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

Frederick Charles Webb

Introduction: Frederick C. Webb was one of the first cable engineers, and also a writer and lecturer on the subject. These articles from the London trade paper The Electrician describe his life and career.

Between 1884 and 1886 Webb wrote a series of stories for the paper recounting his experiences on the early cables. These may be read on the Old Cable Stories Retold page.

One of his more technical papers, presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1857, is also available: On the Practical Operations connected with the Paying-Out and Repairing of Submarine Telegraph Cables. And in 1880 he wrote for The Electrician an article titled: On the Specification of the Direction of the Lay of the Outer Wires of a Telegraph Cable

Frederick Webb's son Herbert Laws Webb was also a cable engineer.

—Bill Burns

Frederick Charles Webb (1828-1899)

The Electrician, 4 Dec 1885, page 66:

WEBB, Frederick Charles: Born on the 1st of October, 1828, at No. 14, Surrey-square, Old Kent-road, London. He is the son of the late Mr. George Webb, formerly Secretary to the London Stock Exchange, who married Susanna, daughter of Thomas Bish. He received his early education at a private school at the Mansion House, Hammersmith, being afterwards placed at the Ecole Normale, at Brussels. Having learned French there he afterwards studied geometry, trigonometry, and navigation under M. Verhaart, Professor of Mathematics at the School of Navigation at Ostend; was placed for two years at the establishment of the Rev. Edward Jenkins (Chaplain to the King of the Belgians), at Brussels, where, amongst other subjects, he learned free-hand drawing and water colours, mechanical drawing, and fortifications. At the age of 15 he joined H.M.S. “Porcupine,” a surveying ship, commanded by Capt. Frederick Bullock, R.N., but held no position in the navy (except for a short time when he was rated as a clerk’s assistant), the object being to qualify him as a marine surveyor, so that on his obtaining a naval cadetship, which Capt. Bullock hoped to procure for him, he might at once receive the extra pay granted to the officers employed as surveyors. He was thus engaged for two years doing duty as a surveying officer, &c. During the two years he was in H.M.S. “Porcupine” the survey known as “The Downs,” which includes the Goodwin Sands, was completed, and the free hand sketches of the leading marks, &c, were done entirely by Mr. Webb. He was also present at the erection of one of Captain Bullock’s safety beacons on the Goodwin. The survey of the “Approaches to Harwich” was also completed whilst he was in the “Porcupine.”

F.C. Webb

Having waited and worked patiently for two years without pay, and not having sufficient interest to obtain a cadetship, he at last gave up the attempt, and the railway mania of 1845 breaking out he left the “Porcupine,” and, under Mr. John Player, was engaged on the levels for the London, Newbury, and Bath Direct Railway. He was then placed with Mr. James Walker, of 23, Great George-street, engineer to the Admiralty, Trinity Board, Commercial Docks, &c, and was in that office grounded in all the duties of a civil engineer, such as drawing, tracing, taking out quantities, estimating, &c, and during the time he was with the firm the works in hand were the improvement of the Bedford Level drainage, the Admiralty Pier at Dover, the harbour of refuge at Alderney, St. Hilier’s Harbour, improvement of Dover Harbour, improvement of Kurrachee Harbour, a new lantern to Eddystone Lighthouse, and other work. A particular manner of placing the supports of the roof, suggested by Mr. Webb, was approved, and adopted on the Eddystone, and in several other lighthouses. During the time he was with the firm he took the soundings for the contract drawings for the Admiralty Pier at Dover. He also made the whole of the surveys for the harbour of refuge at Alderney, and set out the two miles of railway from the quarries to the breakwater. After two years he parted from the firm, but was soon afterwards engaged for them in the surveys and levels of the Bedford Level drainage, on which work, as the gradient of the drains was to be only a fall of two inches to the mile, the levelling had to be very accurate.

In 1850 he was introduced to Mr. Edwin Clark, then just appointed engineer to the Electric Telegraph Company. Mr. E. Clark engaged Mr. Webb as his assistant not only for the telegraph work, but as his own draughtsman for wrought iron bridges, and Mr. Webb drew out, under Mr. Clark’s superintendence, the first iron bridge that Mr. Clark designed in London, and this was the first of the numerous bridges which that eminent engineer designed year after year. Mr. Webb soon, however, became engaged solely in the telegraph work, and executed the following:—The making of a complete set of surveys of the London street wires, of which no record had previously been kept; the erection of two wires between Brighton and Newhaven; six wires between London and Peterborough and two on to Grimsby; some 10 wires on the North London Railway; the surveys of the Lancaster and Carlisle, Maryport and Carlisle, and Stour Valley Railways.

In 1853 the Electric Telegraph Company determined to lay cables to Holland, and Mr. Webb was appointed assistant engineer to the International Telegraph Company, the company formed to carry out this work. Particulars of some of Mr. Webb’s work whilst acting in the capacity of assistant engineer to the International Company have already appeared in our columns; but he also erected four wires between The Hague and Amsterdam, with underground wires in each of these towns. He acted as assistant to Mr. E. Clark in laying the cables across the Irish Channel, and laid them across the Firth of Forth, the Tay, the Solent, and the Humber, and for four years had the charge of the repair of all these cables. At one time, when it was considered dangerous to employ a steamer on the Dutch coast, as the ports were frozen, he repaired the cable in a Dutch fishing vessel, at a distance of thirteen miles from the coast.

In 1857 he was engaged as one of the four engineers for the first attempt to lay an Atlantic cable; and he superintended the shipping of the “Agamemnon’s” half at East Greenwich. The cable was, however, broken from the “Niagara,” and Mr. Webb played only a negative part in that expedition; but he fitted up the “Leipsic” for picking up some of the lost cable. In 1857 he helped Mr. R.S. Newall to complete the Bona and Cagliari cable, which had run short off Cape Spartivento, and to lay the cables between Cagliari, Malta, and Corfu.

In 1858 he and Professor Jenkin fitted up the “Elba,” belonging to Messrs. Newall, Liddell, and Gordon, and, under Mr. Liddell, recovered some cables in the Mediterranean.

In 1859 he repaired the Dover and Calais cable, also the Cagliari and Malta cable, the fault in the latter being about, half way between those two ports. In the same year he was engaged on the experiments made at Gloucester-road for the joint committee appointed by the Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and during this time had the honour of showing to Faraday the “coil current,” or, as it was for some time called, “Webb’s current.”

He also tested and reported on the 1858 Atlantic cable as regards the distance of the fault. His report showed how the resistance of the fault could be roughly ascertained by the change in its resistance caused by sending a negative current after sending a positive, a process which has since received the attention of many electricians. In the same year he was deputed by the directors of the Red Sea and India cable to test the sections between Aden and Kurrachee, and received on his return the thanks of the Board for “his full and interesting report.”

In January, February, and March, 1861, he was engaged in the “Resolute” tug in trying to repair the Emden cable. It was a very severe winter, and the cable being deeply sanded up, Mr. Webb failed to repair it. The work was continued in April, May, and June under Mr. Frances’s management, and finally repaired in June.

In this year he contracted with Messrs. Glass and Elliot to find the labour and his own services for laying the Isle of Man cable, the first cable having Latimer Clark’s outer serving, and he carried out his contract.

Submarine telegraph work had been slack for several years, and Mr. Webb found occasional work in levelling for parliamentary surveys of railways. In December, 1862, he joined as chief the engineering staff of Messrs. Sir Charles Bright and Latimer Clark, who had just been appointed engineers to the Indian Government, under the late Lieut. Colonel Patrick Stewart, for the making and laying of the Persian Gulf cable. In this capacity he had charge of the testing at Mr. Henley’s works, and also fitted out the five sailing ships, and the repairing ship “Amberwitch”; acted as chief of the staff on laying three of the sections, and had entire charge of laying the fourth. He was then engaged by the Indian Government, on the recommendation of Colonel Stewart, to remain out for one year in “Engineering Charge of the Line,” to teach the staff to repair the cable, to complete some of the work, and to design proper premises for the storage and repair of the recovered cable. These works were carried out by Captain Mereweather, R.E., and have given entire satisfaction. Mr. Webb came home from India in 1865, and tried in vain to obtain employment on the 1865 Atlantic Expedition. He consequently took again to levelling, and he executed work for Mr. John Fowler on several lines.

His friend, Mr. Zerah Colburn, started about this time the paper called Engineering, and Mr. Webb, who had previously contributed to the Engineer, was solicited by Mr. Colburn to write leaders for the new paper on electrical matters. He has been a contributor to that journal at various intervals ever since.

In 1867 he had charge, on the part of the contractors (the India Rubber, Gutta Percha, and Telegraph Works Company), of laying a cable from Havanna to Key West (Florida), and from Key West to a lonely place called Punta Rossa, 120 miles up the Gulf of Mexico. He ran a little out of course in laying the cable across the Gulf stream, and then the expedition was attacked by yellow fever, and fifteen out of sixty perished. On his return to England he found that a pamphlet to his detriment had been circulated by an eminent scientific man, and as the Board of Directors refused an inquiry, he had no option but to bring an action for libel against the author of the pamphlet, on which counsel agreed that an apology should be made provided each party paid his own costs; and an ample apology was accordingly tendered.

In 1868 he was engaged in fitting out the ships for the second Persian Gulf cable, recovering sixty miles thrown overboard from the “Calcutta,” and taking all the rest of the cable out and re-shipping it, and received the thanks of his Excellency in Council the Governor of Bombay. An estrangement between the India Rubber Company and Mr. Webb lasted for a year, when Mr. Webb was again employed, and laid the present Post Office cable between Holyhead and Howth, when he received Lord Spencer, the Lord-Lieutenant, on board the “La Plata.” He also for the same company acted as second to Sir S. Canning in laying the Marseilles and Algiers cable, and repaired it, and recovered the whole of the cable laid during the Franco-German war between Cherbourg and Dunkerque. He laid the Direct Spanish cable between Bilbao in Spain and the Lizard, and repaired it two successive years. He also laid the Marseilles and Barcelona cable, and diverted the Direct Spanish cable during the Carlist war from Bilbao to Santander, where he was introduced to Marshal Serrano.

In 1874 he was engaged by Messrs. Siemens Brothers to command an expedition to complete the Platino-Brazilliera cable, and recover 170 miles of cable out of the wrecked steamer “Gomos,” and was then made a Knight Officer of the Imperial Order of the Rose by H.I. Majesty the Emperor of Brazil, who he had the honour of entertaining on board the “Ambassador.” This was the last work he executed, but he was lately consulted by the Indian Government on the third Persian Gulf cable. In 1877 he was appointed electrician to H.M.S. “Vernon,” the torpedo school ship; but his health failed him, and he had to relinquish the appointment, which was never again filled up. He is probably the only member of the Institution of Civil Engineers who has been entitled to R.N. after his name.

Besides his articles in The Engineer, Engineering, The Electrician (old series), the Telegraphic Journal—which he edited for about six months—and our own columns, Mr. Webb is the author of a paper “On the Practical Operations Connected with Paying Out and Repairing Submarine Cables,” which was read to a crowded audience at the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 23rd of February, 1858. On this occasion Mr. Webb had the honour of sitting at the council table between Faraday and Robert Stephenson. He is also the author of several articles in the Philosophical Magazine, and of a narrative entitled “Up the Tigris to Bagdad,” a copy of which was graciously accepted and gracefully acknowledged by Her Majesty the Queen. Some of his articles in The Electrician (old series) were republished in book form, under the title of “A Treatise on Electrical Accumulation and Conduction.” In these articles he showed that induction takes place in a circuit which he has termed “the induction circuit.” He patented a means of preventing the teredo from attacking the gutta percha of submarine cables, and showed how the ordinary sextant may be made to take larger angles Several of these instruments, which were certified at Kew Observatory as taking 163 degrees, were made, and one was taken by Captain Charles Bullock, R N, on his survey in Japan, as Captain Bullock perceived and declared that the improvement was of immense importance. He was made an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1857, and promoted to membership in 1868, and on November 26, 1884, was by the Council, in consideration of the services rendered by him to the Institution, and of his long connection with it, enrolled as a life subscriber.

The Electrical Engineer, 20 May 1881:

A SUBMARINE TELEGRAPHIC ENTERTAINMENT.—Under the above title Mr. F.C. Webb, well known as having been intimately connected with the laying of many cables, announces that he will give a descriptive lecture on cable laying in St. George’s Hall, Regent-street, on the 31st May at 2:30 p.m. The entertainment will consist of a viva voce explanation of the modus operandi of laying submarine cables, with some historical remarks, illustrated by coloured diagrams, on various ships that have taken part in cable‑laying expeditions. It will conclude with a practical demonstration of how to make a splice, in which Mr. Webb will be assisted by men experienced in the work, he himself assuming the position, to which be is by no means unused, of  “Engineer-in-Charge.” Further information as to tickets, &c., can be had of Messrs. Mitchell and Son, 36, Parliament‑ street, S.W., or at the hall. 

The Electrical Engineer, 21 July 1899, page 66:

Obituary.—We regret to have to record the sudden death of Mr. Frederick Charles Webb, who in past years took a prominent part in submarine cable work. Mr. Webb, who was 70 years old, had recently undergone an operation at a Hampstead hospital, and evidently took a too serious view of his condition. On Saturday last he fell out of a window some 30ft. above the ground, and was picked up dead. In the earlier days of submarine cable work Mr. Webb took a very active part in many ventures, such as the laying of the cable from Havana to Key West, from Holyhead to Howth, and from Marseilles to Algiers. Apart from that, Mr. Webb was placed in charge of many expeditions for cable repairs, and for his services in connection with the Platino-Brazilian cable was created a Knight Officer of the Imperial Order of the Rose by the late Emperor of Brazil. Mr. Webb’s civil engineering work in connection with lighthouses and docks was of no mean order.

Last revised: 3 June, 2016

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