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

A Visit to the Works of Messrs. Siemens Bros. - 1884

Thanks to Jim Jones for supplying this article from The Telegraphist, June 2 1884.



A Visit to the Works of Messrs. Siemens Bros.

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the Atlantic was first spanned by an electrical conductor, and few of our young readers will be able to recall the disasters encountered by those plucky electricians who conceived the gigantic scheme of connecting the Old World with the New.

So far back as 1843 Professor Morse expressed his conviction that an electric current could be conveyed across the Atlantic; but it was not until that enterprising American, Mr. Cyrus Field, began to form a company in 1856 that the general public heard anything about the ideas of the men of science; and although very little opposition was encountered as compared with the mountains of popular prejudice which George Stephenson had to beat down when he was projecting his great railway schemes, not a small section of the British public pooh-poohed the idea of an Atlantic telegraph.

The capital was raised in England and America, and the paying-out of the first Atlantic cable commenced on Friday, Aug. 7, 1857. On Tuesday, Aug. 11, the cable broke in 2,000 fathoms of water, when about 330 nautical miles had been laid. The originator of so great an undertaking was not discouraged even at this disaster, and arrangements were soon made for a fresh supply of cable to replace the lost portion. In 1858 the whole of the cable was successfully laid, and her Majesty and the President of America exchanged messages. There were great rejoicings in both countries; but, after working tolerably well for a few days, a fault in the conductor decided the fate of the cable. Half-a-million sterling was sunk never to be recovered, and the shareholders were on the verge of despair.

One man alone refused to “say die,” and that was the indomitable Cyrus Field. He agitated the question of another cable; and a second company was started in 1862. The firm of Glass Elliot (now the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company) agreed to supply the new cable for £700,000. The greatest care was taken in its manufacture, and on June 14, 1865, the Great Eastern left the Medway for the Nore carrying 7,000 tons of cable, 2,000 tons of iron tanks, and 7,000 tons of coal. At the Nore Dr. Russell states she took in 1,500 additional tons of coal, which brought her total dead weight to 21,000 tons! On the 2nd of August the cable snapped, and another half million was consigned to the mighty deep. The length of cable paid out was 1,186 miles, and the distance from Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, 606.6 miles. Several attempts were made to recover this cable, but the picking up machinery was not equal to the occasion, and the enterprise was abandoned. Another cable was ready in twelve months time, which was laid by the Great Eastern without a hitch, and on the 2nd of September, 1866, the lost ’65 cable was picked up and completed six days later!

This brief record will give the reader some idea of the difficulties encountered by the pioneers of Ocean Telegraphy, and when we hear of a cable being laid across the Atlantic in two or three weeks without anything unusual occurring, we ought to feel grateful to that band of persevering electricians who, by repeated failures and disasters enough to shake the courage of any but the Anglo-Saxon race, discovered the way to make and lay those deep sea cables of which we are so justly proud.

In 1869 a cable was successfully laid from Brest, in France, to St. Pierre Island. In 1873 a cable was laid from Ireland to Newfoundland, and in 1874 two cables were laid, one for the Anglo-American Company, and the other for the Direct United States Company. Then the Compagnie Francaise du Cable Transatlantique laid a cable in 1879; and the two last cables were laid by the American Telegraph and Cable Company in 1881 and 1882.

At the present time two new Atlantic cables are in course of construction at the works of Messrs. Siemens Brothers, Woolwich. These lines will be owned by two American millionaires - Messrs. Bennett and Mackay. Two or three other gentlemen have shares in the undertaking, but the greater portion of the capital has been subscribed by the above-mentioned millionaires. Believing that a brief description of the construction of the new cables would interest the readers of the TELEGRAPHIST, we visited the works of Messrs. Siemens Brothers a few days ago, and obtained a sight of the process of cable manufacture.

The conductor or “copper centre” of the deep sea section is formed of thirteen wires spun into a strand. The copper of which the conducting wire is made is selected with the greatest care The centre wire is about one-tenth of an inch in thickness. The twelve thin wires are bound over the central wire by a small stranding-machine, which grasps the principal wire as it is driven through an orifice, and fastens the twelve minor wires around it. There are ten stranding-machines at work upon this cable, and these can together turn out fifty miles of copper conductor per diem. These wires are tinned, and when the copper strand leaves the machine it is covered with india-rubber, which is warmed into a paste and put on by pressure. The cable now resembles ordinary thick g.p. wire, and it is wound on drums in three knot lengths.

The next process is to cover the cable with jute, securely bound with four thin yarns. An ordinary observer would mistake the cable for common rope after it receives its coating of jute. There is now a stoppage in the process; the cable is coiled into tanks filled with water, where it remains for two or three weeks. At frequent intervals it is subjected to the most delicate electrical tests, and if a fault is discovered, no matter how slight, it is not allowed to pass unnoticed. The cable is jointed from tank to tank, and great care is taken in this part of the operations, for a bad joint may lead to a fatal disaster after it reaches the bottom of the sea.

At the expiration of its period of primary submersion, the cable is removed from the tanks and got ready for the sheathing process. The sheath consists of twenty-four steel wires. Each coil of the sheathing-wire is subjected to a very severe test; the two ends are cut off, and a strain is put upon them equal to 700 lb. If the wire breaks before the dynamometer registers the required strain test the coil is rejected. We were informed that the sheathing wire is a sort of Bessemer steel, and it is said to be of a quality superior to any which has hitherto been used in the manufacture of submarine cables. As each portion of the cable receives its binding of twenty-four steel wires, it passes slowly over a reservoir of molten compound, and the black liquid is poured upon it, filling up all the interstices. Onward it goes over the rollers, and next receives a coat of twenty-one manilla yarns. It then passes over another compound trough - and its covering is instantly changed from brown to black. Rolling on its way, it is now supplied with a covering of Russian hemp, then another shower of compounds, and the work is finished.

The cable does not, however, stop here, but passes over numerous rollers until it reaches the tank ready for its reception, where it is coiled pending the arrival of the cableship. To prevent stickiness, each coil is covered with whitewash, and the tanks are filled with water. Some of those tanks are of enormous capacity. We saw one which held 500 knots of cable, and we were informed that the tanks onboard the cable ships were quite as large, if not larger. In viewing the works of Messrs. Siemens Bros., we were struck with the perfect order which reigned in every department. The telegraph works of this great firm cover 7½ acres of ground, and no less than 2,500 men are employed in the manufacture of cables and telegraphic apparatus.

That our enterprising cousins across the water should have to send to England for cables, speaks volumes for the electrical progress of the old country. There is no need to write a laudatory notice on the eminent firm of Siemens Bros.; their reputation is world-famed, and for us to say that their work is perfection would be like “painting the lily,” or “gilding refined gold.” We can, however, add that the excellence of their work is only equalled by the courtesy of their officials, and we are pleased to congratulate the firm on possessing so careful and conscientious a servant as Mr. Reis, the gentleman who was appointed our guide last Friday afternoon.

See also this account of a visit to the Siemens works in 1874
and the main page on Siemens Brothers

Last revised: 3 November, 2015

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