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

The Laying of the American Trans-Pacific Cable
by Alexander G. McAdie

Introduction: The Pacific was the last barrier to world communications, but by 1902 both Britain and America had spanned the great ocean with cables. This article from the January 1903 issue of The Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas, published in San Francisco, is a good record of the events of the laying of the American cable as well as its technical aspects.

See also the main page on this cable, and this story of communications over the cable after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

— Bill Burns

The Laying of the American Trans-Pacific Cable
by Alexander G. McAdie

San Franciscans fully realize that they are privileged spectators of a great historical drama. The stage is the Pacific Ocean, until now the backyard of the continent. The first scene had its setting about the time Shakespeare was learning to read and write at the grammar school in Stratford. From the beach a few miles north of San Francisco an intrepid, rough-speaking seaman pulled his bark back in to the water, and, pointing her nose southwestward, turned a new furrow in the unknown sea. Then for the first time were the accents of our mother tongue heard in these parts.

The second scene takes place 323 years later. The Colonia, the Anglia and the Silvertown turn many furrows in the Pacific. And near the great gate of California a metropolis that has for half a century been kowtowing to the east, rises, turns her back upon the sunrise, and, standing erect, faces the older East, to accept in her turn the homage of the newer West.

Thursday afternoon, December 11th, was memorable in the history of San Francisco and the entire Pacific Coast. Men from every walk of life gathered together to show their appreciation of the inauguration of a cable service between San Francisco, Honolulu, Manila and Shanghai.

The assemblage was a notable one, not so much for the wealth of great industries there represented, or the eloquence of the speakers, as for the spontaneous recognition of the service rendered by one man—no longer among the living—to the American nation in general and to the dwellers on the Pacific Coast in particular. A few days later, when a little girl raced with the president of the cable company to the water's edge to greet the incoming shore end of the cable, she unconsciously voiced in her cheerful salutation the thought of the entire community: “To the memory of John W. Mackay—I christen thee  ‘Pacific Cable.’ Good luck to you. May you carry only messages of happiness.”

Messrs. John W. and Clarence H. Mackay

We who are older know that there will be messages other than joyous ones sent across this cable; but nevertheless we welcome the boon of quick communication over these great ocean stretches. There is a common misapprehension that this cable is the first to make the circuit of the world complete for cabling purposes. This is not so, as the completion of the British Pacific cable between Australia and Vancouver Island, touching at Victoria, Fanning Island, Fiji, Norfolk, Southport and Doubtless Bay, gives the British government a circuit through its own territory. The cost of this all-British cable has been in the neighborhood of $10,000,000 and the project has been under consideration for probably twenty years. The work was completed October 31, 1902, and the line opened for commercial business during the first decade of December. Hardly a month had elapsed and the Commercial Pacific Cable Company had completed the first section of its trans-Pacific cable. The length of the British Pacific cable is 7900 nautical miles, the longest stretch reaching from Vancouver to Fanning Island, 3540 nautical miles, gross weight nearly 7700 tons in air (366 miles longer than the cable from Brest to Cape Cod), and the other stretches running from Fanning to Fiji 2181 nautical miles, and from Fiji to Southport 2438 miles, the rest being in small reaches. The total length of the new Commercial cable will be nearly 10,000 nautical miles, running in sections from San Francisco to Honolulu (laid by the Silvertown Company), and from Honolulu to Midway, Guam, Manila and Shanghai (to be laid by the Greenwich Company [Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company of Greenwich].) It is interesting to note that one of these trans-Pacific routes is about three times the length of an Atlantic route, and the other two and one-half times. It can now truthfully be said that Drake's proud boast near the close of the sixteenth century—“the world encompassed”—is matched by the sober statement that the world today is literally gridironed with cables. The present cables in the Pacific and the cable just laid for the Mexican Government bring the total cable mileage to 200,000 nautical miles.

The Commercial Company's cable from San Francisco to Honolulu will cover a stretch of about 2276 nautical miles.

How the cable was coiled in the tanks

The cable itself, like all cables, is of varying size, from the shore ends, which are double cored and heavily armored, to the lighter deep-water sizes. The diameters vary from three inches or more to one inch. The total weight of the cable out of water is about 5000 tons. For a length of six miles at the San Francisco shore end an additional copper core has been introduced to serve as an artificial ground, because in the neighborhood of a large city trolley and other electrical circuits produce marked disturbances of the galvanometer needle. This extra core is woven into the sheathing armor at a distance of about six miles from shore. There is also provided a brass tape sheathing as a protection against the teredo which abounds in Pacific shore waters. The weight of the copper per nautical mile is 500 pounds and the weight of the gutta-percha 315 pounds. The conductor is composed of a central copper wire .0987 of an inch in diameter surrounded with ten copper wires each .0414 of an inch in diameter. Like all submarine cables the central conductor has a coating of gutta-percha properly served, a brass tape where needed, wound as a rule on a serving of loose spun thread, a service of jute and an outer sheathing of wire. In this case the armor consists of sixteen wires (No. 14), each about three-tenths of an inch in diameter. There are, of course, shore-end, intermediate and deep-sea modifications. The breaking strain of the deep-sea cable is about eight tons, with 4 per cent. elongation. At the Honolulu end a rock cable weighing nearly thirty tons per nautical mile and heavily armored is used on account of the proximity of coral formations.

Reception day on the cable ship Silvertown at San Francisco

The accompanying chart gives a good idea of the soundings and general character of the ocean bottom along the route followed by the Silvertown. While the cable was cut and buoyed off the island of Oahu at 4 A.M., December 26th, the actual connection with Honolulu did not occur until late on January 1, 1903. The first message transmitted from Honolulu direct to the siphon recorder in San Francisco was at 11:03 P.M. (120th meridian time), or 8:41 P.M. in Honolulu, a difference of two hours and twenty-two minutes.

The cable ship Silvertown, belonging to the India Rubber Gutta-percha and Telegraph Company, sailed from Portland, England, on September 23, 1902, reaching the port of San Francisco on December 4, 1902, in seventy-two days covering a distance of 14,000 nautical miles. She left San Francisco early Sunday, December 14th, and made the following daily runs:

The Silvertown is not the newest or the largest of the fleet of cable ships now busy throughout the world laying and maintaining cables. In fact she is surpassed by vessels built within the past five years; but her name is a familiar one on the Pacific Coast. The following data [Wilkinson's “Submarine Cable Laying and Repairing,” page 63 et seq] concerning her may be of interest: The vessel was especially built for cable laying and has all the necessary gearing and accessories for such work. An extensive equipment of grapnels, chains, buoys, brakes, etc., is provided. She is of 4935 tons, length 350 feet, beam 55 feet, depth 34.5 feet, engines 1800 horsepower, average speed 10 knots an hour, coal consumption 33 tons per day. The most interesting feature of the vessel is the arrangement of tanks, each 32 feet deep and ranging in diameter from 46 to 53 feet. The largest tank has over 66,000 cubic feet capacity, exclusive of cone, and if filled with cable would hold nearly 2000 nautical miles of the deep-water type. In each tank there is a large cone to facilitate coiling. Cable of the light intermediate type occupies about 46 cubic feet per knot coiled; heavy intermediate, 78 cubic feet, and shore-end cable about 230 cubic feet. When heavily loaded, that is when carrying more than 6500 tons, the Silvertown draws nearly thirty feet of water. The cable tanks are usually not more than one-half filled. The cable is hosed down every morning, but is not kept in a water bath as is popularly supposed.

On the deck of the cable ship Silvertown in the harbor of San Francisco

While the cable was being laid communication with the shore was restricted to one hour in every twenty-four, as a rule the hour beginning with the ship's noon. Communication was not had directly with the cable office in the heart of the city, but with the cable hut a few thousand feet east of the shore landing. After the cable is satisfactorily laid the cable house will be closed and used only when necessary for testing or locating faults. While communication was restricted to the time mentioned, the insulation of the cable was tested continuously at the testing room aboard ship and at the cable hut. At least once in every five minutes the cable was used as a condenser. A charge from a battery of about one hundred cells was given and in turn discharged through a properly shunted Sullivan galvanometer and the “throw” of the needle carefully noted. Both aboard ship and at the cable hut the speaking apparatus consists of mirror galvanometers, the deflections of the beam of light to the right and left of a given zero point constituting the letters of the continental Morse code. Siphon recorders will be used when the line is opened for commercial business and a permanent automatic record thus obtained of every message received. The siphon itself is not the old form in which the ink was electrified, but a newer type with a tapper or vibrator. It is also interesting to note that there is used to square up, as it were, the irregularities of the siphon record, a miniature stepup transformer.

The stern sheaves of the ship Silvertown

The new cable will probably be a “speedy” one, working possibly twenty-eight words per minute without duplexing. Speed in a cable is dependent upon the electrical capacity, the various factors being the length of cable, the resistance of core, thickness of dielectric and the degree of resulting inductance. An increase in length of about thirty miles will decrease the rate of transmission about one word in twenty-five. For ordinary purposes this speed is sufficient, and it is interesting to note that in daily practice a submarine wire can handle the business of two land lines, the siphon working steadily and silently. If automatic senders are employed the rate will possibly exceed fifty words per minute. It is more than likely that for some years to come a single cable will suffice for the business offered, but it would be unwise to attempt to forecast what the ultimate through business to the Philippines and to China, via Manila and Shanghai, will amount to. It will be remembered that when the Atlantic cables of the Commercial Cable Company were opened the business amounted to perhaps a hundred messages a day, while now fully fifty times that number are offered.

The shore end for San Francisco as coiled on the Newsboy

The belief has already been stated that this commercial cable means a new era to San Francisco and the Pacific Coast. If one considers only the single fact of the constantly recurring date line in press dispatches, it is patent that the attention of the reading public is unconsciously directed to the great city on the western slope of our country. For reasons of state and government it is well that this cable should have been laid. The British government, as well as the colonial governments, found it desirable to lay and pay for an all-British route. It goes without argument that an all-American route will be of the greatest value to the United States and its island possessions in the Pacific. For commercial purposes the value of quick communication cannot be overestimated. It is no idle statement to say that trade today depends upon rapid communication. The manufacturers and merchants of the Pacific Coast have been too long without adequate cabling facilities. An illustration of this may not be without interest. Li Hung Chang visited the works of the Telegraph Construction Company at East Greenwich some seven years ago and while there sent several lengthy messages to Shanghai, receiving answers thereto in seven minutes. Some years later, when in San Francisco, it became necessary to communicate with China, the statesman then being en route home. The messages had to go first over our own continent, then across the Atlantic, before beginning the long journey of 12,000 miles as before.

At the present time, when the air is full of reported successes in long-distance wireless communication, and especially transoceanic signalling, we cannot fail to be impressed with the courage and confidence of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company in pushing this work through without further delay. When one considers the large first outlay, the expense of making and maintaining the cable, the risk that always exists, of accident not only to the cable itself, but the possibility of damage to cable stations by typhoon or seismic trouble, it is plain that whether or not the cable from a financial standpoint turns out to be a successful achievement, the projectors deserve well at the hands of the communities on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, for the great service rendered them in laying and maintaining this cable.

The instants before and after the christening of the Honolulu section of the American Trans-Pacific cable.  These are the only photographs of the event in existence.

During a reception at the Palace Hotel in honor of Clarence H. Mackay and others of the management of the Commercial Cable Company, Mr. G.G. Ward said: “The length of this cable will be three and one-half times greater than any Atlantic cable. When this shall be completed our system will reach from England and France to China, three-fourths of the distance around the globe, and I venture to predict that we shall be able to beat Puck's prophecy of girding the earth in forty minutes by sending a message from San Francisco to San Francisco in on one-fourth of that time.” Meanwhile the Silvertown, which started with about 2200 miles of cable, laying it across an ocean nearly three miles deep, has proceeded with her task and completed the first great section to Honolulu. The Philippine section is expected to be completed early in 1894 [1904?]. The Hawaiian landing is on the island of Oahu, with direct connection to Honolulu, where an office has already been prepared.

Before concluding this article it is due that thanks, not alone of its author but of its publishers as well, should be gratefully extended to those gentlemen who have aided in its preparation by giving both information and other material assistance toward it. Prominent among them are: Clarence H. Mackay, President of the Postal Telegraph Company and of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company; George G. Ward, Vice-President and General Manager of the Commercial Cable Company and the Commercial Pacific Cable Company; Charles Cuttress, Electrician of the Commercial Cable Company; L.W. Storror, Superintendent of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company; H.F. Harrington, Superintendent of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company; H. Benest, Chief of Cable of the Expedition and Messrs. H.E. Cann, R.H. Mance, S.E. Marsham and E.W. Beckingsale comprising Mr. Benest's staff.

Beginning at the right the gentlemen whose portaits
appear in this engraving are:
L.W. Storror, Geo. G. Ward, Richard V. Dey, Chas. Cuttriss,
W. Hearn, W.K. Ward, H.F. Harrington and P. M'Kenna.

Last revised: 16 March, 2017

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