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

Mediterranean Cables 1854-1857

In 1854 John Watkins Brett projected the Société du Télégraphe Électrique Méditerranéen, known better as the “The Mediterranean Electric Telegraph”, incorporated under French law, simultaneously in Paris; Turin, capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia; and London, England; to connect France, Corsica, Sardinia and the major French colony of Algeria by underwater cables. It had a capital of £300,000 on which 4% was guaranteed by France on £180,000 and 5% by Sardinia on £120,000 for fifty years.

Share certificate for the
Mediterranean Electric Telegraph,
signed by John W Brett

The connection was a six-core cable from Spezia to Corsica (75 miles), land lines across Corsica (128 miles), from there to Sardinia by cable (10 miles), and across that island (200 miles). There was to be a 125 mile deep-water cable from Sardinia to Secali in Africa. An underground circuit was to lead west to Algiers for French traffic and another east to Alexandria in Egypt for British messages to India. It intended to imitate the Submarine company, the only other foreign telegraphic concession granted by the French, but it did not repeat that success. The Société’s Africa cable failed over several attempts and it abandoned its landing rights to the French Government in 1856.

The Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company was then promoted by John Watkins Brett in London to serve British interests in the extreme south and east of Europe during 1857 connecting Sardinia, where the original concession terminated, with Malta and Corfu. The latter island was then a British possession, part of its protectorate of the Ionian Islands off the Greek coast. It received a guarantee of interest for successfully completing and working the cables from the British Government. When the original Mediterranean concession was surrendered, the Extension company added a 70 mile cable from Malta to Sicily, hence to mainland Italy and the state circuits in Europe, in 1859.

--Steven Roberts


To read Steve Roberts' story of the Mediterranean Electric Telegraph in context with other British telegraph companies of the time, see his Distant Writing website.

1854 Mediterranean Cable: Spezia - Corsica - Sardinia

Mediterranean Telegraph Cable
Length 250 Miles Weight 1970 Tons
Manufacturers Kuper, Glass & Co. London

Cable sample courtesy of E.W. Henbery

Fig. 14. 1854 Spezia-Corsica cable
(from Taliaferro Preston Shaffner’s The Telegraph Manual (1859).
The diagram shows the armouring with an opposite lay to the cable sample above. However, the illustration below, from Handbuch der angewandten Elektricitätslehre (1861), shows the correct lay.

A second sample of the 1854 cable, marked:

Mediterranean Submarine Telegraph
Uniting Europe with Africa via Corsica and Sardinia
Length 250 Miles Weight 1970 Tons
H.V. Physick, Engineer
, London

Henry Vernon Physick was an inventor in many fields, active from the 1840s on. In 1852 he invented a fabric to protect the gutta-percha or india rubber insulation from the outer armouring in cables. In 1854 he invented different coloured resin coverings for insulation of cable cores, probably the first use of colour coding in electrical work.

This third sample of the 1854 cable is marked:

Mediterranean Telegraph Cable.
Length 250 Miles Weight 1970 Tons
Contractors Tupper & Carr London
Manufacturers Kuper & Co London

Kuper & Co. soon became Glass, Elliot & Co., and then The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co.

Steve Roberts notes that Charles William Tupper formed the "Galvanized Iron Company" at Birmingham in 1844 to work a patent for coating iron with zinc by hot-dipping. It didn't last long and he started "Tupper & Carr" a couple of years later with the same intent. Tupper went into wire-drawing and W F Cooke (of Cooke & Wheatstone) became an investor when he began to use galvanized iron wire overhead circuits in 1843. Tupper is one of the many unsung heroes of telegraphy; his firm made huge mileages of base galvanized iron wire stock for overhead lines and for the iron wire rope makers (and hence cable armour). Tuipper was a founding director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1856, along with G.B. Carr, J.W. Brett, Samuel Statham, and J.S. Walker.

In 1854 Charles Wheatstone performed tests on the Spezia-Corsica section of the cable, a length of 110 miles from the total of 250 miles manufactured. He reported the results in a paper presented to the Royal Institution, published as “An Account of some Experiments made with the Submarine Cable of the Mediterranean Electric Telegraph.” Charles Wheatstone, F.R.S. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, March 29, 1855.

The cable was 110 miles in length, and contained six copper wires, one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter, each separately insulated in a covering of gutta percha one-tenth of an inch in thickness. The whole was surrounded by twelve thick iron wires twisted spirally around it, forming a complete metallic envelope one-third of an inch in thickness. A section of the cable presented the six wires arranged in a circle of half an inch diameter, and one-fifth of an inch from the internal surface of the iron envelope.

The Illustrated London News gave this account of the laying of the 1854 cable in its issue of August 19 1854:


The laying down of the Submarine Telegraph from Spezzia to the island of Corsica - an event of world-wide importance - has been most satisfactorily accomplished.

Shipping the Mediterranean Cables (Piedmont -Corsica - Sardinia) on Board S.S. "Persian" at Morden Wharf, East Greeenwich, June, 1854

On the evening of the 20th ult.[July], at ten p.m., the Persian, with the telegraph cable, left Genoa, in company with the Sardinian steam frigate Constituzione, having on board his Royal Highness the Prince of Carignan, the Ministers of War and Public Works, the Ministers of France and England, &c., and arrived of Cape Bianco, on the eastern side of the Gulf of Spezzia, at four o-clock the following morning, where she was joined by the Sardinian Royal Navy steamers Malfatano and Tripoli, which had been previously dispatched from Genoa for the purpose of making preliminary arrangements. Aided by boats and crews from each of the two latter steamers, Mr. Brett and his assistants immediately commenced disembarking a part of the cable. which was to be attached to the station at a point of land called Santa Groce, on the right bank of the torrent Magra, which here divides the Tuscan and Piedmontese frontiers; but it was not until near ten a.m. that this tedious operation was completed, and telegraphic communication established between the vessel and the land. Unfortunately, the telegraphic line was not then finished farther than Chiavari in the direction of Spezzia from Genoa, and therefore it has been impossible to report progress immediately. The delay was caused by broken wires of the exterior covering, which, when they caught in the machinery used in laying out the cable got ravelled up like a thread forced into the eye of a needle which is too small for it; and at the same time it was discovered that the machinery was not sufficiently powerful to arrest the run of the cable the moment these defects were discovered, particularly in deep water, where the atmospheric pressure took so much more effect than seems to have been calculated for. It was about four p.m. on the 22nd that the most serious of these accidents occurred, when the injured part of the cable had passed some distance over the stern before it could be stopped. It was, therefore, necessary to haul in so much of the cable as would allow of the repair of the injury; and the difficulty of the operation may be appreciated from the fact of that being in 250 fathoms, and the weight of the cable is estimated at about 20 lb. and some ounces per fathom; there was, consequently, more than two tons of it hanging over the taffrail in dead weight. The distance from point to point. by actual measurement, is 65½  nautical miles = 76 miles English; and the quantity of cable paid out has been 93 English miles, the extra quantity being easily accounted for by unsteady steering, currents, and stoppages. The time passed was 104 hours from leaving Santa Croce, of which much less than half were occupied in laying down, the remainder having been taken up in repairs to the cable and alterations of the machinery.

Laying Down the Mediterranean Electric Telegraph Cable at Spezzia

On Friday, the 21st, after Prince Carignan and his suite, &c. had visited the Persian she commenced steaming, at ten a.m. accompanied by the Sardinian steamers Malfatano (Captain Boyl)and Tripoli (Captain Trovano) which were placed under the command of Captain the Marchese Ricci, Adjutant-General of the Sardinian Navy, who himself took a passage in the Persian. On the first day, the Persian was not under steam more than five hours, and anchored for the night at ten p.m.; the next (the 22nd), only five hours and a half; and brought to for repairs and alterations at four p.m., when about twenty three miles from the point of starting, and in 250 fathoms of water, where she rode safely moored by no other holding than the injured telegraph cable until 8.30 a.m. on the24th. On the 24th. twelve hours were employed in laying down; and again at night the vessel remained moored by the cable, when she must have been in very deep water, as the men of war found soundings in the immediate neighbourhood of 345 and 347 fathoms, with a yellow muddy bottom resembling the deposit carried down by the Arno. On the 25th, she was once more under way at 4.30. a.m., and continued the work of paying out, with frequent short interruptions for repairs, until 6.30 p m., making altogether thirty-six hours so employed. During the whole passage, the weather has been most propitious.  The greatest benefit gained here has been the certainty of its being practicable to lay down a cable in such depths - a fact which has met with great doubts until now; indeed, Mr. Brett was on this occasion recommended by very competent persons to carry his cable under the island of Gorgona, rather than in the direct line, as the water is more shallow there, and his advisers had serious misgivings of his success in a deep sea; but as he felt that if he failed here he should have little hope of success in his farther undertaking between Sardinia and Africa, where Admiral Smyth, in his work on the Mediterranean, gives 500 fathoms without finding bottom, he boldly decided on the risk, and has certainly most gallantly won.

The Mediterranean Electric Telegraph, of which the first submarine portion has thus happily been laid down, was originated by Mr. Brett in the beginning of 1853, for the purpose of joining Africa with Europe, with the intention of pushing eastward thence, either by land, or via Malta, so as to unite ultimately with the telegraphic system now being established in our Indian possessions. The advantages of forthwith connecting Malta with the Continent and England, by means of telegraph, are too evident to require attention being called to it; such communication, if taken from Cape Bon or Malta, would afford facilities for instantly transmitting orders to Sardinia and Tunis, for supplies, and thereby obviate the recurrence of such mismanagement as the garrison being run short of provisions, from want of consideration on the part of the King of Naples or the Commissariat. The present company was formed by Mr. Brett, in 30,000 shares of £10 each; and he obtained a concession from the French and Sardinian Governments for the purpose of laying a telegraph from Spezzia to Bona, via Corsica and Sardinia, for which the Sardinian Government guarantees 5 per cent for fifty years on 3,000,000 f., and the French Government 4 per cent on 4,500,000 f; but to induce the shareholders to come forward, Mr. Brett undertook the entire work at his own risk and peril on the above terms.

The great work was consummated by a gun being fired on board the Persian by an electric spark passing twice to Santa Croce and back, through the whole length of the cable on board and in the water that is to say, along 440 miles of wire, awakening the echoes of the Corsican hills with the tidings of their now being joined to the mainland by ties which it may be hoped will be found productive of the happiest results to all parties.

Taliaferro Preston Shaffner’s The Telegraph Manual (1859) gives these details of the cable:


Another very remarkable telegraphic feat is that of connecting Europe with Africa, for the consummation of which concessions were awarded by the French and Sardinian governments. The right was given to transmit intelligence in all languages. The concessions were to extend. for fifty years from 1853. The line runs from Spezzia to Corsica. The submarine cable connecting these two places has six conducting wires, as seen by fig. 14 [above].

The length of the cable is one hundred and ten miles, of which twenty miles was estimated for slack in the sea. I was present at the embarkation of the cable in 1854, and saw some of it manufactured by Messrs. Kuper & Co., at Greenwich, near London. It is similar in construction to the cable laid across the Irish channel from Donaghadee to Port Patrick. In the laying of this cable from Spezzia to Corsica the vessel encountered a very severe storm and for a while there were great apprehensions that the cable would be lost. Its great strength preserved it.

From the termination of the cable on the Island of Corsica there is a land line one hundred and twenty-eight miles in length, extending to the Straits of Bonifacio, where a short submarine line of seven miles runs to the Island of Sardinia, across which there is a line two hundred and three miles long, terminating at Cape Spartivento. The consummation of telegraphic connection between the Island of Sardinia with Africa seems to have been surrounded with very great difficulties. Two attempts were made, under the direction of Mr. John W. Brett, to make the connection, but both failed. The first was in September, 1855, with a cable represented by fig. 14. The second was in August 1856, with a cable containing a four strand copper cord for the conducting wire, surrounded with an armor of iron wires similar in construction to the cable laid across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In September, 1857, Messrs. Newall & Co. contracted to lay the cable at their own risk. It was manufactured by them and was composed of an organization as seen by figs. 15 and 16; the former being the deep-sea cable and the latter the shore ends.

The iron armor of the deep-sea cable was composed of eighteen iron wires, and that of the shore end twelve iron wires. The distance between Bona on the African coast to Cape Spartivento, Sardinia, was one hundred and twenty-five miles. Length of cable on board, one hundred and sixty-two miles. Shore cable six miles.

The 1854 cable was repaired in 1864; the Railway News and Joint Stock Journal in its issue of 2 July 1864 gave this account:

The steamer Fanny Lambert, Captain Christopher, arrived at Malta on the 25th ult., from Genoa, with Mr. John Temple, engineer, Mr. Henry Saunders, electrician at Malta to Messrs. Glass, Elliot, and Co., and a staff of workmen, having been away for a month repairing the submarine telegraph cable between Spezzia and Sardinia and Cape Corso, in Corsica.

As this is one of the very earliest deep water cables, having been laid in 1854 in over 250 fathoms water, and as it has worked without the slightest interruption up to the present time, some information as to its condition will be interesting. We understand that close to the shore, within half a mile, the cable was much chafed and worn on the Cape Corso (Corsica) side, but after that it proved to be in excellent condition for about 12 miles out, where after passing over 90 fathoms depth of water, it suddenly shoaled to 60 fathoms, and the cable, having the outer protecting wires completely chafed off it, broke. The soundings showed that a reef of sharp rocks extended in a northerly direction. The cable was grappled outside of this reef in about 80 fathoms water, about three miles nearer Spezzia than where it broke, and as signals were then good to Spezzia the cable was relaid to the Corsica shore again clear of the rocky reef, and communication re-established.

The cable is what is termed a heavy cable, as it weighs ten tons to the mile, the protecting wires being 12 No. I wires, and although it has been laid ten years, the outer wires show a very slight deterioration, the decay and oxidization being hardly perceptible, excepting very near the shore. The gutta percha insulating the copper conductor is in a perfect state of preservation, not having suffered in the least, and the hemp bed for the outer wires has the tar still fresh in it. Had the cable been originally laid clear of the reef, as it is now, it would not have suffered any interruption, and it is very encouraging to the cause of submarine telegraphy to know that the cables are so permanent and durable as this cable has proved.

1857 Mediterranean Cable: Bona - Sardinia

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

In the laying of the above cable there were many difficulties encountered. The length of cable was too short, and after splicing to it all the pieces at command, when the vessel was within ten miles of the shore, in eighty fathoms of water, it was lost. This lamentable occurrence, however, did not seem to daunt the heroic contractors. They immediately dispatched a vessel to England for more cable, which returned to Cagliari October 28th. Measures were taken to recover the end of the cable lost in the sea, and on the 30th it was found to be in perfect condition. On the same day the new cable was spliced to the end that had been lost in the sea. At 1 P.M. the cable was safely landed on shore. At 4 P.M. on the 30th of October, the first lightning flash from Europe to Africa was accomplished, adding new lustre to the wide-spread fame of Messrs. Newall & Co.

The next grand stride in the extension of submarine telegraphy was the connection of Malta and Corfu with the Island of Sardinia. This was also executed by Messrs. Newall & Co., as contractors under the Mediterranean company extended.

The cable which was laid on this route is represented by figs. 17 and 18, the former for the deep sea and the latter for the shore ends. The inside or electric cord is composed of seven small copper wires twisted together, forming a cord. The outside was an armor of eighteen small iron wires. The shore ends, as seen by fig. 18, were larger, and covered with ten iron wires. The weight of the deep-sea cable was 1,960 pounds.

1857 Mediterranean Cable: Corfu - Malta - Sardinia

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

The Elba arrived at Cagliari, Sardinia, on the 10th of November, 1857, having on board eight hundred miles of the cable. The Desperate, of Malta, had taken the soundings on the route, and the Blazer was the guide ship. On the 13th of November the vessels sailed to St. Eliza, some four miles south of Cagliari, where the cable was landed, and on the 14th the ships embarked on their great mission, leaving all things behind in perfect order. On the 15th a very severe storm arose, and at noon it was so violent that the waves ran a foot deep over the deck of the vessel. The ship labored in the turbulent sea, and at the time the paying out of the cable was very irregular. At eleven o’clock on the 16th, as the ship was contending against the waves, a heavy sea struck it with great violence and threw it upon its side, displacing the cable from its coil.

On the 17th the Island of Goro was in sight and soon thereafter the little fleet moored in St. George’s Bay, north of La Valette, Island of Malta. The whole laying occupied seventy-two hours. Three hundred and seventy miles of cable were paid out. The electric flash was transmitted through the cable with perfect success.

On account of the unfavorable weather, the laying of the cable from Malta to Corfu was suspended, and it was determined to submerge it from Corfu to Malta to avoid head winds. To this end the vessels sailed to Corfu. The town of Corfu lies on the east side of the island. The St. Gordo Bay lies on the west side, where the cable was carried ashore. The end of the cable was connected with the land line which runs over the island to the town of Corfu.

At 11 A.M., on the 1st of December, 1857, the fleet sailed, the Desperate piloting the way and the Blazer serving as tender. The weather was very fine and prospect of success encouraging. December 3d, the greatest depth, eight thousand feet, had been passed, and on the 4th at noon the whole cable was submerged without accident. The vessel anchored in St. George’s Bay, and the cable soon thereafter conducted on to the Malta shore. Amount paid out, four hundred miles, and the time occupied seventy-two hours. On the 5th the news of the great triumph was announced in London. The whole cost of the line was £125,000. In this enterprise the intrepid contractors won for themselves and their nation a renown more brilliant than deeds achieved at the cannon’s mouth.

Another account of the laying of the Mediterranean cables is given in Thomas Forester’s book, Rambles in the Islands of Corsica and Sardinia, first published in 1858. The sections describing the cable laying are reproduced below.


At Turin we passed some hours very pleasantly at the British Minister’s. We are indebted to Sir James Hudson for facilitating our excursion in Sardinia with more than official zeal and interest in its success. He knows the island well, having braved the inconveniences of rough travelling in its wildest districts. At his hotel we chanced to meet Mr. J.W. Brett, the promoter of a line of electric telegraph intended to connect the islands of Corsica and Sardinia with the European and African continents. A company had been formed to carry out this project, consisting principally of Italian shareholders, part of whose outlay was to be recouped, on the completion of the undertaking, by the Governments interested in its success—the French in regard to Corsica and Algeria, and the Piedmontese as far as concerns Sardinia.

Starting from a point in the Gulf of Spezzia, the wires were to be carried by a submarine cable to the northern extremity of Capo-Corso; where landing they would be conveyed, through the island, partly by submarine channels, with a branch to Ajaccio, to its southern point near Bonifacio. Thence, submerged in a cable crossing the Straits, they would again touch the land at Capo Falcone, mentioned in these rambles as the nearest point in Sardinia; the distance being only about ten nautical miles. The wires were then to be conducted on posts, through the island of Sardinia, in a line, varying but slightly from our route, by Tempio and Sassari to Cagliari. From Cape Spartivento, or some point on the southern shore of Sardinia, a submarine cable was to be laid, the most arduous part of the whole undertaking, to the African coast; landing somewhere near Bona, a town on the western frontier of the French possessions in Algeria.

Up to the point of the landing in Sardinia all was evidently plain sailing; but when we met Mr. Brett at Turin, on our return from Sardinia, in November, 1853, he was under some anxiety about the land line through the island; the mountainous character of the northern province of Gallura presenting obstacles to the operation of carrying the wires through it, and the lawless character of the inhabitants threatening their safety. On both these points we were able to reassure him; we had seen and heard enough of the brave mountaineers to feel convinced that there was no cause for apprehension of outrages connected with the undertaking. And my fellow-traveller, who belonged to the scientific branch of the army, had not passed through the country without making such observations as enabled hint to satisfy Mr. Brett’s inquiries respecting the line to be selected and its natural facilities.

In the end, the wires were successfully stretched throughout the island from Capo Falcone to Cagliari, after surmounting, however, serious obstacles, though not of the sort previously apprehended. For the success of this operation the company are greatly indebted to the exertions of Mr. William S. Craig, U.B.M.’s Consul-General in Sardinia. Having neither any personal interest in the concern, nor official connection with a Company entirely foreign in its object and supporters, he devoted his time gratuitously to the furtherance of this branch of its operations, actuated only by a desire to promote an important public undertaking. The whole practical management of the work (I do not speak of engineering, little of which could be required) devolved on Mr. Craig; and with much self-sacrifice, he threw into it all that zeal and intelligence which, with universal goodwill, have acquired for him the high estimation in which he is generally held.

I have before had occasion to mention the respect entertained for him by the mountaineers of Gallura, resulting from a former connection beneficial to parts of that district; and I feel convinced that his name and sanction better obviated any prejudices, and offered a broader shield for the protection of the wires from injury, than all the power of the Piedmontese officials, backed by squadrons of carabineers, could have done. Not only so, but Mr. Craig had less difficulty in making arrangements with the proprietors of the lands in the northern province than in the more civilised districts of the south, where, in some instances, the privileges required were reluctantly conceded as a mark of personal respect.

It was on descending to the plains that the worst difficulties were encountered. Mr. Warre Tyndale states that during the construction of the great central road from Cagliari to Porto-Torres, which it took seven years to complete, more than half the engineers employed in the work died of the intemperie, or were obliged to retire from the effects of that fatal malady. This scourge swept off with no less virulence the workmen employed on the line of telegraph, and as the season advanced, cartloads after cartloads were carried to the hospitals, so that the works were stopped. Mr. Craig had to provide for all emergencies, the whole expenditure was managed by him, and this calamity added to his cares and responsibilities. But he persevered, and brought the operations to a successful end. Such valuable services merited a more liberal treatment than they received at the hands of those who gratuitously secured them. A body of English directors and shareholders would not have failed to mark their sense of the obligation conferred by some honorary acknowledgment. I have not heard of any such act of generosity on the part of the Sardo-French Company. It was a foreigner who remarked to me the petitesses which pervaded the dealings of his countrymen. I imagine that the phrase would be found particularly applicable to the dealings of this company, if all its history were known.

But we are anticipating occurrences. On our return from Sardinia, the operations of the Sardo-French Telegraph Company connected with the island were yet in embryo. The travellers who discussed the probabilities of success at Turin little thought that one of them would two years afterwards, towards the close of the Crimean war, be the Chief of the Staff employed in the organisation and superintendence of the military telegraph service in the East, having to inspect the laying down many hundred miles of submarine cable and wires in the Black Sea; or that it would be the fortune of the other to witness the final accomplishment of the long-delayed and frustrated hopes of the Sardo-French Company, by being present at the laying down of the submarine Mediterranean cable between Cagliari and Bona on the coast of Algeria. But so it turned out; and the completion of this undertaking being an event in Sardinian history, considered by no less an authority than General Della Marmora to have an important bearing on the commercial prospects of the island,—and the operation of successfully submerging telegraph cables in very deep water, in oceans or seas, being both new and possessing considerable interest—a short account by an eyewitness of the occurrences attending the laying down the African cable may prove both amusing and instructive. It will form an appropriate episode to the Sardinian Rambles, and in that view an additional chapter will be devoted to it.

For the rest, it only remains briefly to close the “Rambles” of 1853. Our visit at Turin reopened Sardinian interests; but after that, the best thing to be done was to hasten homewards before the inclemency of the season should retard our progress. Still, the snow fell heavily as we walked over the summit of the pass of the Mont-Cenis, preceding the diligence in which we had travelled all night. The railway had not then been extended from Turin to Suza on one side of the Alps, nor, on the other, beyond Châlons sur Saône, between Lyons and Paris; so that, travelling by diligence, we were three nights and two days on the road to Paris. Both the French and Italian lines of railway have been much advanced since the period of our journey. To complete the line, it remains only that the gigantic undertaking of tunnelling the chain of the Alps be successfully executed. Allowing ourselves the refreshment of spending a day in Paris, we reached London in the evening of the 17th of November.


AFTER completing the land line of telegraph, as already mentioned, the Sardinian Company failed in three attempts at laying a submarine cable to connect the wires from Cagliari with the coast of Algeria. [The concern is incorporated under the name of “The Mediterranean Telegraph Company,” but the terms “Sardinian” or “Sardo-French” Company are adopted, as more distinctly indicating the nature of its origin and designs.] We will not here enter into an inquiry as to the causes of these disasters, instructive as it might be if we had space, and this were a fitting opportunity. Suffice it to say that the first experiment failed soon after leaving Cape Spartivento; on the second, the line was laid for about two-thirds of the course, but with such a profuse expenditure of the submarine cable that it was run out, and the enterprise abruptly terminated. A third attempt to renew the operation proved equally unsuccessful.

The project received a severe check from these repeated failures. The company had established their line, by sea and land, as far as Cagliari. So far, well: the communications of the respective Governments with their islands of Corsica and Sardinia were complete. Incidentally, also, England derived some advantage from the stations at Cagliari during the most anxious period of the crisis in Indian affairs. It was one step in advance towards telegraphic communications with India, though a short one. But the main object of the French Government in promoting the enterprise was to link its connection with Algeria by the electric wires; and till that was accomplished, the Company had no claim to be reimbursed for that portion of their expenditure guaranteed in the event of success.

One may imagine the dismay of the shareholders, mostly Italians, in this state of affairs. Their capital must have been greatly, if not altogether, exhausted by the expenditure on previous works and the abortive attempts at laying the African cable. It was now only, in all probability, that they became seriously alive to the difficulties of the undertaking, and the immense risks that must be incurred in laying submarine cables in great depths of water. For it was now known that the depth of the Mediterranean in many parts crossed by the track of submarine cables, is no less than that through which the Transatlantic cable has to be laid.

The prosecution of the scheme was suspended; but meanwhile time was running on, and the period fixed for completing the line had nearly expired. In this event, the government guarantee being forfeited, the concern would become a ruinous affair, as the telegraph traffic of two small islands could not be remunerative for the capital expended in connecting them with the continent. A short extension of the term for completing the undertaking had been obtained; but that was nearly run out before matters were put in a better train.

In this emergency, Mr. Brett, the gérant of the foreign company, who had contracted for and personally superintended the previous attempts to lay the African cable, entered into negotiations for its being undertaken by Messrs. Newall and Co. They had an established reputation, not only as having long been manufacturers of submarine electric cables, the quality of which had been tested by continuous service, but as having, under contracts with the English Government, laid down between five and six hundred miles of cable in the Black Sea during the Crimean war, without a single mishap. They were, therefore, not mere theorists; having acquired by long experience a practical knowledge of submarine telegraphy which had not fallen to the lot of any others who had turned their attention to that branch of the science.

The overtures made on the part of the Sardo-French Company having been favourably received in the course, I believe, of the summer of 1857, Messrs. Newall and Co., nothing daunted by the previous failures, though doubtless fully aware of the difficulties they had to encounter, agreed to lay the African cable for a given sum, taking all risks on themselves. When it is understood that, about the same time, they also contracted with the “Mediterranean Extension Company,” on like terms as to responsibility, to lay down submarine cables between Cagliari and Malta, and from Malta to Corfu, extending over 795 nautical miles, and making, with the African cable, a total of 920 miles, some idea may be formed of the magnitude of the operations undertaken by a single firm. The mileage is more than one third of the distance embraced in the scheme of the great Transatlantic Company; and, as we find that the Mediterranean has its deep hollows as well as the Atlantic, the difficulties were proportionate.

Having entered into these engagements, Messrs. Newall and Co., after completing their contract for one half, 1250 miles, of the Transatlantic cable, lost no time in proceeding with the manufacture of the Mediterranean cables at their works in Birkenhead. Towards the end of August, the African cable, with some portion of the Malta cable, was shipped in the Mersey aboard their steamship Elba, the vessel before employed in laying down the cable between Varna and Constantinople. It should be mentioned that the African cable contained four wires, se that it was more ponderous and less flexible than the Atlantic cable, which has only one.

About this time, the writer happened to hear what was going on. Being then engaged in preparing these Sardinian “Rambles” for the press, he was desirous to make another trip to the island before their publication; and, besides the connection of the Cagliari line of telegraphs with the objects of his work, other circumstances had made him generally interested in the subject of submarine telegraphy. He therefore requested Mr. R. S. Newall’s permission for his joining the expedition, which was kindly granted.

With this preliminary statement, we proceed at once to the scene of action. At the last moment it had been decided, for reasons with which I am unacquainted, but, I believe, on the suggestion of the foreign Governments interested in the project, to start from the African coast, instead of from Cagliari; Cape de Garde, a few miles eastward of Bona, a town on the Tunisian frontier of the French possessions in Algeria, being selected as the point at or near which the submarine cable was to be submerged. The Elba, with the cable on board, anchored off Bona on Saturday, the 5th of September. Three war-steamships, appointed by the foreign Governments to attend and assist in the operations, had arrived some days before, and lay at anchor in the haven of Cazerain. The little squadron consisted of the Brandon, a large frigate under the French flag, with the Monzambano and the Ichnusa, both belonging to the royal Sardinian navy; and on board were the Commissioners appointed by the respective Governments to watch the operations.

It blew hard after the Elba’s arrival, and the ships being detained in harbour, waiting for a favourable wind, opportunities offered of landing at Bona, and making some excursions into the surrounding country. The old Arab town rises from the sea in the form of an amphitheatre, and you see its high embattled walls running up the hillside and embracing in its enceinte the citadel, or Casbah, crowning the heights; the whole backed by the towering summits and shaggy slopes of the chain of Mount Edough. Within is a labyrinth of narrow streets; that leading direct from the port crossing a steep ridge to the Place d’Armes, a square with a fountain in the centre, overhung with palms and other exotics, and where French architecture is singularly mixed with the Moorish style. On one side stands a mosque, with its tall minaret; on the other, range cafés and restaurants, and magazins de mode, with their lofty fronts, arcades, and balconies. We linger for a moment on the spectacle offered by the various populations which crowd the square from morn to eve, and most after nightfall; a motley crowd of Arabs, Moors, Zouaves, Chasseurs, Jews, and Maltese. In the picturesque contrast of costume it presents, the gayest French uniforms possess no attractions compared with the white and flowing bournous, with even the sheepskin mantle of the poor Arab of the desert, the bright braided caftan of the Moor, the turban, and the fez. But the limits assigned to this work being already exceeded, I may not allow myself to dwell on the numberless objects which attract the attention of a curious traveller, in scenes where the modes and forms of Oriental life are singularly blended with those that bear the freshest European stamp.

Nor is this the place for more than noting an excursion to the picturesque ruins of Hippona, the old Roman city, the Hippo-Regius, where the great St. Augustine laboured in the African episcopate, and ended his days during the sufferings of Genseric’s siege. They stand on a hillock facing the sea, now covered with thickets of wild olive trees and fragments of the buildings. What a plain is that you see from the summit, stretching away in all directions, a vast expanse of grassy meadows on the banks of the river Seybouse; parched indeed now by the torrid heat of an African summer, but of rich verdure after the rains! What prodigious ricks of hay we observe at the French cavalry barracks, as we ride along! What growth of vegetables in the irrigated gardens of the industrious, but turbulent, Maltese! Surely, but for the French inaptitude to colonisation, this part of Algeria, at least, might be turned to good account.

Changing the scene for a moment from the sultry plains, we may just note another excursion, which led to the summit of the pass crossing the chain of Mount Edough. At the top we look westward over a sea of mountains, towards and beyond Constantine, the strongholds of the indomitable Kabyles. Turning homewards, we slowly descend the winding road, among slopes covered with a coarser maquis—still more fitted to endure the drought—than the evergreen thickets of Corsica and Sardinia; the dwarf palm, chamaerops humilis, most prevailing. Bona, with its walls and terraces and the Casbah and the minarets, rising above a grove of orchards and gardens, now makes a pleasing picture. Beyond, in the still water of the haven, our little fleet lies at anchor, with the French guardship; outside, the blue Mediterranean is now very gently rippled by the evening breeze.

We are recalled to the ships, and hasten on board, for the wind having changed, with a promise of fair weather, it is decided to commence operations. The point selected for landing the shore-end of the cable was a sandy cove, a little to the eastward of Cape de Garde, or as it is otherwise called Cap Rouge, a literal translation of Ras-el-Hamrah, the name given it by the natives. There is an easy ascent from the cove to Fort Génois, about half a mile distant. The fort, a white square building at the edge of the cliffs, said to have been built by the Genoese to protect their coral fisheries on this coast, was convenient for establishing a temporary telegraph station, wires being run up to it from the end of the submarine cable.

It was a lovely morning, the sun bright in a cloudless sky and the blue Mediterranean calm as a lake, when the little squadron having got up steam, ran along the shore, and successively anchored in the cove. There floated, in happy union, the flags of the three allied Powers recently engaged in very different operations: and the ships, with their boats passing and repassing, formed a lively scene contrasted with that desert shore, on the rocks of which a solitary Arab stood watching proceedings so strange to him.

The Elba’s stern having been brought round to the land, the ship was moored within cable’s length of the sandy beach; but the operation of landing the submarine cable was delayed in consequence of the neglect of the Sardinian company’s agents, whose duty it was to have the land-line of telegraph wires ready to communicate with Fort Génois. This occupied the whole day, and I took advantage of it, landing in one of the first boats, to make a long ramble, visiting, in the course of it, Fort Génois, an encampment of Arabs at some distance in the interior, and climbing to the lighthouse on Capo de Gardo, commanding, as may be imagined, magnificent views. It was a toilsome march, over rocks and sands, and through prickly thickets, in the full blaze of an African sun at noontide; but the excursion was full of interest, and not without its trifling adventures.

The shore works were not completed till sunset, when, all the boats being recalled to the ships, they got under weigh, the Monzambano towing the Elba, with the Ichnusa ahead, and the Brandon on her larboard bow. The engineers began paying out the cable at eight o’clock, proceeding at first slowly, as the night was dark, and being desirous to try cautiously the working of the machinery. As the water deepened, the cable ran out fast, and the speed was increased, so that by midnight we had run about seventeen miles, with a loss in slack, it was reckoned, up to that time, of under twenty per cent. of cable, compared with the distance run.

Few, I imagine, aboard the Elba got much sleep that night. The very idea of sleep was precluded by the incessant roar of the cable, rushing, like a mighty cataract, through the iron channels confining its course over the deck, while the measured strokes of the steam-engine beat time to the roar. Having laid down for two hours, I gave up my cabin to one of our numerous guests; for the French and Italian commissioners being now on board the Elba, besides Mr. Werner Siemens and his staff of German telegraphists, her accommodations were fully tried; and as for languages, she was a floating Babel. Coming on deck at twelve o’clock, the lighthouse on Cape de Garde was still visible. The attendant ships carried bright lanterns at their mastheads, sometimes throwing up signal rockets; and so the convoy swept steadily on through the darkness, the Elba still following in the wake of the Monzambano. Mr. Newall and Mr. C. Liddell, who directed the whole operations, never quitted their post at the break. The telegraphists, from their station amidship, tested the insulation from time to time, speaking to the station at Fort Génois. Looking down into the main hold, which was well lighted up, you saw the men cutting the lashings to release the cable, as, gradually unfolding its serpentine coils from the cone in the centre, it was dragged rapidly upwards by the strain of its vast weight, and rushed through the rings to the vessel’s stern. There the speed was moderated, before it plunged from the taffrail into the depths beneath, by the slow revolutions of a large wheel, round which the cable took several turns.

As day broke and the sun rose magnificently over the Mediterranean, Galita Island came in sight, distant from thirty to forty miles to the eastward; the high lands of Africa being still visible. With the sea perfectly calm, all augured well for the success of the enterprise, except that serious apprehensions were entertained lest the cable, paying out so fast in the great depth of water we were now crossing,—1500 fathoms,—might not hold out to reach the land. Thus we ran on all the morning, the vessel’s speed being increased to between five and six knots per hour, and the strain on the cable to five tons per mile; the depth ranging from 1500 to 1700 fathoms.

Towards the afternoon the land of Sardinia was in sight between fifty and sixty miles ahead, our course being steered towards Cape Teulada, the extreme southern point of the island. By sunset we had reached within twelve miles of the shore, and angles having been carefully taken to fix our exact position, we anchored in eighty fathoms water. Soon afterwards the attendant ships closed in, and anchored near us for the night. The little squadron, well lighted, formed a cheerful group, the sea was smooth as a mill-pond, and the mountains of Sardinia, after reflecting the last rays of the setting sun, loomed heavily in the growing twilight. All hands on board the Elba were glad of rest after thirty-six hours of incessant toil.

In the morning, as we had run out the whole of our cable proper, a piece of the Malta cable was spliced on, with some smaller coils also on board. Meanwhile, the Ichnusa had gone ahead at daybreak to take soundings, and when all was ready we began paying out the cable, being then, as already stated, about twelve miles from the land. All went on smoothly, and there was scarcely any loss of cable by slack. The eye turned naturally, again and again, from anxiously counting the lessening coils in the hold to measure our decreasing distance from the shore, as its bold features and indentations became hourly more distinct. Cape Toulada stood right ahead, a bold headland, with peaked summits 900 feet high. It forms the eastern point of the Gulf of Palmas, and has a long face of precipitous cliffs towards the sea. To the west of this deep inlet appeared the rocky islands of San Antioco and San Pietro, with cliffs of volcanic formation; and the Toro rock stood out a bold insulated object, 500 or 600 feet high, marking the entrance of the Gulf of Palmas, a spacious bay offering excellent anchorage.

We had run ten miles towards a beach under the cliffs, a little to the eastward of Cape Teulada, when the small cable, now in course of being paid out, suddenly parted. The mishap occurred about a mile and a half from the shore, in forty fathoms water, with a sandy bottom. It was provoking enough to have our expectations baulked, when holding on for another half hour we should have succeeded in bringing the cable to land; but, for our comfort, the main difficulties of the enterprise were overcome. The African cable had been securely laid in the greatest depths of the Mediterranean, and the shore-end of the line could be easily recovered in the shallow water. The only question was, whether it should be immediately effected; but for this the weather had become very unfavourable. The wind had been blowing strong from the south-east all the morning; and a gust of it caught the Elba’s stern, and canted it suddenly round, when the small cable snapped like a packthread. Rather a heavy sea was now running, and, on the whole, it was thought advisable to defer the concluding operations until an entirely new end to the cable could be procured from England.

For this purpose, and at the same time to bring out the Malta cable, the Elba was despatched homeward a few hours after the accident happened. Fresh angles having been carefully secured, nothing remained but to take leave of our friends before the squadron parted,—the Branden for the Levant, and the Sardinian frigates for ports in the Wand. While all belonging to the Elba considered that the submersion of a cable between Algeria and the coast of Sardinia was virtually a fait accompli, it was almost painful to witness the dismay of the Italians, at the mishap which had occurred to cloud their anticipations. It was evident that they entirely distrusted all assurances of the contractors’ ability to recover the end of the cable, and perfect the line. Their fears were groundless; within a few weeks the new coil was brought from England, and the end of the submerged cable having been grappled at the first haul, the work was completed without any difficulty. Messrs. Newall and Liddell immediately proceeded to lay down the Cagliari and Malta, and the Malta and Corfu cable, 375 and 420 miles respectively; both which they effected with entire success in the months of November and December following, with a very small average waste of cable over the distance, and in depths equally great with those in which the African line was laid.

The Mediterranean cables were a popular subject; here’s another account of the 1857 expedition from Eclectic Review, October 1858, reprinted from Fraser’s Magazine. Travelogue material not related to the cable laying has been omitted.


Crossing the ferry from Birkenhead to Liverpool on a sultry morning towards the end of last August, just at the hour when mercantile men were passing from their snug retreats on the Cheshire side to their places of business on the other, general attention was directed to a screw-steamship of considerable burthen, then lying in the stream of the Mersey. She appeared to be outward bound, for her steam was getting up, and the last but not the least important operation of hoisting on deck an abundant supply of bleating, grunting, and cackling live-stock, besides hampers of all sorts, promising good cheer, was going on. Practiced eyes easily discerned that the queer-looking, long, black-aided vessel, so heavily laden and deep in the water, was not one of those employed in the ordinary traffic of the port of Liverpool; but no one even conjectured what was her cargo, or what her destination. An hour afterwards she was steaming down the Mersey, with the writer of these pages on board.

Few indeed among the enterprising and intelligent inhabitants of this busy place had any idea that there was coiled in the hold of the Elba—for that is the ship’s name—thus unostentatiously leaving their port, the first of a series of submarine telegraph cables, extending in the aggregate over nine hundred nautical miles, which before the year’s end were safely laid in the depths of the Mediterranean. These lines connect the continents of Europe and Africa as well as other important points; one of them, Malta, being a step in advance towards communication with India. No public notices announced the preparations for, or the departure of, the expedition. The contracts for these great operations, equal in extent to considerably more than one third of the Transatlantic line, were undertaken by a single firm at their own risk; and they set about it and completed it like men of business.

If few turned their attention to the departure of the Elba with its important freight, fewer still would have been disposed to augur well on the success of the enterprise on which she was employed, had they been aware that the difficulties to be encountered were of the same character as those to which the then recent failure in the operations of the Transatlantic Company was attributed, namely, the great depth of water in which the cable had to be submerged. Perhaps it is not generally known that the soundings in the Mediterranean, for considerable portions of the lines laid in that sea, give the same results as those on part of the Atlantic line; showing a maximum depth of 1700 fathoms, or two and a quarter miles. Those also who knew that three previous attempts to lay the African cable had already proved abortive, might have been still more incredulous as to its accomplishment.

At the present moment, when public attention is so much turned to the renewal of the enterprise of the Transatlantic Telegraph Company, as well as to similar undertakings contemplated in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, a narrative in some detail of the operations connected with the submersion of the African cable, the first successful enterprise in deep-sea telegraphy, may not be uninteresting. Its practical results solved the problem, whether submarine cables could be laid in certain great depths of water, a question surrounded with many difficulties. Such operations must, indeed, be always attended with serious risks; but after the experience gained, and the note of preparation sounded for many months, it may be reasonably hoped that ere these pages issue from the press the powers of science and mechanical skill will have proved as triumphant in the Atlantic as they have been in the Mediterranean. The narrative will show how such triumphs are achieved; nor can there be any want of incidents in an expedition of so novel a character, having the glorious shores of the Mediterranean for its field, to add interest to the story.

The passage to the Mediterranean on the route eastward has now become so familiar, that the narrative might well commence with the scene of action on the coast of Algeria. Often, however, as it had been the fortune of the writer to visit the shores of that glorious inland sea —glorious in the physical features of its islands and coasts, as well as in the historical reminiscences with which it is associated—he had always approached it by land routes. The voyage therefore, from the Mersey through the Straits of Gibraltar, formed an additional attraction in his plan of joining the present expedition. Though sometimes delayed by contrary winds, when the vessel rolled and pitched heavily from the great weight of the coil of cable, the voyage was highly enjoyable and full of interest. Every Englishman must view with a just pride the rock-fortress commanding the passage into the Mediterranean; but St. Vincent and Trafalgar might perhaps be objects of keener interest to one who had watched the course of events from the earliest years of the present century, than they can be to the men of this generation. Swept through the Straits by that equable current which, ceaselessly flowing, labitur et labetur, from the Atlantic, replenishes, without either reflux or overflow, the great Mediterranean basin, doubts not unreasonable suggest themselves to the curious observer as to the theories proposed by science respecting this strange phenomenon. Nor can the memorable “pillars,” which he sees rearing their hoary summits on either shore, fail of recalling to the scholar’s mind the traditions of early times, when Phoenician and Libyan navigators, boldly penetrating these mysterious barriers, carried with them to the shores of the ocean those arts of civilization which, step by step, their colonies had introduced along the coasts of the Mediterranean. After a long course westward, the mighty stream of human progress, controlled by other, but not less wisely organized, laws than those which direct the ocean currents, has now become refluent. It bears back towards its source the matured fruits of a cultivation planted in the earliest ages in lands then almost beyond the pale of humanity, but now yielding a rich return to the countries from which it sprung. Among numerous recent proofs of this reaction, none could more forcibly strike a thoughtful mind than that afforded by an enterprise such as the present, intended to link by a chain of rapid communications the northern coast of Africa and the adjacent islands, the chief seats of the first colonization from the east, with the continent of Europe.

But not dwelling on such recollections, the interval of the voyage to the scene of action may be usefully employed in giving some account of the project, finally accomplished, after repeated failures, by the submersion of the African cable. We may conclude with a rapid sketch of the other lines of submarine telegraphs in the Mediterranean already completed, or still in embryo, but bidding fair to be carried into execution.

The history of the project of which the African cable was the final accomplishment may be shortly told. The object was to connect the French island of Corsica and their province of Algeria, as well as the intermediate island of Sardinia, with the continental lines of telegraph. The project was originated in 1853 by Mr. W. Brett, and a company was formed en commandité to carry it out, composed of French and Italian shareholders, and of which he was the gérant. A concession was obtained from the French and Sardinian Governments, with a guarantee of certain rates of interest proportionably to the advantages they would derive from the undertaking, provided the works were completed within a limited time. The line started from a point in the Gulf of Spezzia, whence, crossing the Tuscan Sea by a submarine cable about ninety miles in length, it landed in Corsica at a point of Capo-Corso, its northern extremity. The wires were then conducted through the island, partly by subterranean channels, to Bonifacio. Thence, submerged in a cable crossing the Straits, about ten miles in length, they were brought to land at Capo Falcone, on the northern coast of Sardinia. The wires were run through this island, still in a direction almost due south from the original starting-point, to Cagliari, the capital.

Nothing now remained for the completion of the project but to lay a submarine cable across the Mediterranean from the island of Sardinia to the nearest point of land on the African coast, which is found in the neighborhood of Bona, a town in the eastern district of the French possessions in Algeria. This was of course the most arduous part of the undertaking, from the great depth of water in the line between the two points, it ranging for a considerable distance from 1500 to 1700 fathoms. Mr. Brett contracted for the execution of this work, and personally directed the operations, but unfortunately three successive attempts to lay the cable failed.

These disasters exhausted the Company’s finances, and occasioned great dismay among the shareholders, and the time limited for finishing the works had nearly expired when, in the summer of 1857, Mr. Brett, as that Company’s gérant, applied to Messrs. R.S. Newall and Co. to undertake the manufacturing and laying down the cable. The members of that firm had gained more experience and achieved greater success in such works than had fallen to the lot of any other persons engaged in similar operations, having during the Crimean war laid down between four and five hundred miles of submarine telegraph cable in the Black Sea. After, no doubt, duly weighing the difficulties of the undertaking, the overtures made by Mr. Brett ended in their contracting with the “Mediterranean Telegraph Company” - such being the title assumed by the Sardo-French Company—to manufacture and lay the African cable at their own risk for a fixed price.

About the same time they also entered into engagements on similar terms with the “Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company,” established, we believe, by a body of Austrian shareholders, for laying down submarine cables between Cagliari and Malta, and Malta and Corfu, wires extending over 795 nautical miles, and making, with the African cable, a total length of 920 miles.

It may not be out of place here to say a word about the depths of the Mediterranean, a subject intimately connected with these submarine enterprises. In its physical aspect this midland sea may be considered as divided into two great basins, intersected by the lower extremity of the Italian peninsula, which, with the island of Sicily at its base, blocks up the channel between Europe and Africa to a strait not exceeding eighty miles in breadth. For at this point Cape Bon, protruding northward, forms the extremity of that part of the African coast, the Tunisian territory, which, changing its usual direction, stretches out its arm, as it were, to meet the advances of Europe towards it. Admiral Smyth observes in his valuable Memoir on the Mediterranean, that “perhaps its most remarkable feature is the perfect hydrographic division into two great basins by the form of its bottom; thus confirming the allotment made by geographers from a study of the form of its shores.” The Admiral remarks that “the barrier at the entrance of the Straits [of Gibraltar] marks the commencement of the western basin, which descends to an abysmal profoundity, and extends as far as the central part of the sea, where it flows over another barrier, and again falls into the yet unfathomed depths of the Levant basin.”

The greatest depth of water is found in some parts of this, the eastern and largest of the basins. It is reported that soundings have been taken about 90 miles east of Malta to the amazing depth of 15,000 feet; and between Cyprus and Egypt 6000 feet of line have been run out without reaching the bottom. These are the results of single experiments; but it appears from a regular series of soundings lately made from Egypt to the Archipelago, that between Alexandria and Rhodes the bottom was only found at the depth of 9900 feet, and between Alexandria and Candia the soundings were upwards of 10,000. The western basin of the Mediterranean, having the beautiful islands of Corsica and Sardinia nearly in its center, has been the focus of an extensive volcanic action, both submarine and subterranean, of which Aetna and Vesuvius are existing witnesses. The course of the Phlaegrean fires may be traced from the Lipari Islands to the Campagna of Rome. In the Island of Sardinia they have been especially active, a large tract of the vast Campidano being studded with round-topped hills, the craters of extinct volcanoes, and the Plutonic formations appearing in many parts of the southern and western coasts. Whatever may have been the disruptions caused in ages long remote by this extensive and violent igneous action, to which probably these coasts and islands owe much of their present configuration, it does not appear that the depths of the Mediterranean, as far as they have been plumbed, are any thing like so great in this western as in the eastern basin. But we find that even in the Straits, between Gibraltar and Ceuta, nearly 6000 feet of line have been run out without meeting the bottom; and further to the westward no soundings have been obtained. Fortunately, in the lines of telegraph cable already laid in this basin, the depths, though opposing serious obstacles to the enterprise, have not been found so great as to preclude its success. They appear, however, to be only just within the compass of the machinery and the structure of the cables at present used in these undertakings, as Mr. W. Siemens, C.E., remarked in a paper lately read before the Society of Arts, that “upon calculations of the strain of the cable in leaving the vessel, an iron-sheathed cable can not, under the most favorable circumstances, be laid in water more than three miles in depth.”

After passing the Straits we ran along the coast of Spain, enjoying a delightful day, during which the snow-clad summits of the Sierra Nevada were full in sight; and a still more delicious evening, walking the deck to a late hour, till the planet Jupiter set over the mountains, and the land-wind wafted fragrant airs from the Andalusian shore, and a lustrous moon sparkled in the ripples of the tranquil sea, silvering every jutting rock and cape on that romantic coast. The vessel’s course for Bona was then laid nearer the African shore than the usual route of ships bound to Malta and the eastward. As she steamed along this coast, Algiers spread out its white glistening terraces, rising on the slope of a hill and backed by the chain of the Little-Atlas. Further eastward the mountain-chain approaches the shore, to which its broken ridges formed a bold frontage during the rest of our course. We neared it between the Capes Matafou and Bougaroni, having been out of sight of land while crossing the mouth of the deep bight in which the town of Bougia stands. It was a sultry evening after a day of intense heat, and a dense steamy vapor, white as snow, hung round the bases of the mountains. All this coast has a wild and desolate aspect. It consists of rugged cliffs washed by the sea, and hills covered by dwarf scrub, with occasional patches of cultivated land; and the ferocity of the neighboring tribes of Arabs, or rather Kabyles, is said to be in character with this savage scenery.

Rounding the Cape de Garde, the Ras-el-Hamrah of the natives, the scene suddenly changed to one of lively interest. Gayly-painted boats engaged in fishing for coral, each with a dark Moor in her stern, were scudding under the fresh breeze which just curled the blue water of the sheltered bay, in the curve of which stood a solitary marabout’s domed cell, the fisherman’s house of prayer. A French steam frigate, with two other war steamships under the Sardinian flag, lay at anchor waiting the Elba’s arrival, the little squadron being under orders from the respective Governments to attend on and assist in the operations. Facing the harbor we see the old Arab town of Bona rising from the water’s edge to the Casbah or citadel, which, with the minaret of the principal mosque, crowns the fortified hights. These are backed by the lofty chain of Mount-Edough, and the eye rests with pleasure on its green slopes, when weary of gazing on the arid coast where no verdure appears but patches of cactus defying the burning heat. On the shore are the tents of the Bedouin salt-merchants, with their camels lying on the sand, and their small lean horses picketed to the ground. To the left spreads a vast plain bordering the sea and extending far inland along the course of the Seybouse; and you see a green hillock rising out of the plain, where stood the ancient city of Hippo-Regius, from the ruins of which Bona was built.

While the ships were detained at anchor in the roads off Bona, the telegraph cable and machinery became objects of great interest, the authorities, both civil and military, with people of all classes, flocking on board to indulge their curiosity. It was whispered, however, that the officials viewed with no very favorable feelings proceedings tending to abridge the discretionary powers hitherto, it is supposed, rather freely exercised by Algerine functionaries, and placing them directly under the eye and at the beck of the home government. The electric telegraph is a wonderful instrument for promoting the centralization of authority; and in the new arrangements for the administration of affairs in Algeria, the Imperial government appears to have speedily availed itself of the facilities afforded by the African cable.

The wind having changed, with a promise of fair weather, the squadron ran up the coast, and dropped their anchors in the cove just mentioned. The Elba’s stern being brought round to the land, and a kedge and hawser carried out, she was warped in and moored within a cable’s length of the sandy beach. While preparations were making for landing the shore end of the submarine cable and connecting the wires with Fort Génois, the little cove presented a gay and busy but thoughtful scene from the rocks above. It was a calm, bright day, and only a light ripple stirred the sparkling surface of the blue sea across which our path lay to the Sardinian coast. Below were seen floating in the breeze, as one after another the French and Sardinian frigates took up their stations outside the English ship, the flags of the three Christian States recently allied in bridling by force of arms the arrogant encroachments of a semi-barbarous Power in the East of Europe, and opening the commerce of the Black Sea and the Danube to the enterprise of the western nations. They were now united in the peaceable operation of linking Africa to Europe by that wonderful machinery which may prove an important step towards extending civilizing influences into the heart of the continent most needing them.

But presently the frigates’ eight-oared boats are seen dashing off, in neat trim, to assist in the operations, and at intervals some of the party on shore found leisure to bathe under shelter of the rocks and in the cool caverns into which they were worn. Meanwhile, Maltese laborers were indolently digging a channel in the sand for the shore-end of the cable, and fixing the posts for the wires to Fort Génois.

During the heat of the day they had lounged in the shade, and towards sunset they threw down their tools, though their tank was yet unfinished. The Englishmen on shore, of all ranks, labored with a will to complete the excavation, and then some of them, wading into the sea, vied with each other to be the first in the long line which landed it on the shore of Africa.

An hour after sunset the squadron weighed anchor and steamed out of the cove, the engineers commencing the operation of paying out the submarine cable. The Elba was towed by one of the Sardinian steamships, the other going ahead, and the French frigate taking her station on the English ship’s starboard bow. It being now dark, the cable was paid out cautiously till the machinery had got into working trim, the speed at first being only three knots per hour. By midnight we had made about 17 miles, the speed having been latterly increased to four or five knots per hour. At this time only 21½ miles of cable were run out, the slack being much less than the average allowed. The light on Cape de Garde was still seen twinkling astern. The ships carried bright lanterns at their mast-heads, and thus the squadron swept on in the darkness, the French frigate, the Brandon, steadily keeping her place on the Elba’s quarter, the Monsambano towing, and the Ichneusa, a Sardinian corvette, flitting about, now here, now there, like a phantom ship, and occasionally throwing up signal rockets. On board the Elba the service was conducted with perfect order, Mr. R.S. Newall and Mr. C. Liddell directing all the movements, but taking their post at the brake, which they seldom quitted for a moment. M. Werner Siemens of Berlin, the first telegraphic engineer in Europe, engaged by the contractors to superintend the instrumental operations, was now on board with a staff of German telegraphists, employed in testing the insulation from time to time by communicating with the station at Fort Génois. There were also the Chevalier Bonelli, Director-General of the Sardinian telegraphs, with M. Delamarch, a distinguished French engineer decoré with the Legion, commissioned by their respective Governments to watch the operations. All this while the strain on the cable was gradually increasing, as it fell into deeper and still deeper water; the cable whirling its sinuous folds from the coil in the hold and tearing through the iron rings and along the confining channels on deck till
it plunged into the depths beneath with an unceasing roar which may well be compared to that of a cataract rushing over its rocky bottom.

At two A.M. the soundings had reached 1500 fathoms, and the ship was going steadily at four knots an hour, with a loss on the cable by slack of twenty or twenty-five per cent more than the distance run. At day-break Galita Island was in sight about thirty-five miles S.E. of our course, the African mountains being still visible. The sunrise was exquisitely beautiful, the sea perfectly calm, and all promised well, except that apprehensions began to be entertained that in the depths of waters still to be crossed, the maximum being 1750 fathoms or 2 1/2 miles, the loss on the cable would be so great that it might not hold out. The strain on it was therefore increased to four tons per mile, and the speed of the vessel kept to five knots per hour, while a deluge of water raised by the “donkey engine” to cool the regulating-wheel, drenched those who were stationed at the brake like a constant shower-bath. Soon after sunrise, the attending ships closed in, and their evolutions during the day, sometimes nearing the Elba, at others starting off towards vessels crossing her track, and acting the part of a protecting convoy, were full of interest.

About noon one of those accidents occurred, inevitable probably in such operations, and the fatal consequences of which can only be averted by well-directed action. It is absurd to talk of automatic machinery : the less cumbrous and complicated it is the better, and the simplest has been found equal to meet all exigencies in practiced hands. Very much depends upon nice and wary manipulation of the brake. Length and weight are surely ingredients in the question not too difficult to be solved by mechanical skill. A submarine cable plays unaccountable freaks in running out, according to the weather and other circumstances, and its giant strength requires to be carefully handled. By one of these strange whims, just when all was going smoothly, the African cable, suddenly whipping out of the bights, damaged the machinery in the hold. The cable fouled but did not kink, and whirling at random, carried away the upper tier of rings, went flying through the hatchway, tore every thing away, so that there was a perfect hurricane of fragments of iron and timber scattered in all directions, not without some marvelous escapes. The men in the hold, inured to the risks of cable-laying by former practice in the Black Sea, kept clear of the wreck, but stood firmly to their posts.

At the lever-brake all was jammed hard down in an instant; putting, it appeared I by the indicator, at least seven and a half tons’ strain on the cable, which stood this immense strain without breaking, as many on board thought inevitable. it stopped the run of the cable, though with very considerable loss, the depth of water being so great. The cable was, however, saved; and in less than an hour, all being made right, there was a fresh start. Experience had been gained which served good purpose. At the time the accident occurred the ship’s speed was five and a half to six knots, while the cable, with even five tons’ strain on it, ran out at eight; so great was the depth of water. At this rate it would never have reached the land; but now weight after weight was boldly added till the strain was increased to six or six and a half tons per mile, the ship being kept to her former speed; and thus the waste of the back-slip was effectually prevented for the future.

An hour or two after noon, the land of Sardinia was sighted about fifty miles ahead, all going right. Thus the squadron carried on till sunset, when it was within ten or twelve miles of the coast of Sardinia, the course being steered for Cape Teulada, the southernmost point of the island, about seven leagues eastward of Cape Spartivento. Here the Elba lay to for the night, a kedge being carried out and dropped in eighty fathoms of water, by which and the cable she held on. The frigate towing cast off the hawsers, and the other ships closing in, the squadron came to anchor. It was a charming evening, the sun setting in a flood of glory, reflected as in a mirror on the placid surface of the Mediterranean, and bringing out in strong relief the bold promontories and rocky islets of the Sardinian coast. After a while lights gleamed cheerfully from the cabin-windows of the squadron grouped around, and soon all was still as the sleeping waters, and every one sought the rest that was needed.

Next morning, the bearings of the position having been carefully taken, and a piece of the Malta cable, with another smaller coil, being spliced on, as the African cable was now expended, the paying out again commenced; Cape Teulada, for which the course was laid, being, as already mentioned, from eleven to twelve miles distant. All went right, and ten miles of cable were rim oat without any lose. And now, as the vessel drew nearer and nearer the land, some on board not engaged in the operations, intense as was the interest with which they were watched, turned from counting the rapidly decreasing coils to mark the outlines of shores with the main features of which they were already familiar. On either hand projected the bold and lofty promontories of Teulada and Spartivento, commanding the entrances of the noble Gulfs of Palmas on the one side, and Cagliari on the other, the coast between them being formed by long lines of precipitous cliffs. Far away to the northward, the faint outline of the central chain of Sardinian mountains was presented to the eye in aerial tints; while to the eastward, the islands of San Pietro and San Antiocho, with some rocky islets, rose apparently right out of the sea to great elevations. The whole of this coast of a fertile island, rich in various natural products, but whose resources are undeveloped, has a barren and desolate aspect. Not a fisherman’s skiff was seen skirting the shore; not a sail on the Mediterranean plowing, the way to the entrances of two of the finest harbors it offers in all its vast outline.

The smaller coil of cable was now running out, being handled with great care—the more as the preceding night’s calm had been succeeded by a stiff breeze from the south-east, and the sea had become rough. But in spite of all precautions, when within a mile and three quarters of the shore, a sudden gust of wind having canted the Elba’s stern round, the cable broke. This happening in only forty fathoms water, with a sandy bottom, and so near the shore, there could be no difficulty in picking up the cable’s end, and connecting it With a short length reaching to the land. But from the state of the weather, and other circumstances, it was thought advisable to defer the operation till a fresh piece of cable was procured from England. Telegraphic communication between the continent of Europe and Algeria was therefore deferred for a few weeks, at the expiration of which its last link was supplied. The bearings of the position were accurately taken when the cable parted, so that it was grappled at the first haul on the operations being resumed; but the real difficulties of the undertaking had been surmounted when the cable was laid in the depths of the Mediterranean.

After completing the African line, the cables between Cagliari and Malta, and from Malta to Corfu, were immediately laid; the whole operations being accomplished before the end of December with entire success, though there was a heavy sea in the Malta channel while the last cable was paid out. Much very deep water was passed on the Malta and Corfu line, the depth between Cape Passaro, the south-eastern point of Sicily and Corfu, varying from 500 to 1400 fathoms. In one place the line approached soundings of 1800, and they were seldom less than 500, fathoms. In the line from Cagliari to Malta, and from that island to Cape Passaro, the water is much shoaler, the greater part of the line being laid in less than 300 fathoms. For a short length the depth reached 1000 fathoms. It appears from the soundings made during these operations, that the whole bottom of the Mediterranean, in the lines traversed, is composed of fine sand, such samples being brought up from the greatest depths; an important fact as regards the duration of the cables, since, when once laid in such bottoms, it is difficult to conceive what can injure them. In the shoal water, where the bottom was found in general to be sand and shells, there can be no great difficulty in picking up the cables, and repairing any damage they may receive. The direct length of the Cagliari and Malta line is 375 nautical miles; that of the Malta and Corfu, 420; the average waste having not exceeded from twenty to twenty-two per cent. The ship’s speed averaged about five knots per hour.

The objects for which the united squadron assembled on the coast of Algeria having been so far accomplished, it parted off Cape Teulada, the writer being courteously afforded a passage on board the Sardinian frigate to Cagliari, and afterwards to Genoa. He found on board General Alberto della Marmora, whose Topographical Survey and other works on Sardinia are well known. The General has long devoted himself with indefatigable zeal, not only to the physical description, but to the promotion of the social and material interests, of the island of Sardinia, and this led him, though in advanced years and feeble health, to undertake the voyage for the purpose of witnessing an operation to the combination of which, with other projects, he attached considerable importance.

Cagliari, a fine city occupying a commanding position, has acquired some notoriety from its having been for a time the first telegraph station reached from India. During the writer’s stay there, he was standing in the balcony of our excellent Consul-General’s house late one evening, when the lights of a steamboat from Malta were seen in the gulf, and he witnessed the anxiety with which an important telegram, in the very crisis of Indian affairs, was transmitted to London. Since the line has been extended to Malta, the station at Cagliari has lost its importance as regards Indian news. But General della Marmora prognosticates that, from its central position in the great highway to the east, from its noble harbor, and the abundant resources of the fertile island of which it is the capital and principal seaport, Cagliari will not only rival the barren rock of Malta as a place for telegraphic communications to ports in northern and western oceans, but will draw to itself a share of the commercial enterprise which is now enlarging its bounds; especially as an entrepôt for the corn-trade of the Black Sea.

It having been now shown how far and to what points the electric wires have been successfully laid in the western basin of the Mediterranean, let us in conclusion just glance at their probable extension eastward by submarine cables. The natural point from which further progress should be made towards telegraphic communication with India, would seem to be Malta. But though the importance of having the line as far as possible under the control of British authorities is unquestionable, and we should even like to see Gibraltar made the first Mediterranean station, the plan of continuing the present line from Malta to Alexandria by a submarine cable does not appear to have received much favor. Whether the depth of water in that part of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean be an obstacle to the undertaking, we have not before us at present sufficient data to determine; it can hardly be insurmountable. But the project most likely to be immediately accomplished, consists of a submarine cable from Ragusa to Alexandria, in connection with the Austrian continental lines. Though open to objections on political grounds, it is a very feasible plan, and the preliminary measures for carrying it out are said to be complete.

Passing over other projects afloat for Mediterranean lines of submarine telegraphs, we will only remark, that since Captain Pullen’s recent report on the soundings in the Red Sea, there can be no reason to doubt that those who successfully laid submarine cables in the great depths of the Mediterranean, will easily accomplish the operation in the Red Sea, and continue the line in the Indian Ocean, so as to perfect telegraph communication with India. Nor, from private information on which we can rely, have we much apprehension of failure in the speedy establishment and subsequent maintenance of the overland line of telegraph wires from Constantinople, by Bagdad and Bussorah, to the Persian Gulf; undertaken by the Turkish Government. Thus the great desideratum of a double line of telegraphs to India bids fair of being attained, and that speedily; it being calculated that all the operations connected with both of what may be called the Indian lines can be completed in the course of two years. Should the Transatlantic line be safely laid, as, alter the experience gained by successes as well as by failures, may be fairly expected, there will then be direct telegraphic communication between Calcutta and New-York, more than one third of the circumference of the globe being encircled by a magic ring, the medium of conveying winged words with the rapidity of thought and the lightning’s flash. Additional Transatlantic and other lines must necessarily be struck out in the course of things; and with the experience now gained of the practicability of laying submarine conductors of the electric current, and with the growing demands for rapid international communication, it is difficult to conceive any limits to its extension, until there be no speech nor language where its voice is not heard; their “lines” being gone out into all lands, and their words unto the end of the world.

Last revised: 23 October, 2015

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