History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
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Report on the Repair of the 1870 cable between Cienfuegos
and Batabano, by the Schooner “Josefa” in March 1893

Introduction: In 1870 a series of cables was made and laid by the India Rubber Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company for the Cuba Submarine Telegraph Company and the West India & Panama Telegraph Company. These two companies, together with the Panama and South Pacific Telegraph Company, were set up by Sir Charles Tilston Bright with General W.F. Smith and Cyrus Field of the International Ocean Telegraph Company and Matthew Gray of the IRGP. The prospectus was issued in 1869 and the intention was to link the many islands in the Caribbean to Cuba using these routes:

Batabano - Cienfuegos - Santiago de Cuba. System 150 + 425 nm. Because of shoals between Batabano and Cienfuegos “sugar flats” towed by the Spanish gunboat Alarma had to be used at times to lay the cable

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba - Holland Bay, Jamaica. System 197 nm. A landline connected the cable terminus to Kingston. Laying commenced on 13th September 1870 and was completed by the 15th.

Colon, Panama - Kingston, Jamaica. System 550 nm. Laying commenced from Colon on 24 October 1870 and on 27th October, after 367 nm had been paid out, the cable parted. Grappling went on until 1st November without success and the cable was abandoned.

St. Thomas, DWI - San Juan, Puerto Rico. System 79 nm. Laying started on 7th December 1870 and was completed on the 12th.

Although laying commenced in 1870, it was 1873 before the network was in full working order.

In 1877 the company went into liquidation, and a new company was set up with the same name. Money was put up by the directors of the Eastern Telegraph Company, including John Pender, and those of the Western and Brazilian Telegraph Company, and they became directors of the new company.

The Cienfuegos-Batabano cable had been laid in difficult conditions, and required many repairs. The half-yearly report of the Cuba Submarine Telegraph Company, published in August 1889, noted that:

The Batabano-Cienfuegos cable, mentioned in the last report as then showing signs of breaking down, was repaired by the company’s engineer, Mr. Keith, in May, several faults having been cut out, and wasted parts replaced by new cable to the extent of seven knots. Unfortunately, however, this cable ceased to work on 13th instant, and Mr. Keith has again proceeded to its repair; meanwhile the company has arranged for the use of the Government land lines as before.

Again in 1893 the cable developed several faults, and a repair expedition under the direction of George Keith was undertaken using the chartered schooner Josefa.

The document transcribed below is the official record of the repairs; it is written in a secretarial hand and bound in hard covers, and was presumably composed from George Keith’s notes after his return from the expedition. While there were no dramatic incidents during the voyage, the detailed account of the repairs shows the constant and meticulous work that was needed to keep the world’s undersea cable network operational. The repair of just a 200-mile run of cable took a month, which gives some idea of its very poor conditon overall.

See also the notes at the end of this page, which include an account of the original laying of the 1870 cable, a report on further problems with it in 1894, and the obituary of George Keith following his death in 1916.

—Bill Burns

 

Report on the Repair of the 1870 cable between
Cienfuegos and Batabano, by the Schooner “Josefa”
in March 1893

Cover and first page of the nine-page report

Tests from shore.

The tests taken at Batabano on Saturday the 31st December showed the cable to contain a very large fault at about forty miles from Batabano, or off the “Gordas”.  Those taken at the Cienfuegos Cable House varied considerably and seemed to place the fault at about one hundred miles’ distance

Two and half miles of
cable put on board.

On Thursday, the 23rd February, the Schooner, which had been hired for the repair, came alongside the wharf at 6 a.m. During the day about two and a half miles of new intermediate G.P. Cable were put on board, while two carpenters were engaged putting the test room on board.

Stores and tools put on board.

On Friday, the 24th February, the stores and tools necessary for the repair were put on board and the carpenters finished the test room.

Patron of the Schooner. On Saturday, the 25th February, the patron, who was to take charge of the Schooner during the repairs, not having arrived, and the patron on board being not capable of doing so, it was arranged with the owners only to charge half price for the Schooner till the former arrived. During the afternoon the patron arrived and cleared the Schooner to sail next evening.
Schooner sailed hands on board. On Sunday, the 26th February at 10 p.m. the Schooner sailed, having on board the crew, six men and one boy.
Off Punta Flamenca. On Monday, the 27th February at 7 a.m. the Schooner was outside the bay and made westward with a sight south wind. During the day the wind freshened and at 10 p.m. she was off Punta Flamenca when she anchored for the night.
Tests of cable on board.
Off North Gorda Bayo.
Dredging.
On Tuesday, the 28th February resumed running westward. During the forenoon the Cable on board was tested. Both pieces were found good in insulation resistance, while the long piece gave a conductor resistance of 18.30 ohms and the short piece of 5 ohms. At about 1 p.m. the Schooner arrived on the line of cable to the S.W. of the North Gorda Bayo and anchored. Dredging was then proceeded with for the rest of the day but without success.
Cable hooked splice opened. Testing
Both ends faulty.
Splice closed.
Under sail.
Anchored off Juan Luis Bayo.
On Wednesday, the 1st March, at 6 a.m. dredging was resumed and continued till about 8 a.m. when the cable was hooked and underrun up to the splice. On opening the splice and testing, the Cienfuegos end was found to be very faulty, the resistance seemed to show that the fault was about 9 miles off. The Batabano end was also found very low in insulation resistance indicating that it also contained a fault. In view of this the splice was closed and at about 5 p.m. the Schooner set sail for off Bayo Juan Luis and at about 10 p.m. arrived there and anchored for the night.
Dredging.
Underrunning
cable hooked.
Testing.
Both ends faulty.
Splice opened off Cacao.
Both ends sealed.
Length to sealed end good.
On Thursday, the 2nd March, the Schooner was anchored to the southward of the Bayo near the line of Cable. Dredging was then commenced and continued till 7 a.m. when the cable was hooked and underrun up to the splice. On opening and testing, both ends were found faulty. The Batabano end gave a resistance of 300 Ohms, while the insulation resistance of the Cienfuegos end was very low, indicating a fault. During the afternoon the boat proceeded eastward to off Cacao and opened the splice at South by westward and sealed the ends. On returning to the Schooner the length to the sealed end was found good.
Splice closed
under sail.
off the Gordas
Splice on board
Underrunning
Fault cut out.
Cause of fault.
On Friday, the 3rd March after closing the splice off Juan Luis Bayo the Schooner proceeded back to the splice off the Gordas which was again taken on board and opened. Underrunning was commenced South-eastward and continued for about forty fathoms when an old kink came up. On cutting out the kink the cable was found good to the sealed end of Cacao. The core inside the kink was found decayed and cracked which had been the cause of the fault.
Cable spliced up
Anchored off Ambar.
On Saturday, the 4th March, during the forenoon a short piece of new cable was spliced in between the ends and in the afternoon the Schooner proceeded along the line to the S.E. of Ambar and anchored for the night.
Dredging.
Cable hooked
Underrunning
ends buoyed.
Cable on board spliced on.
On Sunday, the 5th March, dredging was commenced and continued till about 10 a.m. when the cable was hooked. The mile of cable between the two new pieces put in in 1890 was then underrun and buoyed at each end and the short piece of new cable on board was spiced on at the north end.
Amount of cable payed out.
Splicing.
Under sail.
Anchored off Malahambre.
On Monday, the 6th March, about a mile of new cable was payed out and spliced up at the south end of the old cable which was left in the bottom. The Schooner then proceeded along the line of cable to the S.W. of Malahambre and anchored for the night.
Dredging.
Cable hooked.
Splice opened.
Testing.
Result.
Splice closed.
Under sail.
At anchor off Punta Gorda.
Dredging.
Cable hooked.
Unable to lift cable up on boat.
Cable again hooked.
On Tuesday, the 7th March, dredging was commenced and continued till about 10 a.m. when the cable was hooked and underrun up to the splice. On getting the splice on board and opened, the South end to Cacao was found good and the North end to Batabano faulty giving a resistance of 220 Ohms. The splice was then closed and at 4 p.m. the Schooner set sail for the splice at the South end of the new cable put in off Punta Gorda in 1890. On Wednesday, the 8th March, after anchoring the Schooner on the line of cable with Punta Gorda W., dredging was commenced and continued till about 3 p.m., when the cable was hooked, but it was too tight to be taken up on the boat. It was again hooked about quarter of a mile north-westward, but still it was too tight. It was then buoyed and the Schooner anchored for the night another quarter of a mile to the north-westward.
Dredging.
Lifting cable by Schooner.
Cable broke.
Sheathing in bad condition.
Batabano end good.
Malahambre end faulty.
Underrunning.
Ends buoyed.
On Thursday, the 9th March, dredging was resumed but the cable could not be found. The Schooner proceeded to where it was buoyed and attempted to lift it up on the boat, but it rended and broke, the sheathing being in a very weak condition. On recovering the ends, the Batabano end was found good and that to Malahambre faulty, giving a resistance of 179 Ohms. Underrunning was proceeded with south-eastward and the ends at the break were sealed and buoyed.
Underrunning.
Splice opened
Malahambre end faulty.
Underrunning.
Splice closed.
On Friday, the 10th March, underrunning was continued up to the splice with Punta Gorda S.W. On opening this splice, the Malahambre end was still found faulty. Underrunning was again continued for the rest of the day, while the splice was closed.

Underrunning.
Splice opened
Malahambre end faulty.
Underrunning.
Splice closed.

Underrunning.
1/4 knot underrun.
Sheathing bad.
Cable cut.
Piece cut off good.
Additional 30 fthms cut off. ~fault found.~
Nature of fault.
1/4 mile spliced on.

On Saturday, the 11th March, in the morning the splice with Punta Gorda S.W. by W. was also opened and the fault still towards Malahambre. After closing the Schooner proceeded to the splice off Malahambre, and underrunning was proceeded with from it to the north-westward. After about a quarter of a mile had been underrun the sheathing was found gone. On cutting and testing the fault was still found towards Punta Gorda. After another 30 fathoms had been underrun another bad place came up. On cutting and testing, the fault was found in the piece cut off. The fault was not in the exposed part, but in a part near by where the sheathing was intact. The jute covering was completely gone leaving the core exposed within the wires, where it was white and cracked. The cable on board was then spliced on and about a quarter of a mile was payed out. At 7 a.m. the Schooner was anchored for the night with both ends on board.
Bight slipped.
Position off Punta Gorda.
Underrunning.
Cable buoyed.
On Sunday, the 12th March, after jointing and splicing up, the bight was slipped with the west end of Malahambre N.E. by N. and the Schooner set sail for end off Punta Gorda, arriving there about 4:30 p.m. The cable was then underrun north-westward till the wasted part was past and buoyed, and the Schooner anchored alongside for the night.
Splicing on.
½ mile paid out.
Splicing up.
Bight slipped.
Position.
Under Sail.
On Monday, the 13th March, after jointing and splicing on the cable on board, about half a mile was payed out, when the cable on board was joined and splice up. At about 2:20 p.m., the bight was slipped with Punta Gorda E. by S. and the Schooner set sail for off Cacao.
Off Cacao.
Testing. ~Fault apparently 20 miles eastward.
Splicing up.
Under sail.
Off Punta Flamenca.
On Tuesday, the 14th March, at about 9 a.m. the Schooner arrived off Cacao and took the sealed ends on board. The tests of the Cienfuegos seemed to make the fault about twenty miles off. After jointing and splicing up, the Schooner set sail for off Punta Flamenca and arrived there about 6 p.m. when she anchored for the night.
Dredging.
Underrunning.
Batabano end faulty.
Ends sealed.
Under sail.
Off Cayo Palanca.
Cable hooked.
Underrunning.
Testing.
Cienfuegos end faulty.
Cable buoyed.
Nature of bottom.
Condition of cable.
On Wednesday, the 15th March, at 6 a.m. the Schooner proceeded and anchored near the line of cable, with Punta Flamenca N.W. and dredging was proceeded with till about 8:30 a.m. when the cable was hooked and underrun up to the splice. On opening and testing, the Cienfuegos was found good & the Batabano end faulty giving a resistance of 330 Ohms. The ends were then sealed and buoyed, and the schooner set sail for the splices to the S. by E. of Cayo Palanca. At 3 p.m. on arriving there on the line of cable, the cable was hooked and underrun up to the westward splice in about an hour. On opening and testing, the Batabano end was found good and the Flamenca end faulty giving a resistance of 104 Ohms. On underrunning about a hundred fathoms the east splice came up; after another hundred and fifty fathoms were underrun the cable began to be embedded in the bottom and was buoyed. The bottom here is hard and rocky. The cable between the splices, being comparatively new, was found in fair condition, while the sheathing of the 150 fathoms eastward was very much wasted.
Cable cut.
Piece good.
¼ mile spliced in.
Bight slipped.
Position.
On Thursday, the 16th March, in the morning the cable was cut where it was buoyed and the piece found good. During the day a quarter of a mile of new cable was spliced in between the ends, and the hundred fathoms of cable in fair condition, picked up. At 6 p.m. the bight was slipped with Rabehorcado S.S.E. ½ S. and the Schooner anchored alongside for the night.
Under sail.
Off Cayo Bonito.
Cable hooked.
Underrunning.
Splice opened testing.
Flamenca end faulty.
Splice closed.
Underrunning.
On Friday, the 17th March, the Schooner set sail for the splice at the west end of the 5 miles of new cable put in in 1890 and anchored near the line of cable to the S.E. by S. of Cayo Bonito. In about an hour the cable was hooked and underrun up to the splice. On opening and testing, the Batabano end was found good and the Flamenca end to give a resistance of about 64 Ohms. During the afternoon the splice was closed, while the boat underrun about one and a half miles eastward without finding anything wrong with sheathing.
5 miles underrun.
Sheathing in perfect condition.
Testing.
Cable opened.
Fault westward.
On Saturday, the 18th March, during the forenoon the remainder of the five miles were underrun without finding anything to indicate the position of the fault. During the afternoon after testing again from the east end, the cable was opened about two miles from the west end, and the fault found westward.
Cable opened.
Fault eastward.
Cable opened.
Fault westward.
Work suspended.
On Sunday, the 19th March, the cable was opened near the west end splice and fault found eastward. It was then opened about a mile to eastward and the fault found westward. At 3 p.m. the work was completely suspended with heavy squalls of rain which continued during the night.
Cable opened.
Fault eastward.
Cable cut.
Fault eastward.
Cable cut, fault in eighth mile eastward.
Eighth mile spliced in.
Faulty piece picked up.
On Monday, the 20th March, the cable was opened about half a mile westward of the last position, and the fault eastward. It was then cut a quarter of a mile to the eastward and fault found eastward. It was again cut an eighth of a mile eastward and fault found in this piece. During the afternoon and evening about an eighth of a mile of new cable was jointed and spliced in between the ends and the faulty piece picked up. At about 10 p.m. the bight was slipped and the Schooner anchored alongside for the night.
Under sail
Fault Cut out.
Splicing.
3/4 mile cable on board.
Nature of fault.
Probable cause.
Off Punta Flamenca.
Testing.
Results of tests.
Splicing up.
Final bight slipped.
Position off Diego Perez.
On Tuesday, the 21st March, the Schooner took the whole forenoon to reach the sealed ends off Punta Flamenca in consequence of a heavy head wind and current. During this time the fault in the picked up cable was cut out and the two pieces left were spliced on to the cable onboard making its length approximately three quarters of a knot. The copper conductor was found exposed at the side of the core, which most probably had been caused by exposure to the sun when the cable was laid. It is strange this fault was not detected when the cable was laid; most probably the heavy covering had then been sufficient to keep the part dry and the leakage cause had not been sufficient to attract attention. At 2 p.m. the Schooner arrived at the sealed ends and took them on board. On testing, the Cienfuegos end was found to give a mean insulation resistance per knot, after two minutes electrification, of 6½ megohms and a conductor resistance of 801 Ohms, and the Batabano end a mean insulation resistance per knot, after two minutes electrification of 1¼ megohms, and a conductor resistance of 770 Ohms. The ends were then joined and spliced up and at 5:20 p.m. the final bight was slipped with Punta Flamenca N.W. by W. and the Schooner proceeded and anchored near the lightship for the night.
Off Diego Perez.
Weather unpromising.
Set sail for Cienfuegos.
Off the store.
On Wednesday, the 22nd March, in the morning there was a strong S.E. wind with a very choppy sea. The Schooner proceeded and anchored near the line of cable to the S.E. of the lightship with a view to put in there the three quarters of a knot of cable remaining on board. After waiting for some time to see if the weather would clear up and there being no prospects of its doing so for the day, at 10 a.m. the Schooner set sail for Cienfuegos and after tacking for three days with a strong head wind and sea she arrived off the store at about midnight on Friday the 24th March.
Cable tools & stores discharged.
Schooner discharged.
On Saturday, the 25th March, the cable tools and stores were put on shore and the Schooner discharged.
Shore tests.

On Sunday, the 26th March, the cable was tested from the shore giving a mean insulation resistance per knot, after two minutes electrification of about one and a half megohms and a total conductor resistance of 1570 Ohms.

The cable is now in its normal condition.

Condition of Cable. One or two pieces of the most wasted parts of the cable between Puntas Gorda and Flamenca have been removed and there is a prospect of its now remaining in good condition for some time.
 
George Keith

 

 

 

To James Scott Esq
      Secretary, Cuba Submarine
            Telegraph Company
                  58 Old Broad Street
                        London. E.C.


Notes:

Reading this contemporary account of the conditions encountered while laying the Batabano-Cienfuegos cable, published in The Science Record for 1873, it is perhaps not surprising that the cable was in need of repair.

Starting from Havana, which was previously in connection with Florida, the line passes across the Island of Cuba to Batabano, where the submarine system commences. From this point, for about 100 miles, the cable is laid along a tortuous course in very shallow water, passing between rocky islets and coral reefs, and the coast being imperfectly surveyed previously, it was necessary to make a most careful study of the bottom, and to sound over the whole of the route to find a soft and safe bed for the cable. The type of cable used on this section being of the heavy class, a great deal of manual labor was needed, and it was also requisite to ernploy a number of small vessels of light draught.

After passing Cienfuegos the line was laid in deep water along the Cuban coast to Santiago, and the cable was landed amid much rejoicing.


The February 1893 repairs to this cable kept it in service for several more years, but in February 1894, at the 45th ordinary general meeting of the Cuba Submarine Telegraph Company in London, the report of which was published in The Electrician, the Chairman made this statement:

... this half-year we have had no cable repairs, the consequence being that we have been able to reserve £1,500 against any loss from the deposits with banks and to carry £5,000 to the 1eserve fund, bringing it up to the large sum of £105,000. I am not quite sure that that policy would have been pursued by the Board but for the fact that we shall find it necessary soon to lay another cable.

As intimated to you in the report, the cable which was laid in 1870 between Batabano and Cienfuegos has given out, although we have been using it almost up to the present time, but it has shown lately some indications of further depreciations, and although it has not ceased to speak altogether, its efficiency has been so much reduced that it will probably soon refuse to speak at all. It may recover itself, as it has done before, and in that case we shall continue to use it as long as we can, but it is hardly safe to trust to it, and consequently, we think, that it is desirable to lay another cable between these two points. Under these circumstances the reserve is highly necessary and proper.

Perhaps the shareholders would like to know what the ages of our cables really are, since nothing has been said upon the subject in our printed reports. Our cables extend from a distance of about 600 miles in round figures. The portion between Santiago and Cienfuegos represents about 400 miles, and the section between Cienfuegos and Batabano represents about 200 miles. In 1870 cables were laid over both sections, but the section of 400 miles was abandoned in 1881, and the section of 200 miles is the one to which I have referred as being defective in insulation, and will probably have to be abandoned. We have, over the 400 miles, two working cables, one having been laid in 1875 and the other in 1881. We have also, one good working cable laid three years ago over the 200 miles section, and it is over it that we shall soon have to lay another.


After a long career in the cable industry, George Keith died in 1916. This obituary was published in the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers:

George Keith was the fourth son of the late James Keith of Chapelhall, Ellon, Aberdeenshire, and was born in 1846.

He was educated at the Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University, after which he was apprenticed to the engineering business and went through the engineering course at Glasgow University under the late Professor Rankine.

For several years he was on the staff of Sir William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin) and Professor Jenkin, consulting engineers for the construction and laying of submarine cables on the coast of Brazil, and he received from the Emperor Pedro II the order of "Cavalliero da Ordin da Rosa."

He was afterwards for a considerable time resident in Cuba, where he held the position of manager and engineer of the Cuba Submarine Telegraph Company.

From 1892 until his death, which occurred on the 22nd August, 1916, following an operation, he was director and engineer of the company in this country, and latterly its chairman.

He was also chairman of the Chili Telephone Company, chairman and managing director of the Amazon Telegraph Company, and a director of the River Plate Telephone Company.

He was elected a Member of the Institution in 1878.

Last revised: 6 October, 2017

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