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

Nathaniel John Holmes
by Steven Roberts

Nathaniel John Holmes (1824-1888)

Nathaniel John Holmes was the son of Nathaniel Reynolds Holmes, the black-sheep of a long-established family of city merchants dealing in leather, originating in Rochester, Kent. Holmes the father had been a hop-dealer, commercial clerk, a commercial traveller, ending up as an “artist” of Lower Heath Place, Hampstead in London, taking in lodgers, one of which was JW Lowry, the geological map engraver. NJ Holmes, the eldest child, had a brother and a sister, they were all born in Hampstead.

In 1846 Holmes was taken on by the Electric Telegraph Company. Within a short time he was managing the electrical instrument department at two workshops in Bouverie Street, Fleet Street, London, and devised a distinct improvement in the needle telegraph then in use. During 1847 and 1848 he was employed installing the circuits of the company’s new prestige Central Station in Lothbury, and was styled Station Manager. 

In 1849 the Electric company was struggling for business and radically cut-back its staffing; Nathaniel Holmes was one of the casualties. He then went into partnership with the Electric’s former assistant secretary, Francis Whishaw, to form the General Telegraph Company, to construct electric, pneumatic, hydraulic and mechanical telegraphs (!).  One of the devices the partnership offered was Holmes’ electric whistle (a pneumatic alarm released electrically). Given the Electric Telegraph Company’s patent monopoly throughout Britain the partnership of Whishaw and Holmes had little business.

In 1851 Holmes left London to become secretary and manager of the Glasgow Polytechnic Institution, an educational establishment for the artisan classes. In this he organised and presented lectures on all manner of literary, philosophical and scientific subjects. In need of a better income he set up “N J Holmes & Company, ornamental draughtsmen, lithographers, embossers and printers”, in Cochran Street, Glasgow. The firm worked from early 1853 as designers and printers to sewed muslin manufacturers. In November 1855 Holmes attended a lecture in Glasgow by Charles Wheatstone; it is more than likely that he knew the professor from his days with the Electric Telegraph Company, but it re-inspired his interest in the telegraph.

Holmes’ printing firm failed in November 1856 and he spent the next six months selling up his assets, house and furnishings in Glasgow. By 1859 he and his family had moved back to London, to Primrose Hill Road, Hampstead, and he was working for Charles Wheatstone.

Holmes was nominated electrician to the Universal Private Telegraph Company on its launch in 1860. This established a network of private telegraph circuits in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. Holmes travelled the country for the next three years canvassing for shareholders as much as engineering its lines. He found a vocation as lecturer and showman, as well as an electrical engineer. In 1862 he found a job for his younger brother, Basil, in managing its operations in Manchester. At the Universal company Holmes worked with Thomas Page, the firm’s consulting civil engineer, who had in 1859 co-promoted the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Company, proposing an alternative cable to the Americas by way of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador.  Holmes was also deeply influenced by Wheatstone in the introduction and promotion of india-rubber as an insulating medium for aerial and submarine cables, as well as the professor’s innovations such as the automatic telegraph and the electric blasting machine.

In January 1862 Holmes was nominated as engineer to his first large-scale underwater cable project: the London & South-of-Ireland Direct Telegraph Company. This was to connect South Wales with Ireland with a long india-rubber insulated cable to serve the anticipated Atlantic circuit from Valentia to Newfoundland.  It was rapidly and successfully manufactured and laid in the spring of that year.

During 1863 and 1864 Holmes was working with the American navigator and inventor, Matthew Maury, the Dutch naval officer, Marin Jansen, and Charles Wheatstone in developing electrical torpedoes or submarine mines. The Universal company was exporting blasting machines and india-rubber insulated wire to the Confederate States for such torpedoes in the summer of 1864. In 1865 Holmes and Maury patented the electrical torpedo in Britain.

Holmes left the Universal company in 1866 to work with Thomas Page and James Wyld MP in promoting, once again, the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Company and its island-hopping route from Scotland to Canada. This was revived only due to the very temporary delay in completing the direct cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Holmes was kept busy touring the country lecturing and looking for shareholders once again.

This work led to Holmes’ appointment as engineer to the Danish, Norwegian & English Telegraph Company in January 1868, to the Danish-Russian Telegraph Company later in that year and then to Norwegian & English Submarine Telegraph Company. These combined to form the still-extant Great Northern Telegraph Company of Copenhagen in June 1869. He engineered their cables between Denmark and England, Denmark and Russia and Norway and Scotland. They were to a standard specification, with india-rubber insulation by Hooper’s Telegraph Works Company of London, armoured by W T Henley. On all of the Great Northern’s circuits Holmes introduced Wheatstone’s automatic telegraph to multiply by a factor of five their message rates.

In 1870 he also became engineer to the Orkney & Shetland Islands Telegraph Company, laying cables from the north of Scotland to the northern isles with Siemens Brothers in the most appalling weather conditions. This experience led to his patenting of instantaneously-igniting signal flares and maritime air horns for saving lives at sea, and his promotion of the long-lived “Holmes Marine Life Protection Association”, later taken over by his son.

Holmes’s largest project was his work for the Great Northern Extension Telegraph Company, a subsidiary of his Danish employers, between 1870 and 1872. This involved a leased circuit from Moscow across Siberia and long submarine cables from Vladivostok 1,200 miles to Shanghai, 1,000 miles from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and a later, shorter cable from Russia to Japan. The cables were all completed to Holmes’s specification, once again and wholly successfully, by Hooper’s Telegraph Works. Holmes managed the project remotely and did not visit the Far East.

Holmes became bankrupt again in May 1878; the reason may be found in the next paragraph. However he continued to be engineer to the Great Northern Telegraph Company until his death in March 1888. His passing was noticed as being the last of the first telegraph engineers. 

One of Holmes’ chief interests was the organ. The first major organ he had constructed was made by Bryceson Brothers of Brook Street, Euston Road, London NW, between 1862 and 1866 for his house on Primrose Hill. It was, of course, an electric organ with three manuals and thirty-six stops. Bryceson’s electric pallets controlled the manuals. This was sold to Australia in 1874. Holmes replaced it with another electrically-controlled instrument that was claimed to be the largest and finest music organ in the world, larger even than that in St Paul’s Cathedral. It was designed by W T Best of Liverpool and built between 1872 and 1875 by Bryceson Brothers with four manuals and sixty-five stops and cost, apparently, £8,000. It required its own specially-built music room and a 9hp steam engine. Bryceson’s were to assist Holmes in developing his life-saving marine air horns. The opinions of Mrs Holmes on this diversion are not recorded.

Holmes was a member of or contributor to the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences, the Zoological Society of London, the British Meteorological Society, the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

Last revised: 12 February, 2010

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