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

Cable Recovery
by Bill Burns

Cable recovery techniques were developed soon after cable laying began in the early 1850s. Accidents during laying meant that cable ends were occasionally lost to the sea bed, and existing cables needed to be retrieved and repaired when damage occurred through manmade or natural causes.

To aid in the maintenance of cables, and to avoid conflicts with the routes of existing cables as new ones are laid, the route of each cable is surveyed, and the track of the cable as laid is precisely charted. Compare these two surveys from 1890 and 1973, which show how improvements in technology have aided this task. In 1973 the best satellite navigation equipment allowed an accuracy of about ± ¼ mile; now GPS satellite systems make the surveying and charting of new cables and location of existing cables even more precise, with accuracy of just a few feet.

Cables have been recovered by grappling for over 150 years, an operation aided today by the use of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). The first successful deep-water operation was the recovery in 1866 by Great Eastern of the lost 1865 cable.

When an existing cable has to be recovered, the location of the fault is calculated by electrical measurements made from the two shore ends, and the position is found on the cable chart. The repair ship then sails to the position of the fault and retrieves the cable. Once the cable is located on the seabed it may be hauled up intact in a bight (in shallow water), or it may be necessary to cut the cable and haul up the end of the good section. This is then buoyed, and the operation repeated on the other side of the fault. A new section of cable is spliced in and the repaired cable is released back to the sea bed.

This article shows how cables were spliced about a hundred years ago. Similar techniques were used on copper cables until they were superseded by fiber optic cables in the 1980s. Here's how repeaters were spliced into a coaxial copper cable in the 1970s.

When cables are recoved for repair, especially if they have been in position for some years, they are often found covered with marine growths. The type of growth depends on the geographical location, the water temperature,and the depth of the cable.

On this page are many examples of recovered cables, covering a span of about 150 years.

The first submarine cable between Britain and Europe, laid in 1850 from Dover to Calais, consisted only of unarmoured core and failed almost immediately. Sections of it were recovered in 1854 and 1875:

1850 Dover-Calais Cable, recovered in 1854

 

1850 Dover-Calais Cable, recovered in 1875

The 1865 Atlantic cable, lost during laying that year, was recovered and completed the following year. This sample of the core of the 1865 cable is accompanied by a note on its provenance:

This is a piece of the original Atlantic cable laid by the Great Eastern steamship. Abandoned from 1865 until 1866 when it was picked up from the bed of the mid Atlantic being under two miles of water for a year.

P. Ward

Son of the doctor of S.S. Great Eastern and present at the recovery.

1865 Atlantic cable core, recovered in 1866

This piece of the 1866 South Foreland (England) - La Panne (Belgium) cable was recovered by CS Telconia on 2nd January 1926:

Recovered section of cable with four cores, two 7-strand and two 4-strand

Cable images courtesy of and copyright © 2010 Greg Kellett,
by whose kind permission they appear here.

On May 8th, 1867 the grounding of an iceberg at the mouth of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, resulted in crushing damage to a section of the shore end of the 1866 Atlantic cable.

This sample of the damaged cable was recovered during the repair operation on June 18th, 1867, and is shown here courtesy of site visitor Simon Cheifetz:

Portion of shore end of the Atlantic Telegraph
Cable of 1866, crushed by an iceberg in Trinity Bay
8th May and repaired 18th June 1867

Images courtesy of Simon Cheifetz

1866 Atlantic cable, recovered in 1867

Compare the section of the crushed sample
with the illustration of the 1866 shore end cable

In 1868 the English terminus of the 1858 cable between Dunwich and Zandvoort was moved to South Lowestoft, and a new piece of cable was used to make the diversion. A fault in this new cable was picked up in 1884:

1868 South Lowestoft - Zandvoort Cable, recovered in 1884

This cable section from the 1869 French Atlantic Cable laid by Great Easternwas recovered in 1909 by CS Colonia and is now in the Science Museum, London:

1869 French Atlantic Cable, recovered in 1909

These sections of the cable laid in the Straits of Kertch in 1869 and 1884 as part of the Indo-European Telegraph Company's system were recovered in 1889:

Straits of Kertch Cable
Submerged 1869
Recovered 1889
Siemens Bros Co London

Images courtesy of Angelika Sommer

Straits of Kertch Cable No. 8459
Submerged 1884
Recovered 1889
Siemens Bros Co London

1869 cable cross-section

1884 cable cross-section

This sketch shows a section of the 1870 Penang-Singapore cable, recovered during the repair of a fault in 1871. The cable was damaged in 30 fathoms of water by the tooth of a swordfish, which pierced the cable.

1870 Penang-Singapore cable.
Illustration from Frank Buckland:
Logbook of a Fisherman and Zoologist,
London, 1883, pages 226-229

In 1901 CS Sherard Osborn picked up this section of the Singapore - Hong Kong cable, laid in 1871 by Telcon for the China Submarine Telegraph Company:

Hong Kong & Singapore Cable
Laid 1871
Picked up by SS Osborn 1901
Depth 800 fathoms

Main (deep sea) cable, with seven-strand
copper conductor and twelve armouring wires

This section of what is believed to be the 1871 Porth Crugmor to Howth (Ireland) No 1 cable, was recovered on the beach at Anglesey in 2009:

Cable Cottage showing the exposed cable on the beach.
Photograph courtesy of Keith Muscott

The exposed cable on the beach, looking towards the bay.
Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Muscott

The recovered cable. About 2" (50mm) in diameter, the cable has
twelve armouring wires and seven 7-strand copper conductors.
Photographs courtesy of Terry Dutton.

This section of the 1879 French Atlantic Cable, mounted in a fitted presentation case, was recovered in 1887:

 cable02.jpg (35231 bytes)   cable01.jpg (34220 bytes) 

The paper label inside the lid of the box states:

Piece of Atlantic Cable recovered from a depth of 1748 fathoms [about two miles] after being submerged eight years

This section of cable was presented to O. French by George G. Ward, Vice President of Mackay Bennett Cable Co., 1890. The box is silk covered and silk lined, though a little water-stained.

Cable images and text courtesy of Neal McEwen: The Telegraph Office

This section of the 1881 Atlantic cable between England and Nova Scotia was recovered in 1942:

1881 cable section, recovered in 1942
Image copyright © 2008 Bell Canada Historical Collection

The 1881 cable section shown here was recovered in 1942. The donor of the cable included these notes:

Submarine cable picked up during repair of Western Union Bay Roberts (NFLD) - Penzance (England) cable by C.S. LORD KELVIN, escorted by U.S.S. BERNADOU, August 1942, Lat 50.00N, Long, 30.00W in depths ranging between 1½ and 2 miles.
Cable laid in 1881.
Cable type : "8301";
Armor : 24 wires no 15 B.W.G.;
Copper 350 lbs per mile;
Gutta Percha 300 lbs per mile.

In 1893 CS Grappler recovered two sections of the 1870-73 West India Panama Telegraph Company cables, one between Cuba and Jamaica; the other off Demerara, British Guiana. The recovered samples are of identical construction, each being the deep sea section. A tag accompanying the cable sections gives details of the recovery.

“Short piece 23 years under water recovered in 1500 fathoms by telegraph ship Grappler Dec. 1893 between Cuba and Jamaica”

This is from the original 1870 installation between Cuba and Jamaica.

“Long piece four years under water recovered in 10 fathoms off Demerara”

This was perhaps from the duplicate cable laid between Trinidad and Demerara in 1890.

This section of what is believed to be the 1926 Bamfield (British Colombia) to Fanning Island cable was retrieved from the Pacific sea bed during a recovery & repair operation, date unknown:

Cable recovered by CS Dominia.
This continuously loaded cable was made by Telcon, and is most likely a section of the 1926 Bamfield, British Colombia - Fanning Island cable, laid by CS Dominia

Images courtesy of James Alan Bambrough

This section of the Singapore - Hong Kong No. 6 telegraph cable shows a penetration through the armouring and insulation to the conductor:

Telegraph Cable Fault
No. 6 Singapore-Hong Kong
7.1.64

Detail of penetration to the polyethylene insulation

Images courtesy of
Prof. Nigel Linge, Salford University

This piece of the 1900 German Atlantic cable (Azores-Coney Island, New York section) was recovered off Long Island, New York, in 2009 after 109 years of submersion. The cable is in remarkably good condition, with the armoring wires rusted but mostly intact and the copper conductor clean and bright.

1921 Key West - Havana cable
Type A Shore End Single

Tom Perera recovered this section of the 1921 Key West - Havana Telephone cable from the ocean off Key West in 1997. This was one of the first loaded telephone cables.

This section of armoured cable from the Pan-Jam (Panama-Jamaica) cable was recovered from about 1000 meters of water in the Caribbean several years ago, having been submerged for about 15 years:

1980s Pan-Jam cable, recovered after 15
years of submersion in the Caribbean.
Image courtesy of Brian Isenstadt

Last revised: 11 May, 2014

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Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: billb@ftldesign.com

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: Atlantic-Cable.com