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

1856 Cabot Strait (Cape Breton - Newfoundland) Cable

After failing on the first attempt in 1855, Cyrus Field’s New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company succeeded in laying a submarine cable across the Cabot Strait in 1856. Also completed that year was the Company’s trans-Newfoundland overland line. The entire operation, which established a telegraph link all the way between New York and St. John’s, is estimated to have cost over a million dollars. This was the first link in Field’s proposed Atlantic Cable.

Map of the cable route, showing St John’s, Newfoundland at the north-east and New York at the south-west. Cape Ray and Aspy Bay are marked on the map.

The 1856 Cape Ray - Aspy bay cable was 85 nm. in length, with a further 12 nm. being used for the Prince Edward Island - New Brunswick run. It was made by R.S. Kuper, Glass & Co., using core supplied by the Gutta Percha Company.

The cable was laid by the steamship Propontis on 10 July 1856. It took 15 hours to complete the run across the Cabot Strait, from Cape Ray at the south-west corner of Newfoundland to Aspey Bay at Cape North on the north shore of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

The New York Times reported on the laying of this cable in its edition of 14 July 1856:

The Ocean Telegraph.
LAYING OF THE NEW-FOUNDLAND SUBMARINE CABLE - PREPARATIONS FOR CONNECTING THE LINE, ETC.

SYDNEY, C.B., Saturday, July 12.

The submarine electric telegraph cable for the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company was successfully laid on the 10th inst., from the steamship Propontis, Capt. Goodwin, under the direction of Mr. Samuel Canning, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, between Cape Ray Cove, N.P., and Ashby Bay, C.B., a distance of 85 miles, in fifteen hours. Messages are now being freely and instantaneously transmitted from shore to shore.

[We understand that the Company have about 700 men at work in Newfoundland and on Cape Breton. The Newfoundland line from St. Johns to the point where it intersects with the lines of the American Telegraph Company in Nova Scotia will be about 600 miles in length, and it is confidently expected that the whole will be completed and in successful operation by the 1st of September and, from arrangements already completed, it is also, we understand, confidently expected by the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company that the cable to connect Newfoundland and Ireland will be laid down during the ensuing year. The best electricians and practical telegraphers entertain no doubt that every serious obstacle in the way, of the triumphant success of the Transatlantic line has been removed.

We understand that Cyrus W. Field, Esq., one of the prominent members of the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, will leave for Europe this week, to complete arrangements for the immediate commencement of the Transatlantic Line.]

See below for a more detailed account of the expedition.

The core of seven copper wires No. 22 BWG, covered with gutta percha to No. 1 BWG then wrapped with tarred yarn, was armoured with twelve iron wires No. 9 BWG. According to Charles Bright, writing in 1898, the 1856 Cabot Strait cable was significant in being the first to use a stranded conductor, all previous cables having used a single solid copper wire:

It had one conductor, into which a great improvement was introduced for the first time. It was made of seven small copper wires laid up in the form of a strand, with a view to preventing a flaw in one of the wires at any point entirely stopping the conductivity [Note 1]. The insulated conductor was covered with tarred yarn, and protected by a sheathing of twelve outer iron wires.  The weight was 2½ tons per N.M., and it lasted a long time, being successfully repaired ten years later.

Note 1:
This substitution for the single solid conductor not only obviated the objection of an imperfection in the copper at any one spot having serious results, but also lessened the risk of complete discontinuity due to any mechanical tension. It, moreover, gave greater pliability, thereby reducing the chance of a breakage under an undue lateral strain, and also of injury to the insulating envelope.

Since the above occasion the conductor of a submarine cable has been invariably built up by several wires stranded together.

This type of conductor was provisionally protected in 1854 (see specification No. 2,547 of that year) by Professors William and John Thomson with Professor W.J. Macquorn Rankin, though never completed as a patent.

[Bright, Charles: Submarine Telegraphs,1898]

The cable section shown here came from a source in Canso, Nova Scotia, a little over 100 miles from the cable landing site at Aspy (sometimes Aspey) Bay. The only information with the sample was as shown on the document fragment and envelope (below), where the cable is described as “pieces of the first Trans Atlantic Cable”. Some research was needed to determine from this limited evidence exactly which cable this was.

The cable section as received, with
armouring wires separated from the
core, and two armouring wires missing

Document fragment accompanying the cable section:

Atlantic ...
at Aspy Bay by councillor...
in September 1934. This cable was laid in ...
CMC

The place names of Aspy Bay on the document fragment and Baddeck on the envelope locate the cable on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

The only cable which ran to Aspy Bay was the 1856 connector to Cape Ray, as described above. The technical details of the construction of this cable are known, and the measurements of the wire gauge of the armouring wires and the diameter of the core match almost exactly.

The armouring wires are listed as No. 9 BWG (= 0.148"); the wires of the sample measure ~0.15". The core is listed as No. 1 BWG (= 0.3"); the sample core measures ~0.35".

Envelope accompanying the cable section:

Pieces of the first
Trans Atlantic Cable
Came from C.W.K. McCurdy’s
house in Baddeck

Detail view of cable core, showing the seven-strand conductor

A length of the cable on display at the Aspy Bay historic site
Image courtesy of Ivan Smith: Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook

The parts of the 1856 Cabot Strait cable re-assembled. Two new armouring wires of similar gauge were fitted to replace the missing ones, and the core was padded out to the correct diameter with black twine to represent the tarred twine used originally. A note with the cable describes the restoration.

Charles William Kandick McCurdy

The envelope accompanying the cable is marked: “Pieces of the first Trans Atlantic Cable. Came from C.W.K. McCurdy’s house in Baddeck”, and the document fragment is signed “CMC”.

Genealogical research indicates that the McCurdys were a prominent family of long-standing in Baddeck, Cape Breton, having settled there in the mid-1800s. Charles William Kandick McCurdy, the orginal owner of the cable sample, was born in Baddeck on 28 August 1878, and died there on 18 Feb 1957. At some point he was Municipal Clerk of the local district of Victoria, which he represented at the Annual Convention of Nova Scotia Municipalities.

Baddeck has another connection with communications - Alexander Graham Bell arrived there in 1885 and built two homes, as well as the forerunner to Bell Laboratories. Bell spent much of the rest of his life in the area until his death there in 1922, and was associated with various members of the McCurdy family.

Bell had a keen interest in aviation and was an active member and patron of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), formed in 1907 by John Alexander Douglas McCurdy and his friend Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, two young engineers fresh out of the University of Toronto. McCurdy and Bell were pioneers in early aviation, and their accomplishments are described in many histories of the field. There are commemorative plaques for Bell, Baldwin and McCurdy on the wall of the Bell Museum in Baddeck.

McCurdy had grown up in Baddeck, and his father, Arthur Williams McCurdy, had been the personal secretary of Dr. Bell since 1887. J.A.D. McCurdy was later Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, and wrote several articles about Bell.

C.W.K McCurdy a cousin of J.A.D. McCurdy, evidently knew Bell too, and contributed an article of recollections of the Bell family in Baddeck to the Maritime Telegraph & Telephone Company’s Monthly Bulletin of May and June 1947. Perhaps his involvement with Bell led to an interest in the history of communications, and hence his acquisition of the cable sample in 1934.

The cable landing site at Aspy Bay is commemorated with a monument and plaque. The plaque reads as follows:

Image courtesy of Ivan Smith:
Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook

First Terminus of the
Atlantic Cable

Nearby was the western
terminus of the first Cape-
Breton-Newfoundland cable,
which was laid between Aspy
Bay and Port-Aux-Basques in
1856, as a link in the projected
Atlantic Cable, and used as
such until 1867, when the
North Sydney-Placentia line
was laid. Thenceforth it was
used only as a subsidiary line
or for local messages until
it was taken up in 1872.

A detailed history of the cable and photographs of the historic site may be seen at the Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook web page on the cable.

The Aspy Bay website has many photographs of the area.

 


 

A 6" long intact sample of the 1856 Cabot Strait cable is shown below:

 

The cable section has a handwritten tag:

Piece of Atlantic Cable
Thomas Dunham

In the early 20th century a “Mr Dunham” is recorded as Manager of the Western Union cable station at Bay Roberts, Newfoundland. It is possible that this cable came from him, but there is no direct evidence for this.


 

A more detailed account of the laying of the cable was given in a letter to The Newfoundlander from a correspondent identified only as "X.S.", on board the cable laying ship Propontis. This was published in issue No. 1934, 10 July 1856.

LAYING OF THE NEWFOUNDLAND SUBMARINE CABLE.

Propontis, Aspec Bay, July 10, 1856.

Sir,—The work of laying a Telegraph Cable between Newfoundland having been successfully accomplished in the short space of fifteen hours, I feel it due to the public interested in the momentous question of uniting the two Continents by the Electric Telegraph, to give some accounts through your columns of its progress.

Perhaps you are aware that Messrs. Kuper & Co. accepted the responsibility of laying the Cable for the Telegraph Company, and early in June had secured the services of the Propontis, an efficient screw steamer of eighty horse power, for that purpose. The whole direction of the service was very properly confided to Mr. Canning, who had been on the ground the year before, and whose ability and energy joined with great equableness and generosity of temper, make him a general favourite, and pointed him out as eminently fitted to carry out this, and the still greater work of span­ning the Atlantic Ocean.

If I mistake not, eighty three miles of Cable were placed on hoard the Propontis, and in due time Mr. Canning and his staff of operators and workmen arrived at Sydney, Cape Breton, where he embarked and fitted the drums for paying out the Cable, and completing with coal, sailed on the 5th July for Aspec Bay and Cape Ray. By direction of the Admiralty soundings across the Strait between Cape Ray and Cape North had been taken by Commanders Orlebar and Shortland in the Columbia a few weeks previously, and a chart of the soundings was given Mr. Canning by Commander Orlebar, on his arrival at Sydney. The Propontis reached Cape Ray Cove on Tuesday after­noon, at 2¼ p.m., the foggy weather and Easterly wind of the two previous days having prevented her making out the land. The surveying tender Ariel, Commander Orlebar, was lying at anchor in the cove, and according to previous arrangement, he gave his aid in landing the Cable and afterwards embarked in the Propontis and assisted in piloting her across to Aspec Bay. Some attempts had been made to secure the services of the fishermen, but for some unexplained cause, although a promise was given, none came to assist, and the steamer's boats were forced to undertake the duty of landing the end of the Cable. This was only difficult on account of the surf running so very high, but by a judicious arrangement of Mr. Canning, a manilla rope of 500 fathoms was first laid out from the stern of the Propontis to the shore, when the long boat and whale boat having some cable coiled in them, hauled on shore by the rope paying out cable from the long-boat until close into the surf when on a given signal, the rope being cut in two, the whale-boat holding on was dragged through the surf by a party on shore, while the long-boat being fast to the other part, was hauled on board. The cable was made fast by noon, and tested by the operators: and all being found correct and the gentlemen in charge of the station having been landed, the anchor was weighed; and at a quarter past two p.m., the Propontis steamed off to sea, paying out the Cable. There was a long southerly swell, but the surface of the sea was unruffled, while a clear sky, a light westerly air, and a high steady barometer gave us fair promise for the voyage. At first the rate of going hardly exceeded two knots—then it was increased to three, and at the end of the second hour a speed of six knots was attained, and continued until it became dark. At ten some little delay was experienced in commencing the paying out of that part of the Cable coiled in the after part of the hold, but after that all went on smoothly until at twenty minutes past five the following morning, the Propontis came to an anchor off the Telegraph station, Aspec Bay. The distance across is sixty-four Geographical and seventy-four statute miles, and the depth for thirty miles of that distance was over two hundred fathoms. The deepest 265 fathoms. The bottom was fine sand in the shoaler water, and black mud in the deeper. Nobody could have witnessed the progress of that work, without the conviction, that in such hands the spanning of the Atlantic Ocean, would be a safe undertaking. Mr. Canning never left the deck, he was ably seconded by the ship's officers, and by his own men, who behaved admirably and attended to all parts of their work unflinchingly, whether in the hold or at the breaks. I ought to mention that the Victoria steamer, with Mr. Gisborne on board, en route from Aspec Bay, joined us at four p.m., and kept company with the Propontis. For some hours after night­fall the Victoria signalised their satisfaction at the progress of the work, by firing rockets and blue lights.

The morning opened with light rain, which continued till about noon, but the work of getting the end of the Cable on shore, had to be done, and all hands setting to work; and being tested by Mr. Eddy, one of the directors of the Telegraph Company, was found in excellent working order, and communications were fiercely transmitted from shore to shore.

The two steamers will remain a day or two at Aspec Bay, whence proceeding to NorthumberIand Straits, the Propontis will lay down another length of ten miles cabIe, communicating Prince Edward Island with the main, after the completion of which work, you will probably hear again from us. It is felt, however, by all engaged. that the great work of the season is accomplished, and there is a slight feeling of disappointment, that there are no more difficulties to be encountered, and dangers to be overcome. In conclusion, I must not omit to say, that the rain did not prevent a hearty expression of satisfaction at the successful termination of the work. Guns were fired from the steamers, and hearty hurrahs were given by all hands, whilst the hospitality of the worthy contractor was freely extended to all employed.

Let me hope, Sir, that the enterprising spirit of this Telegraph Company, will he infectious; and that the grand effort this Company still contemplate, will meet with such favor from the Governments of the two great Countries, that losing sight of the vexatious questions agitating the South, they may together blend their energies to connect England and America by the triple cord of electricity, free trade and righteousness.

Yours, X.S.


References:
Bright, Charles: Submarine Telegraphs, Their History, Construction and Working. London, 1898.
Genealogical listing: Descendants of Gilkrist Makurerdy, web page accessed January 2007.
Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook, website accessed January 2007.
Tennyson, Brian: Cape Bretoniana: An Annotated Bibliography, University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Last revised: 18 September, 2014

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