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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 Evolution of Cable & Wireless, Part 1
by Bill Glover

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John Pender, who was to become Chairman of the largest submarine telegraph operating company in the world, was born in the Vale of Leven, Dumbarton, Scotland in 1815. He attended the parish school there, later attending the Glasgow High School. On leaving school he began work at a local factory. By the age of 21 he was the Managing Director of that company.

By 1840 he had moved to Glasgow, setting himself up as a cotton merchant, where he married Marion Cearns, who died in childbirth in 1841. He made another move, this time to Manchester, the centre of the cotton trade, where he set up John Pender & Company to distribute products of the cotton mills of Lancashire and Scotland. The business prospered and he became a wealthy man. In 1851 he married Emma Dennison and in 1852 he took the first step to a new career when he bought shares in and joined the board of directors of the English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company (E&IM) (later the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company).

The company was based in Liverpool and Dublin and following the success of the Cross Channel cable they became interested in connecting England and Ireland. R.S. Newall had made two attempts; the first in 1851 which failed, and the second in1852 which succeeded but was cut by a ship's anchor after three days. In those days the means of recovering such a cable were not available.

The E&IM were given permission to lay such a cable and Charles Tilston Bright, electrical engineer to the company, supervised all aspects of the work. The cable, which ran from Portpatrick, Scotland, to Donaghadee, Ireland, was successfully completed on 23 May 1853. In the following year a second cable was laid, this time from Portpatrick to Whitehead, Ireland. Both cables were manufactured by R.S. Newall & Company, who used CS William Hutt to lay them.

In 1852 Frederic Newton Gisborne had obtained from the Newfoundland Government a thirty year concession to connect Newfoundland by telegraph to the mainland of Canada, with a landline across Newfoundland from St. John's and Cape Race to Cape Ray and a cable across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Within a year the company was bankrupt and during his attempt to raise more capital he came into contact with Cyrus Field.

Cyrus Field was all for the idea - in fact he decided to extend it across the Atlantic. He renegotiated the concession with the Newfoundland Government and had it extended to fifty years from 1856. He then set up The New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company and set about raising capital in the USA. Unable to interest enough people with the idea, he moved to London with the same intention. Realising that he was more likely to raise capital with an English company he changed the name to The Atlantic Telegraph Company. A prospectus was issued on 6 November 1856 and amongst the 345 people who purchased a £1,000 share was John Pender.

At the first meeting of the company on 9 December 1856 John Pender was amongst those made a director. At the meeting Glass, Elliot & Co. and R.S. Newall & Co. were each instructed to manufacture 1250 nm of cable with core supplied by the Gutta Percha Company. Both the British and American governments agreed to pay a subsidy of £14,000 for a given period, then a reduced one of £10,000. They also loaned HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara respectively to carry out the laying.

The first attempt in 1857 failed. The company managed to raise sufficient money to replace the 330 nm of cable lost. After three failed attempts in 1858, the fourth, which set out on 17 July, succeeded in completing the cable and on 13 August the first transmission took place, a ninety-eight word message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan, which took sixteen hours to transmit. It was to be a short-lived success; by 20 October, when the cable failed, a total of 723 messages had been transmitted.

The American Civil War prevented another attempt for a few years but Cyrus Field was still active in trying to raise capital. He managed to raise £300,000 and Glass Elliot were awarded the contract to manufacture the cable. The problem was that the Atlantic Telegraph Company only had £300,000 of capital and the cable expedition would cost £837,140. Glass Elliot was too small a company to carry the balance and so John Pender put forward the idea of a merger between the Gutta Percha Company and Glass, Elliot.

To enable the merger to go through John Pender personally guaranteed the £250,000 wanted by the Gutta Percha Company for its patents and assets. So on 7 April 1864 the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company Ltd. (Telcon) was formed with John Pender as chairman. Richard Glass of Glass, Elliot and Henry Ford Barclay of the Gutta Percha Company became joint managing directors. Telcon signed a contract with the Great Eastern Steamship Company, owners of the Great Eastern, to lay the new cable and Daniel Gooch, the managing director of that company, joined the board of Telcon as a director.

CS Great Eastern began laying the 1865 cable on 23 July, but on 2 August the cable broke and was lost in 2,000 fathoms. Attempts were made to grapple the lost cable, but in the process all grapnels and rope were lost so the expedition returned to England. (See Daniel Gooch's letter describing these events).

Another attempt to raise capital was not too successful and Telcon undertook to lay the cable for a mixture of cash and shares in the new company, the Anglo American Telegraph Company. Great Eastern left Greenwich on 30 June, with laying commencing on Friday 13 July 1866 and with only a few minor hiccups on the way Great Eastern sailed into Hearts Content on 27 July. On 9 August Great Eastern returned to sea to recover the lost 1865 cable. On 2 September they succeeded and laid the remaining 700 nm of it into Hearts Content.

John Pender resigned as Chairman of Telcon in 1868 to set up his first telegraph company.

Note: The Smithsonian Institution has the records of the Anglo American Telegraph Company from 1866 to 1947.

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Last revised: 30 January, 2017

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