History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
1850 Dover-Calais Cable
This first international cable, consisting of a single No.14 copper wire with gutta percha insulation and no armouring, was laid across the English Channel in 1850 by the English Channel Submarine Telegraph Company of Jacob and John Watkins Brett. It continued to attract attention for many years, even though it had worked only briefly.
In 1854 a section of the cable was recovered, cut into short lengths, mounted on card, and sold as souvenirs. In 1875 another length was recovered, and a number of samples are known; these are generally mounted in glass tubes. The samples are marked with either engraved brass or vulcanite ends, or a plaque bearing the 1875 date. See below for images of recovered cable samples from 1854 and 1875.
Willoughby Smith made electrical tests on a section of the core recovered in 1875, and remarked on its origin and properties at a meeting of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in London that same year. The report on the session: Relative Merits of Gutta-Percha and India-Rubber Joints, held on Wednesday 10th November 1875, includes this exchange:
At the Edinburgh Internation Exhibition of 1889/90:
A celebration in 1890 for the 50th anniversary of the Penny Post included an exhibit at the Guildhall in London of communications history:
The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company, which had custody of the recovered cable, was still presenting samples as late as 1896:
A piece of recovered cable was displayed by the GPO at the Manchester Electrical Exhibition in 1908:
Souvenir card of 1850 cable, recovered in 1854:
Three sections of 1850 cable, all recovered in 1875.
Contemporary Reports of the Cable Laying
Frederick Charles Webb, in his “Old Cable Stories Retold” series of articles in The Electrician, published between 1884 and 1886, shared his memories of ‘The Unarmoured Line from Dover to Cape Grisnez.”
From Scientific American, Volume 5, Issue 52, September 14, 1850
The Electric Telegraph in Europe
It is well known that various projects have been proposed for a Transatlantic Telegraph; this will be no easy matter, owing to the length of wires required. In the present state of Electric Telegraph science, it is impossible, owing to the distance of such a length of wire between the batteries. Between Calais in France, and Dover in England, the distance being no more than 25 miles, the project of an ocean telegraph is not only feasible, but the construction of one is in actual operation to unite France and England. The Telegraph is to be on Bain’s principle, now so well known in America. The telegraph, like steam navigation, will be the means of spreading rapidly the arts and sciences of civilized nations among all lands. The Dublin University Magazine says:
“When the powers of this improved telegraph shall be brought into full operation, and when the mode of intercommunication shall be available by the public in all parts of Europe, great changes in the social and commercial relations of the centres of commerce and population must be witnessed. Hitherto the use of the telegraph has been limited to the Government. The public has been altogether excluded from it. Such a system, however, cannot be of long duration, and the precursors of a speedy change are already apparent. A project of law has been presented to the Legislative Assembly, by the French Government, to open the telegraph to commerce and the public. Lines of electric telegraph have been constructed, and are already in operation, along the principal lines of railway in France. A commission has been appointed, by the Belgian Government, to report upon the means which ought to be adopted to construct lines of electric telegraph throughout that kingdom. Lines of considerable extent are in operation in the Prussian States, arid still more extended systems are in preparation. Measures are in progress for the establishment of lines of electric telegraphs in the territories of Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, Wirtemburg, Baden, and all the lesser states of Germany. The Emperor of Russia has issued orders for the construction of lines of telegraphic wires to connect St. Petersburg with Moscow, and with the Prussian, Saxon, and Austrian lines of telegraph.”
From the Illustrated London News, 7 September 1850 [scans courtesy of Bill Glover].
The Congress And
On the 22d, 23d, and 24th of August, the Peace Congress discharged its cannonade of eloquence at Frankfort. On the last day, Saturday, Ka-Ge-Ga Bow (wow?) exhibited the Pipe of Peace gratuitously; Doctor Weil and Doctor Bodenstedt spoke French and English to the audience of strangers in a German town; and Mr. Cobden closed the firing with three cheers.
A couple of days afterwards, a steamer, the Goliah, quietly left Dover with some copper-wire on board; of which one end was fastened to the English shore, and the other end the Goliah was commissioned to make fast upon the shore of France. The day was fair, and the sea calm; the elements assisted in the work of peace. Communication by Electric Telegraph was soon complete from Dover to Cape Grisnez; and though an accident has since interrupted it, it is but for a time. The interruption is only so much experience making future failure unlikely. Some sunken rocks had been overlooked; but the mass of the wire remained firm in its position, neither drifted by the currents nor sunk in the sands. It will soon be again completed.
Now the men at work upon the Goliah, unrolling from their cylinder that thirty miles of wire - the most valuable cargo, perhaps, ever yet carried in a vessel - appear to us to have been the real Peace Congress. To put it arithmetically, the crew of the Goliah was to the assembly in St. Paul’s at Frankfort, as lightning to stage-rosin.
England and France have tried many cements of friendship, some of them good, some indifferent enough. But as soon as they shall be effectually riveted with copper wire, we may hope that they will indeed stick together properly.
Believing as we do that nine in ten of all the quarrels in the world, between individuals or nations, are described truly by the phrase, misunderstanding has arisen - we are convinced that the more familiarly men become acquainted with each other, the more they will find out how much they have in common. Whatever extends and quickens interchange of thought, facilitates our knowledge of our neighbors, and brings peace. It is impossible to know a man and hate him. A full knowledge of the most wicked man alive would not make hate, but pity. “There goes my wicked self;” said the good and generous Jeremy Taylor, as a man of notoriously bad character passed him.
It is for this among other reasons that we resist every attempt to lessen opportunities of intercourse by interference with the post. We think the post-office a mighty peace-maker, and indispensable to peace. Until a cheap and facile postage circulation through the whole civilized world, assisted by electric telegraphs from land to land, has brought us all to see that man is but in ignorance his neighbor’s enemy, and has taught us all to feel the proper faith in our fellow-men of which we are deprived only by want of closer intercourse, there will of necessity be wars among us. No peace-treaty between France and England ever went so far to unite them as the voyage of the Goliah did on the 27th of last month.
All Europe ought to hold together; but it is unluckily in pieces, and some pieces are perpetually falling out. The safest jointing is with copper wire. Many more rivets are required, like that which Mr. Brett is putting in between France and England. His work finally accomplished, long may it share the channel’s bed, and sleep unharmed within its gutta-percha covering. May no storm reach, no anchor cleave, no fish or sunken rocks molest - that gutta-percha tube, the white man’s pipe of peace.
|See also the Submarine Telegraph Company and Goliath pages, and the page for the 1851 Dover-Calais cable.|
Last revised: 19 January, 2022