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

Summary of the Progress of
Submarine Telegraphy [1869-1894]

from The Electrician, Supplement, 27 July 1894

Introduction: 1894 marked the Silver Jubilee of the establishment of submarine telegraphy to the Far East, and this was celebrated by a series of banquets and dinners in London. First came a dinner at the Imperial Institute on Friday 20th July, given by Sir John Pender (Chairman) and the Directors of the Eastern and Easter Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Companies.

The trade paper The Electrician produced a 12-page supplement to its issue of 27 July 1894 describing the events of the dinner; the supplement also included the article below on the laying and operation of cables in the region over the previous 25 years.

--Bill Burns

Summary of the Progress of Submarine Telegraphy

The early history of submarine telegraphic communication between Great Britain and the Far East is especially noteworthy from the fact that it was fostered and assisted by the British Government. In August, 1868, the Red Sea and Telegraph to India Company was registered with a capital of £800,000, and a British Government perpetual guarantee of 4½ per cent. on its capital provided the cables worked throughout. The cables were laid down the Red Sea and round the coast of Arabia to Kurrachee, starting from Suez and calling at Cassire, Suakim, Aden, Hellania, and Muscat.

These cables, which were manufactured by Newall and Co., worked throughout for a very short time, but then failed and were abandoned. The British Government being obliged to continue the interest, the stock was converted into terminable annuities for fifty years from August, 1858, to July, 1908, so that the Government are still paying interest on this stock, and the total loss to the country will be altogether £1,800,000. At this time the telegraphic communication between Egypt and Great Britain was dependent upon the land line through Turkey and across the Continent of Europe. The Telegraph to India Company also had a monopoly for working the land line in Egypt between Alexandria, Cairo, and Suez.

In 1861 the first cable was laid between Malta and Alexandria via Tripoli, Bengasi, along the African coast. This cable was the property of the British Government, and was leased to Messrs. Glass, Elliott, and Co., afterwards the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Malta had previously been connected with Italy by the cable of the Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company, a dividend of 3 per cent. per annum upon its capital being guaranteed by the British Government. In 1868 the Anglo-Mediterranean Company was formed to take over the Malta-Alexandria cables, and also to work a land line through Italy. An additional cable direct between Malta and Alexandria was laid, and from this nucleus has sprung the present enormous system of the Eastern and Eastern Extension Telegraph Companies.

The agitation for a direct submarine telegraphic communication between India and Great Britain culminated in 1869 in the registration of the following Companies:

The British Indian Company, formed to acquire the rights in Egypt of the telegraph to India Company, and to lay direct cables between Suez, Aden, and Bombay. The Marseilles, Algiers, and Malta Company, formed to lay cables between Marseilles and Malta, touching at Bona; and 25 years ago the Falmouth, Gibraltar, and Malta Telegraph Company was registered. This Company accepted messages direct from the public in Great Britain, and by means of a leased land line between London and the Land’s End, and cables from Land's End to Lisbon, Lisbon to Gibraltar, and Gibraltar to Malta, completed direct submarine telegraphic communication between Great Britain and its Eastern possessions. It is worthy of note that none of these companies were assisted by any Government monopolies, subsidies, or guarantees, as in the case of the original Red Sea cables, so that it may truly be said that the Government and mercantile communities of the world owe the vast benefits that they have received from direct submarine telegraphic connection during the past 25 years entirely to the enterprise of a few British merchants and the original shareholders in these Companies, who willingly risked their money in an undertaking which at the time appeared to be a speculation of a most uncertain character.

The extension of submarine telegraphic communication to countries beyond India had been (proposed) as far back as 1859-60, and in November, 1860, an expedition left London on board the ss. “Queen Victoria” to lay, on behalf of the British Government, a cable between Rangoon and Singapore. Unfortunately, the ship was wrecked in the Channel, and the idea of laying the cable was afterwards abandoned.

The revival of submarine telegraph enterprise in 1869, mainly caused by the successful laying and working of the Atlantic cables of 1865 and 1866, did not stop with extending the benefits of submarine cables to our Indian Empire; but large British colonies and foreign dependencies beyond India were not overlooked, and on October 20, 1869, was registered the British Indian Extension Company for laying cables between Madras and Penang and on to Singapore. The China Submarine Company was established on December 11, 1869, to lay cables between Singapore and Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the British Australia Telegraph Company was registered on January 4, 1870, for the purpose of connecting Singapore and Batavia. Batavia was connected by landline with Banjowangie, from whence a cable was proposed to be laid to some point on the Australian coast. The companies having been duly formed, no time was lost in manufacturing the cables and submerging them.

The ss. “Great Eastern” laid the Suez-Aden section, and the line between Suez and Bombay was opened for through traffic on March 26, 1870. On June 11, 1870, the Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company opened its London office, and messages were for the first time sent direct from Great Britain by submarine telegraph to India. Countries beyond India were connected by telegraph on the following dates:—

Penang January 4, 1871
Singapore December 16, 1870
Hongkong June 10, 1871
Saigon July 31, 1871
Java November 19 1870
Australia October 21, 1872

It will thus be seen that all the lines except that to Australia contemplated by the seven Companies formed in 1869 and the beginning of 1870, were laid and open for traffic by the middle of 1871. As regards the line to Australia, the cable was laid on November 22, 1871; but, owing to the non-completion of the Australian land lines and a long interruption of the Banjoewangie-Port Darwin cable, telegrams were not able to pass uninterruptedly between Europe and Australia until October 21, 1872. This long system having been fairly started as a commercial enterprise, it was impossible for it to stand still, and the watchword of its promoters has ever been “Onward!” so as to extend the benefits of submarine telegraphy to all parts of the known world.

After the seven companies had been working a short time it was found desirable to amalgamate the four Companies owning the cables this side of India into one Company, and on June 6, 1872, the Eastern Company was registered, and took over the Falmouth, Gibraltar, and Malta, the Marseilles, Algiers, and Malta, the Anglo-Mediterranean, and the British Indian Submarine Companies, and this having been successfully accomplished, the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company was registered on April 24, 1873, and absorbed the British Indian Extension, the China Submarine, and the British Australian Telegraph Companies. It is, therefore, more than 20 years ago that the system of submarine telegraphs which had been inaugurated in 1869 assumed the form under which they have been so successfully worked up to the present time.

During the first few years of the working of the Eastern submarine telegraphs, several prolonged interruptions of communication took place. The Lisbon-Gibraltar cable was interrupted from November 28, 1870, to February 11, 1871, and again from April 27 to September 30, 1871. During this time telegrams to the East had to be sent from England via Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to Malta, the route through France being unavailable owing to the Franco-German war and the Paris Commune. The next serious interruption of communication this side of India was that of the Suez-Aden cable from November 15, 1875, to February 2, 1876. The communication between Aden and Bombay has been totally interrupted on three occasions, viz.:–

July 13, 1881, to August 9, 1881.
June 3, 1884, " June 27, 1881.
Aug. 11, 1888, " Sept. 11, 1888.

The only other serious total interruption this side of India was during the Egyptian war, when the land lines in Egypt were un­available for our through traffic from July 11, 1882, to September 29, 1882. The most serious total interruptions beyond India have been as follows:–

Madras - Penang   Nov. 14, 1875, to Dec. 24, 1875
"   "   Mar. 27, 1876, " Oct. 25, 1876
"   "   June 13, 1884, " July 14, 1884
Java - Australia   June 25, 1872, " Oct. 21, 1872
"   "   Nov. 8, 1877, " Dec. 15, 1877
"   "   Sept. 27, 1878, " Nov. 2, 1878
"   "   July 4, 1879, " July 24, 1879

The inconvenience of these total interruptions to the Govern­ments and telegraphing public, as well as the loss of revenue sustained by the Companies showed the management the absolute necessity of duplicating and triplicating the communications. This was carried out on the following dates:–

Duplicate Cable.    Date of Laying.
Porthcurnow-Lisbon, via Vigo   July 19, 1873
Lisbon-Gibraltar, via Villa Real   Sept. 27, 1871
Gibraltar-Malta    Oct. 12, 1887
Malta-Marseilles   Oct. 24, 1887
Malta-Alexandria   Nov. 22, 1870
Alexandria-Suez, via Port Said   Aug. 25, 1882
Suez-Aden   Nov. 11, 1876
Aden Bombay   Mar. 7, 1877
India-Penang, via Rangoon   Apr. 7, 1877
Penang-Singapore, via Malacca   Aug. 15, 1879
Singapore-Hongkong, via Labuan   May 4, 1894
Singapore-Java (Banjoewangie)   Dec. 9, 1879
Java-Port Darwin   Jan. 28, 1880
New Zealand-Australia   May 7, 1890
Victoria-Tasmania   Nov. 23, 1885
Triplicate Cable.    
Porthcurnow-Lisbon   July 21. 1857
Lisbon-Gibraltar   July 27, 1887
Suez-Aden   Apr 21, 1883
Aden-Bombay   Apr. 19, 1891
Penang-Singapore   Apr. 10, 1892
Java-Australia, (via Roebuck Bay)   Feb. 25, 1889
Quadruplicate Cable.    
Suez-Aden   Nov. 18, 1890

It should be mentioned that the Australian Colonies, appreciating the benefits of continuous communication, and admitting the fact that the Company single-handed was unable to carry out the system of duplication, generously assisted the Eastern Extension Company by granting a subsidy of £32,400 per annum. With this exception the whole of these additional lines have been laid at the sole expense of the two Companies.

The communication with the East has been further strengthened and improved by the leasing of a line between London and Marseilles, through France, over which passes at the present time the principal portion of the traffic between Great Britain and the far East, by a direct cable between Malta and Zante, and by joint purse agreements with the Indian Government, the Indo-European Telegraph Company, and the Great Northern Telegraph Company. By means of allied companies South America has been connected with Europe, and the continent of Africa has been practically surrounded by submarine cables.

The system of submarine telegraphs which is generally known under the name of the “Eastern” may truthfully be said to be one of the greatest monuments of British enterprise and perseverance that the world has ever seen, and it has ever been the endeavour to go forward, never being satisfied with its present efficiency, but always striving to do better than before.

A few instances of the average time occupied in transit of the general traffic may be interesting:—

    Opening of  Line.     Present Day.
Portugal   5 to 6 hours   30 mins.
Spain   9 to 10 "   15 "
Egypt   3 to 4 "   20 "
India   5 "   35 "
China   8 "   80 "
Australia   10 "   100 "
Brazil   8 "   25 "
Argentine   10 "   60 "
Chili   10 "   70 "
Peru   10 "   80 "

The two Companies and their allies employ nine ships, which are constantly at work repairing the cables and keeping up communication, besides which tanks for the storage of cable have been erected at many places on the Companies’ system, and it is worthy of note that although the opinion of experts varies considerably as to the life of a submarine cable, these two Companies have never been unable to repair a cable, and the original lines are capable of carrying the same amount of traffic at the present time as on the day they were laid.

One of the greatest improvements which the Companies have been able to avail themselves of was the introduction of the patent for duplexing the cables whereby, their carrying capacity has been increased by at least 75 per cent. By reducing delay we create traffic, because if merchants can obtain a reply to their morning message in the same day they can send the answer before the close of business hours; indeed, in many cases three or four telegrams are exchanged between London and abroad during the six or seven hours of the day that business is carried on in the City.

When the Companies were started 25 years ago the system of code messages had not been invented, and the estimate of receipts was based upon all telegrams being sent in open language; if this estimate had been maintained the revenue of the Companies would have been very much larger than at present ; but it is only fair to say that the existing cables would not have been able to carry the traffic. On the complete opening of the lines the cables carried 425,000 messages per annum, at the present time they are carrying 2,100,000; the average length of the telegrams is now, however, only 11 words, whereas it used to be 35 words. The two Companies and their allies now work 124 stations, against 25 at the time of opening of communication.

Tariffs.—The general system of tariffs in vogue twenty-five years ago was a charge based upon a message of twenty words, with a proportionate increase for every extra ten words. This system lasted until 1876, when the alterations agreed to at the St. Petersburg conference were brought into operation. and all messages exchanged with places outside Europe were charged at a tariff of so much per word. This system had been partially tried with India as far back as November, 1873, but with this difference, that a minimum charge was made for the first ten words.

When the submarine cables were first opened for international correspondence with India they had to compete with the existing overland line of the Indo-European Company through Germany, Russia, and Persia to Bushire, and thence by the Indian Government cables to Kurrachee. The tariff was £2. 17s. per twenty words, but it was soon found that the rate was quite inadequate to pay expenses, and a fair dividend on the capital invested by either route; and after a sub-conference of the States interested, held at Berne, the rate was raised to £4 per twenty words on January 1, 1871. This rate was again raised in February, 1871, to £4. 10s., and lowered to £4 in July, 1872, and after some variations it was fixed at its present figure of 4s. per word in July, 1886. Experience has shown that this is a fair rate for the Indian business, which is not an expensive one, and the traffic has practically remained stationary for many years.

The tariffs with European countries are governed by the charges vial the land lines, and it may be said that wherever we have been brought into competition with the Government land lines the Companies have managed to hold their own, and to secure the principal portion of the traffic. There is nothing worthy of particular notice in the tariffs to the Far East, with the exception of those for messages exchanged with Australasia. After prolonged negotiations the rates between Europe and Australasia were reduced from 9s. 4d. to 4s. per word, under a guarantee from the Governments, the Companies taking upon themselves half the risk; the result was an increase of 50 per cent. in the number of words carried, and a gross loss of revenue equal to £55,000. In January, 1893, the rate was raised at the request of the Colonies to 4s. 9d. per word, but, owing principally to the great depression of trade in Australasia at the present time, the increase of traffic over that carried at the tariff of 9s. 4d. is not so large as might be expected.

Some years ago the Companies, with a desire to supply the general public with cheap news, introduced with this object reduced press rates, not only for supplying European news to the countries in the East, but also to enable the European public to obtain news of the doings of their friends beyond the seas. The experiment has as a whole proved satisfactory, and the Companies are always willing to extend the system wherever practicable.

In concluding, it may be pointed out that the telegraph rates for messages exchanged with the East have during the past 25 years been fair ones, not only for the Companies carrying the traffic but also for the public. The results have been different from the experience of the North Atlantic Companies ; the latter, owing to competition and insufficient tariffs, are at the present time not in the position to give their shareholders a fair dividend on the capital invested.

A résumé of the history of submarine telegraphs to the East would not be complete without mentioning a few of the events of international interest in which the telegraph has played an important part. The Earl of Mayo was murdered in the Andaman Islands, and the news was confirmed by a special message brought through the submarine telegraphs in a few minutes (February, 1872). During the war in Afghanistan in 1878, 1879, and 1880 the Government made large use of the telegraph, and the British public was enabled to read full details of all actions almost as soon as they took place. The disaster of Isandula in January, 1879, was not known in Great Britain until some weeks after it happened, owing to the want of submarine telegraph communication, and this event probably more than anything else hurried on the negotiations for the opening of telegraphic communication with South Africa.

In 1881 all the negotiations with the Transvaal were carried on by means of the telegraph, so that the British Cabinet was practically in hourly communication with the Boer leaders. But the event which more than anything else exemplified the capabilities of the telegraph, and proved to the world at large the enormous difference in the transmission of news in the present day compared with what it was twenty-five years ago, was the bombardment of Alexandria and the subsequent operations in Egypt, the Soudan, and Suakin. It is not too much to say that during this time the public were kept in hourly touch with all the events, even to the minutest detail, that were happening in Egypt, and the Eastern Company is justly proud that the immense traffic at that time was brought through without practically any delay at all, and it most certainly reflects great credit on the management that had created a system so perfect that an influx of such an enormous traffic affected it to such a slight extent.

Last revised: 31 August, 2012

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