bill Burns




Sir,—Of the many articles which have appeared in the press on the Atlantic Telegraph, conveying loose and incorrect statements calculated to mystify and disturb the public mind at a time when union is so necessary for the the speedy and permanent establishment off this important communication, none have, I believe, tended more to this end than the repeated effusions of Mr. Whitehouse, who, notwithstanding his very recent acquaintance with the subject (for which he is indebted to myself), and his ignorance of the facts in connexion with it, pretends to indite a history of six columns in length in nearly the whole of the papers of the London press on Monday last. He starts thus:

There are many facts of importance connected with the Atlantic Telegraph of high interest to the public which can be elicited only from those whose intimate connexion with the enterprise from its very birth has placed them in a position accurately to know as well as to chronicle such matters.

Although I have neither directly nor indirectly intruded myself on the public through the press, either in justification of my labours or in vindication of myself against the many mis-statements which have appeared on the subject of oceanic telegraphs, to which I have exclusively and unceasingly devoted my whole time, means, and exertions for the last 13 years, yet I cannot refrain from giving a few facts to warn the public from placing any reliance on one who appears carried away by the clouds of mist which often surround true science, and amongst which Mr. Whitehouse would induce the uninitiated public to follow him.

Mr. Whitehouse then proceeds—

To Professor Morse, of America, belongs the honour of the first published opinion in 1842, declaring the possibility of connecting Europe and America by telegraph. . . .

The first step of actual progress was the discovery of gutta-percha and its properties as an insulating medium. In 1847 and 1848 the use of underground wire insulated with gutta-percha was proposed and adopted in England by Mr. Charles V. Walker, F.R.S., and in Prussia by Werner Siemens, of Berlin,

&c., &c.; and finally he states—

In 1850 the Messrs. Brett projected and obtained concessions for a line across the Channel.

This Mr. Whitehouse would give as a chronicle of facts, he at the same time well knowing that our patent, entered in July, 1845, and sealed November, 1845, was the first patent on record for oceanic and subterranean electric telegraph. It was not only so in this country, but also in America and on the continent of Europe; but this patent right we have never enforced to prevent the public from using free of remuneration. Subjoined is the opinion of an eminent counsel given in 1850:

I have given much attention to the specification of a patent granted to Mr. J. Brett, in 1845, with regard to that part of the invention where means are described for insulating several telegraphic wires, and for making them up into a rope, and sinking the same below the surface of the water, so as to obtain electric telegraphic communication between two places, notwithstanding the interposition of a sea or other extensive water, and I am of opinion that it was new so to construct an electric telegraph, whether for printing by electricity or for giving other telegraphic indications by electricity. I do not think the patent is confined to the means of insulating described, or to the manner of making a rope to contain wire. I am of opinion that any person insulating several telegraphic wires, and then strengthening and protecting them by including them in a rope, would be infringing the patent. It has been long held in our courts of law that if a party without license use any part of a combination which was new at the date of a patent, such party will be an infringer of the patent.

Respecting the origin of the Atlantic Telegraph the following registers in 1845 are open to the inspection of all at the registration office of the joint-stock companies:


No. 1,167.
Registry of Joint Stock Companies Office, June 16, 1845.

No. 384.
Certificate of Provisional Registration of the General Oceanic Telegraphic Company, pursuant to the Act 7 and 8 Vict., c. 110:

I, Frederick Rogers, Esq., Registrar of Joint-Stock Companies, do hereby certify that the General Oceanic Telegraph Company is provisionally registered according to law.
Given under my hand, and sealed with my seal of office, this 16th day of June, 1845.

Registrar of Joint-Stock Companies.
(Fee on certificate, 5l.)

Object specified—To form a connecting mode of communication by telegraphic means, from the British islands and across the Atlantic Ocean to Nova Scotia and the Canadas, the colonies, and continental kingdoms.

In November, 1846, it was renewed in the form of the following document:

A renewal of the first and original registration, entered in 1845, for submarine electric communication; John W. Brett and Jacob Brett entered as directors and promoters.

No. 2,864.—Certificate of provisional registration of the General Oceanic and Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Company, pursuant to the act 7th and 8th Vict., cap. 110.

I, Francis Whitmarsh, Esq., Registrar of Joint Stock Companies, do hereby certify that the General Oceanic and Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Company is provisionally registered according to law.

Given, under my hand, and sealed with my seal of office, this 14th day of November, 1846.

Registrar of Joint Stock Companies.

To the government, in 1845, we proposed to carry out a general postal system of oceanic and subterranean telegraphs for uniting, not only America, but India and the whole of the colonies with England, of which the following is an extract:

London, July 23, 1845.
To the Right Hon. Sir Robt. Peel, Bart.

We beg the honour to submit a plan for general communication by means of oceanic and subterranean inland electric telegraphs, for which patents have been secured by the undersigned, and for their construction on cheap and efficient plans.

By means of this telegraph any communication may be instantly transmitted from London, or any other place, and delivered in a printed form almost at the same instant of time at the most distant parts of the United Kingdom or of the colonies.

J.W. and J. BRETT. 2, Hanover-square.


Gentlemen,—I am desired by Sir Robert Peel to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 23rd instant, and to observe to you, in reply, that the conduct of telegraphic communications is under the control of the Board of Admiralty, and that previously to the consideration by the Board of Treasury of any project for improving it, the subject should be brought under its notice by the Lords of the Admiralty, and have their sanction and recommendation.
—I am, gentlemen, your obedient servant,


Whitehall, July 25, 1845.
Messrs. John W. and Jacob Brett, 2, Hanover-square.

In the beginning of the year 1847 we exhibited the first specimen of an oceanic line at the soirée of the late Earl of Northampton, then President of the Royal Society, and on a remark to M. Zohrab,the Turkish consul, then present, that we hoped soon by this means to send telegraphic communications from England to America, conveying the news thence to New Orlean almost at the same instant of time it left England, he ingeniously replied, “Oh, they will get the advantage of us, they will receive it half a day earlier than ourselves.”

At this time I expended a large sum in inviting members of parliament, men of science, and engineers, to 29, Parliament-street (engaged for the purpose with the view of preparing the public for its introduction), and circulated some thousand copies of the letter with our offer to the government to to establish a postal system of oceanic and subterranean electric telegraph between England and the colonies.

On receiving the answer from Sir Robert Peel, I waited upon Sir George Cockburn, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and offered, provided the government would supply 20,000l. immediately to connect Downing-street and the Admiralty with Dublin Castle by an underground and sea-line of telegraph.

It was in 1846, and not 1850, as Mr. Whitehouse states, that I applied to Louis Philippe, King of the French, for permission to connect Calais and Dover. This application was in 1847 considerably advanced, as will be seen by the following letters.

Extract from a letter written by Mr. Byrne, private secretary to M. Passy, Minister of Finance, to Mr. John W. Brett, dated Paris, March 13, 1847:

I promise you every success in this country; you will find this government ready to treat with you, not only for uniting the different departments with Paris, but also the colonies, such as Corsica, Algeria, &c., with the mother country.

Your drawing of the telegraph is by this time in the hands of his Majesty Louis Philippe. I gave it this morning, with the despatches printed by your telegraph, to the Under Secretary of State, who promised to show them to the King.

Treasury Chambers, June 21, 1847.
Sir,—In reply to your letter dated the 1st inst., upon the subject of the establishment of Brett's electric telegraph between Dover and Calais, I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners of her Majesty's Treasury to convey to you their sanction to the undertaking of Mr. Brett; but my Lords will reserve to themselves the right of stopping the operation if at any time it should seem advisable to them to pursue such a course.—I am, sir, your obedient servant,


Admiralty, June 27, 1847.
Sir,—I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you, in reply to your letter of this day's date, that there is no objection on the part of the Admiralty to the passing the proposed telegraph from Dover to Calais; and their lordships cannot but applaud the active and enterprising ingenuity which has advanced the project to its present state.—I am, sir, your obedient servant,
W.A.B. Hamilton
John W. Brett, Esq.

Not only in 1846, but in 1846 and 1847, did we renew our registration at the offices of the joint stock company, in the vain hope that thus early the public would have been prepared for the union of America by telegraph; and as I have known Professor Morse personally these 20 years, and intimately the last few years—and there is no man for whom I have a higher esteem—I have yet to learn the fact (if it be fact, which I doubt) that he ever seriously proposed the carrying out of an oceanic telegraph.

The first oceanic lines carried out in America were in 1856, between Newfoundland and Breton Island, and Breton island to Nova Scotia; in furtherance of which, as London director of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Tele;mph Company, I assisted Mr. Field.

In the Atlantic enterprise I always looked towards America for aid, and naturally turned to Professor Morse, who had been the pioneer of land telegraphs in America, as the proper person to unite with me in this enterprise.

The Newfoundland Company only contemplated terminating their line at Newfoundland, and conveying the telegrams by swift steamers thence to Ireland, until I urged and offered to incur the risk of establishing the present oceanic line; and while I was making efforts for its establishment with this company accident led Mr. Cyrus W. Field and his friends to entertain the subject of telegraphy, and to the purchase of the Newfoundland Telegraph Company, and the association of Professor Morse.

Mr. Cyrus W. Field was then deputed to visit England, and place in my hands an agreement, under the seal of the company, signed by the president (Peter Cooper) and Professor Morse, as an associate, ceding to me the exclusive privilege for establishing the oceanic line now laid; and Mr. Field demanded from me, as a guarantee of its performance, 5,000l., to be vested in the Newfoundland Company, which I paid. This agreement is dated January 7, 1855.

The year previous I had solved the problem of deep-sea telegraphs by successfully laying, on the first attempt, two oceanic lines, of six electric conductors each, in the Mediterranean—uniting the islands of Corsica and Sardinia with Piedmont and France, which cables have never failed one instant, or required one shilling of outlay, since the first day they were laid, and, I am sanguine to believe, will endure without expense for 60 years to come.

These few indisputable facts will suffice to explain the commencement of the oceanic telegraph.

I have only to say to the statement respecting Mr. Siemens, that my early endeavours in this country not producing immediate results, I, at a considerable expense, visited the governments on the Continent before they had adopted the electric telegraph. Amongst others, I proceeded to Berlin with our telegraph, in 1847, when Mr. Siemens, then an officer in the army, proposed to assist me with the introduction of the electric telegraph to the Prussian government, informing me that he was acquainted with our inventions, having received copies of the patents from England.

In 1848 I again visited Berlin for the same object, but left in consequence of the revolution breaking out on the very day on which I was to have submitted my plans to the government. Immediately after, the government, feeling the want of the electric telegraph on such an occasion, Lieutenant Siemens was engaged to carry it out, and attempted underground lines insulated with gutta percha. These, however, as then prepared, so signally failed that the conclusions arrived at by a scientific commission of the French Government appointed to examine telegraphs in Germany were condemnatory of them. At the head of this commission was the talented Mr. Alexandre, now director in chief of telegraphs to the French government, who assured me, in 1849, that our attempt to lay a line insulated with gutta percha across the Channel was worse than a folly—that it would not endure three hours.

I cannot refrain, in entering on this detail, to do justice to one man, Mr. Samuel Statham, of the Gutta Percha Company, to whom, more than any other man in Europe, and to his able talents and unceasing labours (regardless of all expense) is due the present perfection and utility of gutta percha as an insulating medium in telegraphy. Step by step has he exerted his whole energies at every suggestion I or others offered him, from the single layer over the copper wire to the numerous layers now so perfectly insulating it; and from the single wire liable to separation in long lengths to the cord of wires at first thought impracticable to Dover; and, finally, at the present moment, to a perfection of insulation 60 per cent. superior in electric conductibility to the cable recently laid between Valentia and Newfoundland, from the application of a compound over the capper, giving a perfect adhesion of the copper to the inner surface of the gutta percha, a fault I pointed out to him when the first line was laid between Dover and Calais in 1850.

In a recently prepared cable of four gutta percha wires, two insulated on this last principle and two on that of the recent Atlantic line, the deflections on a delicate galvanometer were as 11 to 22 in favour of the present improvement, or 50 per cent. superior to that hitherto used. I name these facts that the public may see what we may expect from our second new Atlantic line, which I hope will be laid next year; and also that it may be understood that by no chance of accident have these points of perfection been arrived at, but by a continuation of incessant labour, united with deep thought in perfecting the means, which have engaged several able and practical minds on this object for many years. This should give confidence to the public in preference to the numerous but mostly impracticable suggestions which daily occupy the public press, as if the only solution of oceanic telegraphy had yet to be discovered.

I would gratefully accept improvement from any source; yet the present means at our disposal are ample, requiring only the proper care and favourable circumstances necessary for a great enterprise to ensure the most permanent and valuable success.

Mr. Whitehouse, in reference to this subject, states:

In order to determine the best form of cable, great numbers of specimens were made, and of various constructions—some excelling in strength, some in flexibility. Those were subjected to the most critical trials for strength and flexibility, and the question of their mechanical fitness was, in this respect, I believe, fairly exhausted. Experiments were continued at intervals for several weeks, and the result led to the adoption of the present cable, no trials having been made of the rate of sinking of the various specimens.

The consideration of this vital question having been repeatedly discussed by the board, had been finally referred by them to a sub-committee of three (of which neither the engineer nor myself formed part), consisting of Mr. Field, Mr. Brett, and Mr. Tupper, and was by them almost immediately decided upon what appeared to me a very limited and partial examination, flexibility, weight, and strength being apparently the sole points considered, to the exclusion of the questions of specific gravity or the rate of sinking—two points of essential importance in determining the strain upon the cable during the process of paying out.

A specimen cable of light specific gravity and great strength, made after experiments of my own, was rejected by one of the members of this committee in an almost contemptuous manner. ‘I would not have it if it were laid,’ said he, Nevertheless I thought it right, in a written report, to state my own personal conviction of its superiority, with the reasons for my preferring it to the present form.

To me he alludes as the person to whom was referred the decision and the examination at the trials of these various specimens at the works of Messrs. Brown and Lennox, and it is true I had firmly to contend with even my friend Statham, whose opinion I hold in the highest esteem, and combat strongly against the prejudice in favour of this new form of hempen cable.

I rejected the whole of the hempen specimens as wrong in principle, so clearly proved when the tests were made, while two, and two only, iron-covered offered conditions which I thought suitable. One, the present cable, weighing one ton per mile, and bearing a breaking strain of four tons; and the other, containing three electric conductors covered with steel wire, and weighing 2 tons 8 cwt., bearing a breaking strain of 18 tons. This latter cable had there been ships to be found suitable to carry it, I should have preferred; and could this have been laid instead of our present cable, it is possible that even with the present fault we might still have had two lines of communication perfect.

I have hopes that the company will be encouraged to lay a cable of three electric conductors next year, being convinced that with the present experience a cable could be so constructed as not to be liable even to the fault under which we are at present suffering, but I must be excused from going into further detail, or patents may arise on all sides to stop its progress by claims such as those now preferred on the most futile grounds.

One word more on rope or hemp-covered cables. The whole of those proposed of late years are wrong in principle; rope-covered cables and simple gutta percha covering have been tried by others between England and Ireland and elsewhere, and have been either lost or proved useless for all objects of durability.

If oceanic communication is worth anything it is worth doing well and durably. The experiment is too costly to repeat often. Durability is economy; not that I would have it understood as being prejudiced by our having arrived at perfection or beyond improvement. In the next attempt I would prefer solid wires in place of the 18 strands of seven small twisted wires, as more durable and more economical, the elasticity of the present having been found to be in excess.

A few words as to Mr. Whitehouse's connection with the Atlantic Telegraph. In 1854 Mr. Whitehouse proposed to me a telegraph instrument of either five or seven conducting wires, which he intended for communicating the notes of the reports at the House of Commons for the press. I remarked to him that it was going backward now to introduce five wires, when I had been one of the first to advocate one-wire instruments only.

Subsequent acquaintance led me to believe he had most patient qualities of investigation. About this time a startling fact had been proved on 300 miles of gutta-percha-covered wire manufactured for me—namely, that half an hour after separating the wire from the battery it had been found to give out electric currents when brought into connection with the galvanometer. I accompanied Mr. Statham to the Royal Institution, and with him communicated it to Professor Faraday, who that very evening introduced the fact in his lecture.

The question, to my mind, was instantly: if such a charge is retained in 300 miles, what may be the resistance in 2,000? This fact must be cleared up, or my project of an Atlantic telegraph will not be admitted practicable.

This I immediately stated to Mr. Whitehouse, and advised him to abandon every other project, and give his patient investigation to this point alone—stating to him, “I have neither the talent nor the time, engaged as I am in carrying out several oceanic telegraphs, to attend to it.”

I then placed every assistance in my power at his disposal, giving him instruments and the aid of my most experienced electric engineer, Mr. James Banks, who had been with me from 1846, in getting up instruments, and I also incurred an outlay of several hundred pounds to assist him. The 1,200 miles of submarine wires he alludes to were those of my Mediterranean cables, which were placed at his disposal. This experimenting was prolonged during some two years without any definite results, and Mr. Whitehouse then asked to be relieved from his engagements with me because he could more satisfactorily dispose of his patents. I at once gave him full liberty to do so, feeling confident, as other minds were also directed to the subject of the induced currents that we had but to lay the cables as I had done in the Mediterranean, without questions or doubts of electrical or mechanical impossibilities, and there would be no fear of the means to work through them, as is now proved in the instance of Professor Thomson. Mr. Whitehouse at this time became acquainted with Mr. Cyrus Field, who had proposed to unite with me on equal grounds in carrying out the Atlantic telegraph; and it was on Mr. Field's so strenuously urging the admitting Mr. Whitehouse and Sir Charles Bright to participate in our labours that I finally consented to their association with our project.

It was proposed and agreed by myself that our only emolument should depend on the successful result in laying of the cable—which, on my own part, I have rigidly adhered to—and, to prove my confidence in the final success, I hold five shares, for which I paid 5,000l., in addition to the 5,000l. paid Mr. Field on the conditions previously named.

I have the honour to be, sir, your obedient servant,

2, Hanover-square, Wednesday, Sept 22.

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