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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.]

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.


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: 27 August, 2012

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