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

The Submarine Telegraph Company
by Bill Glover

THE SUBMARINE TELEGRAPH COMPANY

Brothers Jacob and John Watkins Brett set up the Submarine Telegraph Company after obtaining landing rights from the French and British authorities allowing them to lay a submarine cable between the two countries. The French concession was conditional on telegraphic communication being established by 1 September 1850.

The "cable" was supplied by the Gutta Percha Company and consisted of a single wire with gutta percha insulation, the company's normal product (see below for details of the cable manufacture). This cable was wound on a drum mounted on the deck of the paddle steamer Goliath. After loading, Goliath made her way to Dover where laying would commence.

The following five images are from the Illustrated London News, 7 September 1850.

Temporary station at Dover. Vessels preparing to set sail.

Goliah paying out the cable

On the morning of 28 August 1850 the shore end of the cable was joined to that on board. Escorted by HMS Widgeon, Goliath then headed for the French coast and Cap Gris-Nez. Because of the lightness of the cable, lead weights of between 10 and 30lbs were attached approximately every 100 yards to make it sink. While this was done the ship had to stop.

The Communicator or Dial Plate

Printing Apparatus

Cap Gris-Nez was reached on the evening of the same day and immediately attempts were made to establish contact with England. Although successful enough to satisfy the conditions of their landing rights, signals were never sent on a commercial basis. A few hours after reaching France the cable failed; tests established that the fault lay close to the French coast. The total cost of the operation was £2,000, a considerable sum in those days.

In later years it was said that a French fisherman had hauled the cable in with his catch, and to free it cut the cable. However, the Illustrated London News of 7th September 1850 had the following report:

In a letter from Dover, dated Wednesday the 4th inst., it is stated that the wire so successfully submerged last week has been cut asunder among the rocks at Cape Grinez, where the physical configuration of the French coast has been found unfavourable for it as a place of holdfast or fixture. All communication between coast and coast has consequently been suspended for the present. The precise point where the break took place is 200 yards out at sea, and just where the twenty miles of electric line that had been streamed out from Dover joins to a leaden tube, designed to protect it from the surge beating against the beach, and which serves the purpose of conveying it up the front of the cliff to the telegraph station on the top. This leaden conductor, it would appear, was of too soft a texture to resist the oscillation of the sea, and thereby became detached from the coil of gutta percha wire that was thought to have been safely encased in it.

The first mention of “French fishermen” breaking the cable appears in the 1896 petition to the British government for funds for Jacob Brett. The story is repeated and in some cases embellished in the 1897 obituaries of Jacob, but appears to have no basis in fact.

[Thanks to Stewart Ash for these details on the breakage]

The cable being taken up the cliffs at Cap Gris Nez

Although this first attempt was not a commercial success it proved the feasibility of such an undertaking, so in the following year a new attempt was made, this time with a lot more planning. The brothers engaged the services of a railway engineer, Thomas R. Crampton, to design and supervise the laying of the cable.

1851Cable.jpg (19533 bytes)

The 1851 cable consisted of a core of four strands of copper wire, covered with a double layer of gutta percha, and surrounded by a covering of tarred hemp. This in turn was enclosed in spun yarn, and ten galvanised iron wires were wound in a spiral around this. The armoring wires were supplied by Richard Johnson Brothers of Manchester, later Richard Johnson & Nephew.

The overall diameter of the cable was 1¼ inches and the weight was between 7 and 8 tons per mile, giving a total of about 200 tons. The cost, including laying, was £15,000. Crampton put up half of the total cost.

Loading the cable aboard HMS Blazer, described as a government steamer, began around 6 am on 22 September 1851 and was completed a day later, the cable having to be hauled aboard by hand.

Laying commenced on the 25 September, HMS Blazer being towed by two tugs because her boiler, engine, funnel and masts had been removed to accommodate the cable. Her escort was HMS Fearless. Reluctant as the first cable had been to reach the sea bed, this one could not reach it quickly enough, due partly to its weight but mainly to the lack of an efficient braking system on board Blazer.

On arriving a few miles off the French coast it was found that there was insufficient cable to complete the laying operation. Temporary measures were made until another piece of cable arrived from England aboard the tug Red Rover. The cable was finally completed and operated for many years with little trouble and only minor repairs.

Goliath and HMS Widgeon are shown on the Rwanda 1fr 1977 stamp (see Goliath). The design of the stamp is based on an engraving first published in The Illustrated London News dated 7 September 1850 and reproduced in many books on telegraphy since.

The success of the 1851 cable led to the Company laying more cables from England to the European Continent

1853 England - Belgium
1858 England - Germany
1859 England - Heligoland
  Heligoland - Denmark
  England - France
  Jersey - Pirou
1861 England - France
1865 England - France
1866 England - Germany
  England - Belgium
1870 England - France
1880 Jersey - Pirou

The assets of the Submarine Telegraph Company were taken over by the General Post Office in 1890.

Submarine Telegraph Company.JPG (102032 bytes)

Note: The 1851 cable manufacture was the subject of legal action by R.S. Newall, whose patent on the armouring machinery was infringed by Crampton's original choice of supplier. Newall wrote up his view of the early cable history in a pamphlet published in 1882.

MANUFACTURING THE 1850 CROSS CHANNEL CABLE

The order placed with the Gutta Percha Company for the first Cross Channel cable specified the following: Twenty five nautical miles of No. 14 Birmingham Wire Gauge copper wire covered with great care in gutta percha to half an inch diameter.

Thomas Bolton & Sons of Birmingham supplied the wire to the Gutta Percha Company in short lengths averaging 100 yards. This didn't present a problem as the gutta percha extruding machine could just manage to cover about 100 yards of wire at a time. Any short wires were jointed by placing a sleeve over the two ends and soldering them with hard solder and then filing the joint down to something like the diameter of the wire.

Once the lengths of wire had been sheathed in gutta percha two inches of the gutta percha was removed from each end. Two lengths of wire were cleaned and then jointed by overlapping the bare ends and twisting them together and applying soft solder. A piece of soft gutta percha was placed around the joint and held in place by a wooden mould until it hardened. This increased the diameter of the cable to two inches tapering down to the normal diameter about four to five inches on either side. The joint was described as looking like a fat cigar.

A number of coils were produced from these short lengths and these were left outside until the Brett brothers asked for them to be sent to Dover. Prior to loading the insulation was tested by depositing the coil in the Thames by means of a crane. The electrician connected a galvanometer to the ends which remained on the wharfside and would then call out either "Right" which meant it had passed or "Chalk" which meant marking the coil with chalk for retesting. At Dover the coils were jointed in much the same way as at the factory and the finished cable was loaded onto the drum on the deck of Goliath ready for laying.

Dover to Calais Telegraph Cable, 1850, recovered 1854


Exhibition handbook

100TH ANNIVERSARY EXHIBITION

To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the laying of the first submarine cable, the Science Museum in London mounted a special exhibition titled One Hundred Years of Submarine Cables, and published a 60-page book by G.R.M. Garratt on the history and future of the cable.

Cable & Wireless, which through its subsidiary companies traced its history back to the early days of submarine cables, also produced a souvenir telegram to mark the event. The reverse of the form gave a brief overview of the company's operations at the time.

Souvenir Telegram issued at an Exhibition at the
Science Museum celebrating the centenary of the
laying of the first submarine telegraph cable in 1850

See also these articles on the 1850 Dover-Calais cable

Last revised: 9 July, 2014

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