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

George West - 1883 Cable Repairs

Introduction: Carolynn Skinner shares this letter from her great grandfather, George West. Giving many technical details and explanations of the work being carried out, it was written to his brother Charley in England, an “ex-operator” two years older than George. It gives an interesting view of life and work on board a cable repair ship.

The 16-page handwritten letter, dated 4 July 1883 and transcribed below, describes how in late May of that year George West mounted an expedition using the cable repair steamer Retriever (1) to find a fault off Cape Blanco, Peru, in a section of cable between the Santa Elena and Paita stations.

This was part of the 3,170 nautical mile cable network belonging to the Central & South American Telegraph Company, which ran down the west coast of South America from Mexico to Peru. On completion, this linked at Lima with the cable of the West Coast of America Telegraph Company.

The cable for the C & SA company was made and laid by the India Rubber Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company of London (abbreviated by West to the “IR and GP and T Co”), and had been completed only a few months before, in August 1882.

Although the Central & South American Telegraph Company owned and operated the cable it had no repair facilities of its own; instead, the company had an agreement with the West Coast company to share the use of the Retriever. This agreement remained in effect until 1890. In 1891 the Central & South American company bought its own cableship, CS Relay.

The cable off Cape Blanco was in a regular state of disrepair; most years, in April or May, a fault would develop and the cable had to be hauled up and repaired. It was later found that strong undersea currents just off the coast were the cause of the problems. Further details may be found in the additional material at the end of the page.

Biographical note: Charles and his younger brother George were born in Coventry to Charles West, a baker and his wife Elizabeth; Charles in 1845 and George in 1847.

By the age of 15 Charles had moved to lodgings at Fenny Stratford in Buckinghamshire, where he was an “Electric Telegraph Clerk” [1861 England Census]. In the letter below George refers to his brother as an “ex-operator”; by 1871 Charles had given up telegraphy to become a baker [1871 English Census], perhaps taking over his father's business. He remained in this trade for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, George also took up telegraphy; at age 14, still living at home, he was a “Telegraph Messenger” [1861 England Census]. No further details of his career are known, although by 1883, when he wrote the letter, he was obviously a senior field engineer with the cable company. It's believed that he died in 1887 in the Gold Coast, West Africa [Carolynn Skinner and the Journal of the Society of Telegraph-Engineers and Electricians]

--Bill Burns

Panama
    July 4th 83

Dear Charley

When I last wrote to you I believe I was giving you some details of the cable ship Retriever but how far I had got I do not now remember. I had but short notice to get away down South (only an hour) and only returned yesterday just in time for the glorious fourth! At least that is what my American friends call it. Finding there is a mail leaving Colon on the sixth I embrace the opportunity of sending you a few more cable details, as no doubt that will interest you as an ex operator more than any other subject. At the same time I send you a local paper with a brief notice of my last repair, altho’ they have not got the correct hang of the thing. These cables were made and laid by the IR and GP and T Co of Silvertown London. Three ships were employed viz the Dacia, International and the Silvertown; the last one is a very large vessel and was originally called the Hooper. I believe the manufacturers turned out as much as 174 nautical miles during a single week. They also made all the insts’s with the exception of the Thomson’s Recorders, which were made by White of Glasgow.

Here are some particulars of the cables. Beginning with the “Deep Sea”. The conductor weights 107 lbs per “Knot” and is as usual a strand of seven copper wires 96 per cent pure metal. This is covered with two coatings of Gutta Percha, thus forming the “core” which is then served over with a double serving of just yarn, and sheathed with 15 No 13 homo galvanised iron wires. Finally it is coated with two servings of canvass tape saturated with Clark’s compound to preserve it from the action of the sea water, laid on in opposite directions. The “Intermediate” is of the same core but sheathed with 12 No 6 BWG best best galvanized iron wires, the whole taped over with compound after the style of the “deep sea” type. The “Shore end” is composed of untaped “Intermediate” with more jute serving and a second sheathing of 14 No 1 BWG best best galv iron wires. The breaking strain of the deep sea is 5½ tons, its weight 1.6 tons per nm. Intermediate weighs 4.31 and the shore end 14.64 tons per nautical mile.

Deep Sea

Intermediate

Shore End

Cable illustrations from
The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review
15 December 1881

By specification the insulation resistance of these cables was to be not less than 225 megohms per knot, reduced to 75° F (the standard temperature) and that after they had been submerged thirty days. The insulation resistance is now considerably over seven hundred megohms per knot at the standard temperature, and 9778 megohms per knot at the mean temperature of the sea bottom. The resistance per nautical mile of the copper conductor is 11.4 ohms at the standard temperature and averages 10.65 ohms at mean sea temperature. The range of temperature of the sea bottom is from 40° to 44° F as shown by the tests, while the surface temperature ranges from 76° to 85° F. The bottom temp as shown by the tests of course represents the mean of the whole section at its various depths.

While engaged on the late repairs off Cape Blanco in lat. 4° 21’ S long. 81° 36’ W I took a temperature sounding and found 40° F at 400 fms, probably the temperature nowhere exceeds 40° at depths exceeding 400 fms. I have a number of samples of the bottoms from depths of from 300 to 1100 fathoms, which will no doubt disclose something curious and interesting under the microscope.



Overview of the places mentioned in the letter. The anchor
near Talara marks the position of the cable grappling ground.

View a larger map

I will now give you a brief account of the operations just completed off Cape Blanco [Peru]. I first suspected that something had gone wrong on the morning of Sunday the 20th of May when Santa Elena reported inattention on the part of stations South. As the line is not open throughout the day on Sundays, I got no further news until 6.30pm and then my suspicion of a break was confirmed. The Colombia mail steamer was leaving for the South and in an hour I was under weigh, the cable ship Retriever which had arrived in Callao bay on the same day, received orders to proceed North at once and wait for me at Paita. The length of the broken section was 230.37 nautical miles, and its conductor resistance 2461 British Association Units. Its inductive capacity equals .308 microfarads per nautical mile.

The Colombia arrived at Guayaquil [Ecuador] on the 24 May, and a telegram was received stating that the conductor resistance was reduced to a mean total of 2408.8 units; this of course included the resistance of the fault, the latter being large. I replied asking manager at S. Elena to put on strong positive current to seal up fault if possible. On the 25th received a reply stating attempts to seal fault ineffectual, and capacity test thus unobtainable. On the 26th the Colombia arrived in Paita Bay, where I had the satisfaction of seeing the Retriever laying at anchor, and just as soon as the Colombia’s mud hook was down, a boat from the cable ship was alongside, after going ashore to ascertain latest particulars we set sail in the same boat for the hut at Tienna Colorada to get a final test before leaving for the scene of the repairs.

Powerful currents were put on at the hut and the resistance of the fault reduced to a minimum, the result of the subsequent test showed a total break at a distance of 50.7 [?] nautical miles from there. We then hastened back to the ship and upon laying this distance off on the chart found the position off Cape Blanco SW by W ten miles. Now all loafers were unceremoniously hustled overboard, and the bum-boat people who were driving hard bargains hurriedly with the crew. The steam winch rattled away with the anchor, and before it reached the surface we were under weigh, signalling to shore to keep a bright light out, and dipping our flag to the Colombia as we passed her, we headed straight for Cape Blanco.

In September of last year, this section was broken in the same locality by an earthquake. A man who was wants more earthquakes than we get here is a hog. During the operation on that occasion, the drum rope carried away and with it several miles of cable, owing to want of time, no efforts were made to recover it, but it was not our good fortune to drop across it on this occasion, nor was there time to grapple for it, our first duty being of course to get the main cable to work again, that being done there was the fear of again damaging it, in grappling for the lost cable, and so it had to be abandoned until another opportunity.

At 5.50pm we arrived on the grappling ground, just in time to get good cross bearings. Cape Blanco NE¾E and Talera [Talara] Point SE by E¾E. The land was indistinct owing to the distance, nevertheless there were some hills which made good “marks”. The coast hereabout is very rough and fringed with ugly broken rocks over which the waves dash with great force, sending up clouds of white spray, which can be seen for miles away. One thing in favor of our expedition at once became evident, namely the absence of anything like the current which we had had to contend with when repairing the San Juan del Sur Nicaraguan section in April last, amounting to 4½ knots an hour, here it certainly does not amount to one knot, which was a comfort, as it is so dangerous for the boats, especially when there is any sea on. The currents can never be depended upon as to strength or direction, sometimes they set inshore, at others offshore. On one occasion coming up from Callao, we were carried 40 miles to the westward in one day, the weather was overcast at the time and we go no observations, therefore we did not discover it until that much to the westward, dead reckoning of course would not give it, and there was no land in sight.

CS Retriever (1)

Well to continue, as it was now getting dark, we could do no more than push down a “mark” buoy and wait for daylight, Soundings gave the depth of water 860 fathoms (ie 1720 yards or close upon a mile). We then lowered away 1000 fathoms of buoy rope with a mushroom anchor, shackling it on to a large buoy carrying a flag. The ship was then made fast to the buoy for the night. Rain now began to fall, a cold wind sprang up, and the darkness could be felt. Our “riding” lights too were showing rather feebly, the oil not being good, under these circumstances I went to my cabin feeling rather uneasy about collisions as we were lying right in the track of the mail steamer Islay which was to leave Payta that evening for Panama. The watchman had particular instructions to keep a bright lookout, but nothing was seen of the mail. The Captn of the Islay afterwards told me that they purposely gave us a wide berth hauling off more to the westward than usual.

The next morning May 27 at 5.30 we were able to make out the following bearings. Cape Blanco N by E¼E Mount Brea SE by E½E. The vessels head being NW, our azimuth showed compass deviation 8° W. This latter is an item requiring more than ordinary care aboard a cable ship, as there are so many elements of disturbance, not met with in other ships, and it is therefore checked as often as possible. At 5.50 the whale boat was lowered and the moorings cast off – in ten minutes the boat was again hoisted - and we were under weigh to the SW ¾ S for two miles. When at cable work the ship displays a black canvass glove between two black diamonds on the port fore yardarm by day, and a white light between two red ones at night, without the usual side lights . This is a signal to warn other ships to keep clear of us as we cannot manoeuvre cable ship under these circumstances.

Having run the distance, commenced lowering away the grapnel (weighing 1½ cwts), and took a sounding which showed a depth of 950 fathoms (6 ft as you are aware = 1 fathom) and at 7.45am we started on the first drag, the engines going dead slow. Attached to the grapnel were 1040 fathoms of rope and chain. Now we keep our eyes on the dynamometer to get the first intimation of a rising strain upon the grapnel rope, taking soundings from time to time in order to regulate the amount of drum rope to the depth and taking frequent cross bearings to enable us to prick off the ship’s position and thus obviate any loss of time from going too far beyond the line of cable. This continued until 2.36pm when the ship appeared to be making no “way”. Bits of wood were now thrown overboard to ascertain if we were really “brought up” we then hove up the grapnel but without having hooked anything.

At 4.30pm the mark buoy bore E by N. Having now passed over the line of cable twice, without any success, we set on a little more to the northward to cross it in shallower water and at 5pm got soundings in 400 fathoms, but very shortly afterwards got 1163 fathoms, which was what we did not expect. We continued dragging, crossing the cable at right angles as nearly as possible, until 11.15pm. Wind and sea had gone down somewhat. The engines were stopped and we rode to the grapnel for the rest of the night. The object of going dead slow while dredging in of course not to damage the cable when hooked, or strain any of the gear. The constant sounding is necessary because were the length of grapnel rope too great, the ship’s way would be stopped, she would in fact be brought up, but it on the other hand, the length were too small, the grapnel would not reach the bottom. 


The anchor marks the position of the cable grappling ground at latitude 4° 21’ S, longitude 81° 36’ W. From the contour of the seabed it can be seen why George West found abrupt changes in the depth of the ocean, from 400 to 1163 fathoms. The line of the cable, running roughly parallel to the coast, would have been more or less along the edge of the continental shelf.

View a larger map

When the work is out of sight of land, the correct position is obtained by observations with the sextant and two or more Mark buoys are put down as required. All this is interesting enough when success comes quickly, but when the time slips away without any result spite of anxious vigilance and care in securing accurate work, disappointment is no name for what one feels.

On the 28th we resumed work at 5.30am, so you see we make short nights and long days at this work. We continued grappling ineffectually until 4.45pm when the dynamometer showed the strain to be steadily rising - the ship’s way was stopped, we therefore began to pick up and at 6.5pm had the satisfaction of seeing the bight of the cable up to the bow sheaves. The boatswain and the cable foreman were now lowered over the bows to “stopper” the cable, that is to make each side of the bight fast to a chain, these chains are then stoppered on deck, the one to a hawser, and the other to the drum rope. The cable prevents the ship from rising on the waves as she otherwise would, so that the men employed get a drenching with every wave, and sometimes get knocked about, so that they have altogether a rough time of it, to say nothing of the very tiring position in which they have to do their work. The cable is now cut by a machine called a torpedo - the grapnel having first been unshackled and brought aboard - the picking up gear started and thus the end made fast to the drum rope is brought aboard and carried to the testing room. The end brought in turned out to be the Santa Elena or North end. After calling SE for a few minutes I obtained the operator’s attention, but had great difficulty in reading what he had to say, as there was a big sea and strong southerly wind and the vessel was rolling heavily. I therefore sent a telegram to headquarters informing them of our safety and partial success.

This end was then sealed and lowered into the water and the other end passed onto the picking up drum then we commenced heaving it in toward the break. The broken end came aboard at 10.40pm at a distance of 1.423 nautical miles from the spot where it was hooked, the whole of it covered with mud after the first 100 fathoms, giving evidence of having been buried, thus explaining why we had crossed it so many times without hooking it. While riding to the cable, great care is necessary to prevent it chafing or kinking, so that it was quite a relief when it was buoyed as all hands are naturally anxious for speedy and successful repair.

On May 29th work began at 5am, and as soon as it was daylight we started full speed for new position to begin dragging for the south end Cape Blanco to bear NE¼N, S Talera Point E¼S, and at 7am we were on the spot and sounded 800 fathoms. Now we drag to the NE¾N. Nothing happened until 8pm when we were again successful, the southern portion being brought to the surface 2½ miles from the buoyed North end. Upon cutting it and getting the ends into the testing room found both sided faulty, and as we were somewhat distant from the line of cable as per chart we had hoped that it was a part of the lost cable already mentioned. One side was therefore buoyed to be picked up again after main cable thro. No balance could be obtained on the other side (S) and it being within a few minutes of midnight, further operations were postponed until morning, everyone being quite worn out.

AT 5.30am on the 30th by the use of powerful negative current the resistance of the fault was broken down and a balance obtained showing a distance of nearly 6 miles, afterwards reduced to 3 miles. Upon pickup up the end came aboard at 2.93 miles in 820 fathoms and with every appearance of having been deeply embedded in the mud. Grappling was then recommenced a little more to the southward. Nothing happening until 10.20pm when the grapnel was got up with a heavy strain and found to be broken, two prongs were gone altogether and a third partially broken through it having evidently hooked into some rocks. The strain was so great that the bow sheaves were strained and started. It being now very late and dark we steamed 2 miles to the WSW to drift inwards across the cable during the night. Retired at midnight.

At 6.10am on the 31st May it was observed that the ship would not steer, and the dynamometer showed a rising strain. The engines were stopped and once more pickup up was resumed. At 6.20 sounded, no bottom at 920 fathoms. At 9.45am cable once more up to bow sheaves. Cape Blanco then bearing NE by N Parina Point SE½S 12 miles distant. Upon cutting and bringing the ends into testing room it became apparent that we had again grappled the part buoyed on 29th at 11.5pm. The end of the portion toward the buoy was accordingly sealed and dropped overboard, and upon breaking down the resistance by powerful negative currents as before, a balance was obtained with 58 units, it was determined to pick this up out of the way, especially as there was a chance of its being the main cable after all, with a second fault or break in it, and so it turned out, but the position was nearly two miles to the westward of the line as laid down upon the chart.

The balance remained constant until 3pm when it suddenly went up to 992, showing either that the fault had passed in or closed up. 20 minutes later the balance dropped to 552 then 580 and ten minutes later still damaged cable came in. The machinery was stopped and the damaged part cut out, consisting of 30 or 40 fathoms with the sheathing torn away and the gutta percha crushed. Upon testing the remainder the length was found equal to the distance from the ship to Paita. The speaking instruments were then joined up and after calling PT a few seconds the operator at that station responded. Thus at last we had secured perfect cable to shore both sides!! Nothing now remained to be done but to splice a length of perfect cable on and run it to the buoy to which the North end was attached 8 miles N by E½E of our present position. To make certain however that the insulation between ship and shore was really perfect Paita was ordered to insulate his end for twenty minutes and an insulation test was then taken from aboard, with most satisfactory results.

The joint was then commenced and as soon as the GP was cool enough, the jute servings were replaced, and the sheathing wires spliced, meanwhile signals were exchanged every ten minutes with Paita. By the time all this was completed it had become too late and was too dark to run the cable, therefore we had to nurse it all night and the strictest watch was kept on it as any accident would undo all our work. Paita was ordered to exchange signals throughout the night every ten minutes so that we might have prompt knowledge of the slightest defect in the insulation.

At length the long watch night was ended, and at 5.30am June 1st preparations were made to commence the running. Having spoken to Paita and found all in order, he was ordered to free the end until 8 o’clock, by which time we expected to make the buoy. The testing instruments being joined up for insulation, a current from 72 cells was put to cable and at 6am full sped ahead. Everything went well until 7.55am when there was an alarm from below and immediately after the spot of light passed off the scale, showing that the insulation had gone too. At the same moment the engines were rung full speed astern, the machinery stopped and the brakes applied to the drum. A kink had unfortunately passed up from the tanks and owing to the noise the driver did not hear the alarm in time to prevent it being drawn up, thus damaging the insulation. There was nothing for it but to cut out the kink and make another joint and splice. How annoying with the other buoy in sight!!! Here we were again obliged to hang on to the cable with the wind freshening and a sea getting up.

Owing to this unfortunate accident we did not reach the buoy until 1pm. When we had again the North end aboard, a test was taken and all being in order S. Elena and Paita were instructed to call each other every 15 minutes until they got thro, and the final splice was commenced at 2.15pm. The joint was cooled by 5pm and the splicing and “serving” of the sheathing completed by 7pm. The bight was carefully lowered into the sea, the stoppers cut with an axe, the men threw up their hats and gave three lusty cheers, and our work was successfully done!

[Editor's note: See this article on how cable joints were made]

There were still the buoys, mushrooms, and the short length of cable to pick up. These things could very well afford to wait until morning, so we addressed ourselves to laying in a stock of sleep. The ship was therefore kept “dodging” until morning.

Some smart work was done next day with the boats; for instance we came alongside a buoy, lowered a boat and had both aboard again in ten minutes. Arriving in Paita in the evening we learnt that the signals were excellent, and the enclosed congratulatory telegrams were received from the Genl. Manager and others, affording us great satisfaction so to learn that all our labors had been appreciated. During these operations we were unfortunate in losing 7 sounding weights, and 1000 fathoms of sounding wire belonging to the steam sounding machine.

June 2nd

PA [Panama] to West, PT [Paita]

Congratulate you on repairs began to think you had turned turtle.

Murphy.

Recd. @ 8.43am 2/6/83

C.J. Murphy was Traffic Manager at Panama, having arrived at Panama from England in early June 1882. See report of 15 July in The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review.

June 2nd

To West, PT [Paita]

Hearty congratulations.

Horan.

Recd.@ 8.43am 2/6/83

H.F. Horan had arrived at Panama from England in early June 1882 to work for the Central and South American Telegraph Company. See report of 15 July in The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review.

We next sailed for Panama Bay where we picked up 16 nautical miles of cable near the Pearl Islands and then returned to Callao. While at sea all the pieces of cable were spliced up and when tested and found perfect turned over into the main tank ready for the next emergency. The tank was then filled with enough water to reach the top flake, a final record test taken and the end sealed. We were lucky in getting our work finished when we did as on the way down we met with a gale of wind and a tremendous sea which made everything shiver and locomotion a painful gymnastic exercise.

While we were lying in Panama Bay the crew got some raw spirit from some of the native traders and the majority of them got raging drunk, and when Captn. Morton, Dr. Nelson and I went aboard, such a scene took place that almost amounted to mutiny. I hope never to see anything like it again. Knives were freely drawn and one powerful fellow had an axe with which he tried to cut down one of his messmates, but he was promptly knocked down and secured. Several of them had to be put in irons and one of these was in such a state of frenzy that he actually tried to free himself of the irons with his teeth!!!  When we sailed that night there were threats and mutterings and the outlook was not pleasant. I should not have been surprised at another outbreak, but all passed of quietly after this when we got under way and they began to go about their usual duties almost mechanically. It was however two days before it all blew over. The first thing done was to search the forecastle and take charge of all grog. Hitherto they had each received a certain allowance of spirits, but upon my urgent recommendation this custom was abolished and tea or coffee substituted. Sailors are more like wild beasts than other class of men when intoxicated.

I forgot to say that the test after completion proved present length of the cable 231.37 knots.

I find I must cut this short but will give you the contn. In my next. I have copied the sheets so that I may know where to take up the thread of the story. I am in want of that prismatic compass when you go to London. I wish you would be good enough to take it to Elliott's in the Strand and get it looked to and then send it to me here by parcel express. I also want a sextant but you would not be able to choose one for me.

Please remember me kindly to St. P and say that I will write him directly. Hope to have a little time now to get straightened up. What sort of zm* have you got expect pretty rough. Had a new experience returning from the South aboard the Islay, she was struck by lightning while entering the bay of Panama thought the end of all things at hand.  Papers to hand many thanks. Hear father rode to Oxford one day. Bravo. Hear business is still going from bad to worse with them – and it will until the kid involves them in ruin. I very much doubt if the old man gets fair play in money matters. I enclose you some cuttings which may be of use to the Herald. Hoping all are well.

Yours affectly,
    George

*Editor's note: ZM was British telegrapher's code for “weather report”.


Additional reading:

General history of the Central & South American Telegraph Company

The establishment of the C & SA system, 1881-1882

Completion of the system, 1882

The Panama earthquake of 1882, which disrupted the cable

Notes on cable problems off Cape Blanco in 1893 and 1895

All America Cables took over the C & SA Company in 1920

Last revised: 4 January, 2010

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