Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

Submarine Telegraph Experiments
by Charles V. Walker

Introduction: The text below is the last section of Charles V. Walker's book Electric Telegraph Manipulation, published in London 1850. Written in 1849, this is one of the earliest descriptions of submarine telegraphy experiments. Walker wrote extensively on electricity and telegraphy, and was later President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

Text and images courtesy of Jim Kreuzer.

See also these accounts of the experiments published in The Times in 1849 and in The Historic Times the same year.

--Bill Burns




















Submarine Telegraph

This is a somewhat unfortunate term, for it leads the multitude to think of some peculiar kind of instrument, more fitted than others to propelling telegraphic signals beneath the ocean-wave. The only thing submarine in it is the conducting wire; and when this is in situ it matters little, as far as the submarine part of the affair is concerned, what generator of an electric current, or what interpreting instrument, is at each end. Insulated as we are from other nations, and yet very deeply interested in all that transpires on the Continent, we naturally look forward to the day when telegraph communications shall be made with as much facility between Dover and Calais, and Folkstone and Boulogne, as they now are between London and Dover.

The first step has been taken; the first stage has been passed; signals from London have been transmitted to the coast at Folkstone, and onward by two miles of covered wire, submerged beneath the waters to the deck of a vessel afloat; and conversation has so been held. This was on Jan. 10, 1849; and, as the day will assuredly come, but not just now, when this embryo invasion of Neptune's domain, shall become a practical reality, it may be well to have a faithful record of the circumstances connected with this experiment.Having watched for some time, and occasionally assisted in the perfecting a wire covered with gutta percha, for tunnel use, I readily obtained the permission of the Directors of the South-Eastern Railway Company to employ it for insulation in our several wet tunnels. It occurred to me, as the work went on, that I possessed unusual facilities for a submarine experiment—a line of railway from London to the coast, a harbour under the same Direction as the railway, a fleet of steam ships occupying this harbour, equally accessible, and several miles of wire covered with a perfectly insulating material. It is true the season (January) was not favourable, but it was not convenient to delay. I explained my views to the Board of Directors, and had no difficulty in obtaining their countenance and assistance. They fixed the day, they ordered a steamship to be at my command, and they issued cards of invitation, including free transit from any part of the railway, or from Calais and Boulogne to Folkstone and back, and available for several days.

I selected upwards of two miles of No. 16 copper wire, provided with its coat of gutta percha; I personally tested the whole, piece by piece, under water, and also the several joints. It was then wound on a wooden drum, mounted on a frame, and so conveyed to Folkstone.

The sketch of Folkstone Harbour will illustrate our experiments. From the main line of railway a branch, of about a mile in length, descends to the harbour, crossing to the station by the swing bridge shewn in the drawing. The telegraph office is the last room in the low range of buildings next beyond the station. We are obliged to avoid the bridge with the wires, since masted vessels have to enter the inner harbour; and hence we led them a circuitous course behind the Pavilion Hotel and the Harbour House. I erected a pole, in the sands just above high water-mark by which I led a wire from the telegraph office to the margin of the sea. On the evening of the 9th, I, for the last time, tested the continuity of the wire, by placing the drum on the sands and connecting the covered wire with the wire that led from London; and then, with the ripple at our feet, and by the glare of lamps, amid a motley and wondering group of fishermen, revenue officers, and others we proved the circuit was good, by holding converse with the clerks at London.

Our plan, for the morrow, was to take the drum out in a small boat, somewhat in a direct line from the shore, uncoiling and submerging the wire as we went on; and there to have remained at anchor, till the time of the arrival of the train from London, when the steamer was to sail out with our friends to the position shewn on the right, and, having the telegraph apparatus on deck, was to take us on board, with the end of the wire. But the aspect of nature changed during the night; the wind arose, and the sea became so disturbed, that not only would it have been a fruitless task for landsmen to have attempted philosophical illustrations on so unstable a theatre as a ship tossing on the waves, but it would have been practically impossible to have avoided snapping the wire. Instead, therefore, of the ship going out to the boat, the latter went out alone, paying out the wire in its progress, according to the original plan, and returning with the end to the shore. The wire was the upper one of the four; it was continued in a direct line from its present termination by the gutta-percha wire, which was carried over the pier into the sea, and paid out in front of the harbour; and passing in at the mouth of the harbour, it terminated at the instrument on the deck of the steamer moored alongside the pier, in the place shewn in the drawing. The conditions of the experiment, were, therefore, all complied with, although the effect was not so striking as if the ship should have gone out to receive the end of the wire.

It had previously been arranged that the telegraph business for this day should be conducted on one wire (No. 2), leaving No. 1 at liberty for these experiments. The Folkstone end of this wire, as I have said, was joined to the submerged wire, the other end of which was also now connected with a single needle instrument on deck, and the circuit was completed by an earth-plate dropped over-board.

These operations were done in presence of our guests, who were now on board; there was no rehearsal, and the wire was meanwhile being buffeted by the waves against the pier. I must confess I felt a little uneasy at having called so many witnesses so far from their homes to an experiment, which could be but partially tested in advance, and the first perfect trial of which would be made publicly. I knew that a slight defect of insulation would not have marred the experiment had the two miles of submerged wire alone been in circuit, but when to this was added the eighty-three miles of wire between the coast and London, I was aware that flaws would be fatal. All being ready, I took the handle of the instrument and made the letter L, the call for London; the acknowledgment of the call was instantaneous; and at forty-nine minutes past noon the first telegraph despatch passed beneath the British Channel in direct course to London; it was “Mr. Walker to Chairman,—I am on board the Princess Clementine: I am successful.” Immediately upon this a correspondence was kept up with London. Communications were then interchanged with other stations on the main line, and after several hours immersion, the wire was drawn up safe and sound. It is now in its place in Merstham tunnel and has been the channel through which all our important despatches have since reached London.

In the map I have given the contours of the French coast, and the soundings in fathoms of the part of the Channel between Folkstone and Boulogne, showing also the two banks facing Folkstone. I have also dotted out some courses for a submarine wire. It must not be supposed that we should in practice attempt to employ so slender and so unprotected a wire in an actual circuit across the channel; nor must it be imagined that because no further steps have been taken, any insurmountable engineering difficulties have presented themselves; but there are difficulties of another kind, and while they exist there is little probability of the attempt being made. I allude to the policy of the French Government, which retains to itself the use and control of telegraphs in France; so that, if even they allowed a telegraph wire to arrive at their coasts, the advantage of saving the mere sea passage of two hours would be by no means adequate to the grandeur and expense of the undertaking. We must hope that time and circumstances will ere long change this policy, and that they will be enabled to permit the public to have as free use of the telegraph in France, and with as much safety as we have in England; and then, in a future edition of this book, we shall be able to examine the plan that may be pursued for traversing the Channel. The French writers on Electric Telegraphs strongly urge the removal of these restrictions. Even while these sheets are passing through the press, the matter has been named in the “Legislative Assembly” of France. A committee, who had reported on the 4th of February 1850, upon the propriety of establishing certain lines of Electric Telegraph upon some of the French Railroads, and had recommended a grant of money for that purpose, inquired of the Minister of the Interior whether it was his intention to allow the use of the Electric Telegraph to the public, as his predecessor, M. Dufaure, had proposed. The Minister replied, that it was a serious question on which he could not decide until he had received further information. It is not for us, nor is this the place, to enter upon the merits of this question, in as far as it is connected with the Government of France, nor would it be becoming in us to attempt to determine how far France may be prepared for so decided and so important a concession. We have only to hope that such “further information” as may be gathered by the committee, and presented to the Assembly, may be of so favourable a tendency as to lead to a gradual abolition of the restrictions which prevent the French merchant and the French citizen deriving advantage from this wonderful scientific application.

Without entering upon the internal relations that may be involved in this question, it would appear that much good must result every way to all parties by the capital of the British empire being within “earshot,” so to say; within “speaking distance” of the capitals of the other great kingdoms of Europe. We have done our part; we have extended the wires from London to the very sea-shore, to within half a dozen paces of the very landing-place of the chief thoroughfare between England and France. The first “bureau” that meets a foreigner's eye on landing in England is the telegraph-office at Folkstone, which is open, without favour or preference, to the first comer. A few steps across the pier, and he has the means, for a moderate charge, of immediate communication with London; and hence with all the chief towns in the kingdom. And the day may be nearer than we believe when our neighbours on the other side the Channel shall do as much for us: when the wires that are now laid from Paris to Calais may be equally accessible to the public as they are here. If the ready intercommunication that now exists between London and Paris by railways and steamships has so greatly promoted the growth of kindly feelings between the citizens of the two countries, how much more may not these friendly dispositions be confirmed when we shall each feel that we can interchange our thoughts with lightning speed?

Last revised: 3 November, 2015

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

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: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: