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

J. Clement Cuff (1851-1920)

Introduction: John Clement Cuff was born in Bristol in 1851 and worked in the cable industry for many years. He ended his career in 1906 as the Superintendent of the Workshop and Testing Departments of the Eastern Extension, Australasian and China Telegraph Company at Singapore, part of John Pender’s world-spanning group of cable companies (later Cable & Wireless). Detailed information on the company’s operations at Singapore during Cuff’s time there may be found in the 1921 book “One Hundred Years of Singapore”.

Image courtesy of IET Archives

In 1873 Cuff published a pamphlet on Sir William Thomson’s siphon recorder. His 1920 obituary (see below) notes that he had worked with Thomson on the development of this instrument at Glasgow University. On 10 November that same year he sailed from England to Madras, presumably on his way to take up a cable station appointment.

On 22 September 1878, Mr John C. Cuff of Singapore was proposed for admission as an Associate Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the IET) by William Edward Ayrton, with the following details of his qualifications:

“Formerly pupil of Messrs. Elliott Bros: subsequently of Prof. Sir William Thomson now engaged at different telegraph stations at the East studying the working of the lines on behalf of Sir Wm. Thomson and Prof. Fleeming Jenkin.”

He was elected as Associate of the Society of Telegraph Engineers on 11 December 1878.

In 1880 the Society of Telegraph Engineers published his paper, “The Practical Management of Sir William Thomson’s Tray Batteries”.

Cuff had patents in several areas of technology. On 24 May 1881 he filed this patent application:

2263. John Clement Cuff, of Old Broad Street, in the city of London, Electrician, for an invention of “Improvements in the construction of apparatus for effecting electrical measurements.”

In its issue of 16 September 1882 the Electrical Journal recorded this patent application:

541. “Electric or magnetic motor.” T. Morqan. (A communication from abroad by J.C. Cuff, of Singapore, and W. Judd, of Penang.) Dated February 3. 6d. This invention is for the purpose of supplying a simple motor for those purposes which require a reciprocating movement, without employing any crank or rotary motion to produce it.

On 1 January 1891 Cuff wrote a letter about his 1881 patent to the Electrical Journal, and it was published in the issue of 6 February 1891.

In 1895 he was responsible for all the electrical arrangements in the Eastern Extension Company’s new offices at Raffles Quay in Singapore.

In 1901 he filed this patent application:

Automatic Regulators For Heating Gas Burners—25,565. A.B. Buff, 40, Chancery Lane, London. Communicated by John Clement Cuff, Singapore.

Note: Patents “communicated” by overseas residents were commonly filed by the inventor’s agent in Britain.

In Singapore, Cuff was an active member of the Debating Society and was often mentioned in newspaper reports of the debates. Here is just one example.

On 18 August 1906 Cuff’s land and houses in Singapore were advertised for sale at auction, and he retired in November of that year. A report in the Singapore Free Press issue of 21 November provides these details:

On Saturday afternoon last Mr. J.C. Cuff, late Superintendent of the Workshop and Testing Departments of the Eastern Extension A and C Telegraph Co., Ltd., was presented at his residence, Avondale, Serangong Road, by the workmen serving under him, with an address, which was enclosed in a polish teak box and a 400 day clock, as a mark of their esteem. Mr Cuff has served almost continuously from November 1873 in the Far East and has, during that period, by his kindness and willingness at all times to assist, endeared himself to the numerous employes who have served under him and it was with pangs of the greatest distress that they view his impending departure, owing to his retirement from Active Service in the Company. Unfortunately the rain precluded a group photograph being taken of the occasion but hopes are entertained that when the weather clears up sufficiently, as many of the signatories to the address as possible, will assemble and be photographed together.

As a further indication of the regard in which Cuff was held in Singapore, at a meeting of the Municipal Commissioners of Singapore on November 30th, Cuff Road was one of a group of new street names officially approved for side-roads off Serangoon Road in the district know as Little India. This note appears in the book, "Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics" by Victor R Savage and Brenda Yeoh (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013):

Cuff Road
This road was named after J.C. Cuff, an electrician with Eastern Extension Telegraph Company. Cuff was supposed to be a very able lecturer on scientific subjects. He lived here and had a studio erected here in 1894. The street name was officially approved in 1906.
SOURCE: MPMCOM, 30 Nov 1906; Siddique and Puru Shotam, 1982:38

A 1915 “To Let” advertisement gives the address of Cuff’s former house, “Avondale”, as 8 Cuff Road.

Following his retirement, Cuff and his family moved to New Zealand. A note in the Singapore Free Press issue of 4 March 1907 reads, “Mr and Mrs J. Clement Cuff desire that their old Singapoer friends should be informed that their new address is ‘Emerald Hill, Epsom, Auckland, N.Z.’”

In 1907 Cuff became a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in November 1909 he read a paper on "The Cam-lever Balance" at the Auckland Institute, one of the constituents of the Royal Society.

John Clement Cuff died at Epsom, Auckland, on 19 October 1920, survived by his wife Annie Cuff and leaving an estate valued at £1251. His obituary in the Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XLI, 27 October 1920, reproduced here by kind permission of the National Library of New Zealand, gives some further details of his life and career:

A resident of Auckland, who has carried out much scientific research and invention, Mr John Clement Cuff, died this week. Mr Cuff, who was born at Bristol in 1851, was educated at Bristol Grammar School, on leaving which he became a pupil of the late Lord Kelvin at the Glasgow University. Ultimately he became Lord Kelvin’s assistant in scientific research, and their joint efforts produced the instrument that made submarine telegraphy possible as a commercial proposition.

John Clement Cuff's entry at Find A Grave.

Several letters to Cuff on technical topics, dated between 1885 and 1890, were recently discovered, and they give an interesting insight into the challenges of running a far-flung cable network in the late 19th century. The text of each of the letters is reproduced below. Sadly, we do not have Cuff’s replies.

—Bill Burns

Letters to J. Clement Cuff at Singapore
1885-1890


Telegraph House
Penang
July 8th 1885

My dear Cuff

When you have a few spare moments will you kindly send me your receipe for Shellac Varnish used on the Mills – For the last 2 and half years I’ve kept the Mills etc here in order and have used either Shellac obtained from you dissolved in Spirts of Wine or Paraffin Wax – both these answer very well indeed but I cant produce such a clear shiny surface as you got on the Mill you returned to us a short time ago – I am much struck with it & should like to do the rest of the Mills in the same way – Is it applied by a brush or dipped? We cannot obtain good shellac in Penang either at Chemists or elsewhere The best only partially dissolves in the same Spirits of Wine that the Singapore Shellac entirely dissolves in – It is of a much darker color & no doubt very impure –

Palmer passed here in the Achilles OK –

Hoping I’m not troubling you too much I am

Yours Sincerely

Geo. E. Cole
[In 1892 Cole was clerk in charge of the EEAC offices in Penang]

 



THE EASTERN EXTENSION AUSTRALASIA & CHINA TELEGRAPH
COMPANY LIMITED.

Penang, July 26th 1886

No.........

Dear Mr Cuff

Yours of July 16 to hand. My message asking if you had ten miles of line wire was of no importance. I thought you had a large stock on hand sent out for the Bangkok line, and I could have taken that quantity from you.

I wrote you the other day for 30 zinc gratings and 30 copper plates. I find these quantities will not be sufficient for twelve months, will you kindly therefor have 50 zincs and 50 coppers sent to this station.

With Kind regards
Yours faithfully

D.W. Gott
[In 1892 Gott was Superintendent at Penang]

 



(Ack 21.4. 1887)

Krian [now Kerian]
Perak [in Malaysia]
Via Penang
15 Apl. 87

My dear Cuff

I send you the enclosed which may interest you altho I expect you already know all about it. I took it out of one of my photo papers as I know you are interested in new forms of batteries.

I have been promised a move in this service so have given up all idea of the new appointment (Supt of Telegraphs &c) in Penang & Prov Wellesley as I have better prospects here but I have no doubt my applying for the above appointment got me the promised move.

Everyone in this service is looking forward to the day when this helpless old lunatic of a Resident (Sir H. Low) will retire. It is supposed he cannot last much longer. Everything is at present in a state of muddle. It was very different while Swettenham was acting Resident.

Where would be the best place to send for a small incandescent lamp for four bichromate cells & what should I order. It could come out by parcel post. I suppose you have none to dispose of?

Dr. Dennys’ eldest son is now in this service in this district land office & is supposed to be under my special care(!). He is quite a youngster.

Yours sincerely
F. Duberly
[In 1878 Duberly was elected Associate Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers]

Dr N.B. Dennys was a friend of J.C. Cuff and a prominent member of Straits society until his death in 1900.

 


 

(Ack 13.5.87.
with a copy of page 69 of wksp. scribbling book.)

Penang
3rd May 87

My Dear Cuff.

We have a circuit of 5 Lamps 10 Candlepower each (Edison lamp, registered for 35 Volts) joined up here with the following solution. For the Inner Cells (porous pot) 25 of them. 20 lbs nitrate of soda in 48 pints of water and 25½ pints acid. All properly mixed according to printed instruction also 12 lbs of chromic acid well dissolved in the solution.

For the outer Jars 8½ pints of Sulphuric Acid in 145 pints of water. The Zincs are most carefully amalgamated before moving and after the first and second runs. The 5 Lamps are lighted the first night 4 the second and then for the rest of the run as many as will give a good light say 3 till midnight and then after that till morning. The run each night is from 5.50p to 6.20a say 12½ hours. The solution lasts strong enough for 6 days but the last night only one lamp can be in circuit with any affect.

Well the Cells are dismantled every morning and put to drain in 25 spare jars where they remain till required to light up in the evening. At the end of a week great holes appear in the Zincs and the edges get eaten away and the present rate I reckon that a Zinc would not run more than 14 days. As this is a ridiculously short life for a Zinc I’m afraid something must be radically wrong. The greatest care is taken with them and a new lot I have just put up I had painted with red paint in this fashion as I think the acid eats the top more than the lower surface.

The Zinc is only amalgamated up to the bottom line of red paint. I will let you know how this acts as they go on working. Any of your valuable suggestions would be most gratefully received. I may add the carbons are not affected in the least.

Kindest regards and your earliest consideration

Yours v. Truly
J.C.C. Hendry

Madras says they got their Zincs to last about 3 months which I should say is a fair life.

[Hendry was at the Macao, China, offices of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company in 1900, and Superintendent of the EEAC station at Labuan, Borneo in 1904]

 



THE EASTERN EXTENSION AUSTRALASIA & CHINA TELEGRAPH
COMPANY, LIMITED.
Penang, 11 May 1888

No. ____

My Dear Cuff

How are you? The last short circuit piece you sent is a beauty. We have just put an instrument at the end of our artificial line to record duplex sending sigs. Our round mouse mills are not reliable as the instrument stands in a bad position as regards draughts &c. I find the square mills so much better. Altho’ we had a good round mill when I was at the point. Please see if you can arrange an exchange. We are working duplex very well indeed. Our balance varies slightly with the temperature but not enough to interfere with signals.

Our electric light is going well. We had to remove it from our battery room, & testing room, as we were having great trouble with our tray cells & testing insts. The new zincs you sent appear to be No 1. Penang generally has greatly improved since you were here in Rentzsch’s time I enclose specimens of our Dx Sigs.

With kindest regards,
Yours Sincerely
R. Hodsoll

[In 1882 R. Hodsoll was listed as an operator at Penang, and in 1894 F.J. Rentzsch was superintendent, Eastern Extension, A. & C. Telegraph Co., Foochow]

PN Sending Sigs DX
PN Recg Sigs DX

 


 

The letters above are all discussions of technical aspects of the cable business from Cuff’s associates at other offices of the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company. But his reputation had obviously spread beyond the cable company—and not only in electrical matters, as this final letter shows:

(Recd. 27th May ’90)

Mansion House, Farquhar St, Penang.
20th May 1890

(Ansd. 5th June 1890)

Mr Clement Cuff Singapore

Dear Brother in our Lord,

I have a Cyclostyle which for a very long time I have been unable to use owing to defective inking roller.

The original one failed. A second I was charged 7/6 for & it is a failure. A third one a Malay printer made is also a failure. But Bro. Ashdown tells me that you prepare a composition suited to the climate which works successfully. As it would be of very great value to me to be able to work my machine again could you kindly help me in the matter of a roller?

The plate also has become uneven. I fancy it is made of ordinary zinc & unless there is some sort of padding underneath might be easily replaced.

But in my difficulties it has occurred to me from all I have heard that you might perhaps repair & reinstate so as to make my instrument again efficient.

I have written rather than in the first instance presuming to send it you. If you would like me to do so I will send it to you for needful repair. Our Bro. J.W. Moore is to get a Cyclostyle probably in a few days. I fear that his will be a failure too in regard to the inking roller.

Please excuse my troubling you. I heard that Mrs Cuff was very poorly some time ago. Is she better? The Lord orders for us our trials that by his grace we may be led in triumph in Christ.

Gen. 48 has been helpful this week. With Christian Salutations to Mrs Cuff & yourself in which Mrs Macdonald joins.

Believe me yours
    in our Lord Jesus

Wm. Macdonald
[Macdonald appears to have been a missionary in Penang for many years]

The Cyclostyle stencil duplicator (mimeograph machine) was invented in 1881, and quickly spread throughout the British Empire, wherever cheap and simple copies were needed.

The letter above is dated May 1890 and mentions that the writer “heard that Mrs Cuff was very poorly some time ago.” Macdonald was referring to John Cuff’s first wife, whose name is presently unknown.

At age 39, John Cuff was married to Ellen Jane McFarlane in August 1891; on the marriage certificate Cuff is described as "widower." They had one child (Mabel Annie Cuff, born 12 September 1893). Cuff filed a divorce petition against Ellen Jane in January 1896, and the decree absolute was granted in February 1897.

Another version of Cuff’s 1920 obituary notes that he was “survived by his widow, two sons, and one daughter,” so we know that he remarried after the 1897 divorce. His third wife was Annie Koenitz, the daughter of Andrew Light Koenitz.

In 1889 John Cuff and Andrew Koenitz are recorded as working together on the renovation of the Bethesda Meeting Hall at Singapore [“One hundred years of Singapore” 1921]. A currently defunct genealogy site has this note: “Andrew Light Koenitz (1848-1907) married Alice Judith [Peterson]. His issue Annie Koenitz married John Clement Cuff.

John and Annie Cuff’s son Kelvin was born around 1901 (he is described as aged 21 in a 1922 newspaper story), and passenger records show that on 27 April 1901 “Mr and Mrs Clement Cuff and child” left Singapore on the N.Y.K steamship Sanuki Maru, destination unknown. Mr and Mrs Cuff returned on 7 January 1902 via Tamba Maru from Antwerp.

In 1924 Kelvin Cuff married Gwendolyne Vera Smith at Sydney, Australia, and they had a daughter, Patricia Cuff.

“Kelvin” is certainly an appropriate name for the son of a cable engineer, especially as John Cuff had been an assistant to William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) in the late 1860s/early 1870s (see obituary above). Kelvin Cuff appears in a number of newspaper stories in New Zealand between 1922 and 1945; like his father, he was evidently an engineer and inventor.

Last revised: 28 February, 2017

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