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

The 1859 Committee
by Stewart Ash

The 1859 Committee

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable failed in September 1858, one American newspaper, the Boston Courier, in an article dated 10 February 1859, suggested that the cable had never worked and that the entire project had been part of an elaborate stock fraud. “Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?”.  There was also a public outcry in Britain when, shortly afterwards, the Red Sea cable (Suez-Aden-Karachi) failed, a project in which investors also lost large sums of money. So, 150 years ago the British Government and the Atlantic Telegraph Company set up a joint committee of enquiry to look into the failures of the Atlantic and Red Sea cables.   The eight-man committee was chaired by Captain Douglas Strutt Galton (1822-99), Royal Engineers. It had been originally intended that Robert Stephenson (1803-59) would lead the investigation, but he had died on 12 October that year.

Sir Douglas Strutt Galton, 1899

The members of the committee were all pioneers of the telegraph industry and included electrical engineering legends Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) and Cromwell Fleetwood Varley (1828-83). The other members were William Fairbain (1789-1874), President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; George Parker Bidder (1806-78), civil and railway engineer; engineers Joshua Latimer Clark (1822-98) and his elder brother Edwin Clark (1814-94); and Atlantic Telegraph Company Secretary George Saward. The committee met for nine months from December 1859 and heard evidence from many experts of the time; perhaps the most notable of these was Professor William Thomson (1824-1907), later Lord Kelvin.

Professor William Thomson

The committee’s 80,000-word report was finally published in April 1861, and was described at the time as ‘the most valuable collection of facts, warnings, and evidence ever compiled concerning submarine cables.’ The report noted that although 11,364nm of submarine cable had been laid since 1851, less than 3,000nm was actually working.  Its conclusions were that ocean telegraphy was not as simple as previously thought and there was much still to be learned. 

The report set out a series of recommendations for the construction of submarine cables, the methods of laying them and, thanks largely to the work of Thomson, the methods of testing during production and installation.  One of its greatest recommendations was for the standardisation of measurement of electric current and resistance.  This report formed the basis of the first set of standards for submarine cable systems, many of which have survived to this day.

However, perhaps the committee's greatest contribution may have been that it existed at all; this group was the first of its kind and set the standard for many other rigorous inquiries into scientific failures that have taken place in the years since it sat.

The Atlantic Telegraph 1958

Article text copyright © 2016 Stewart Ash

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Last revised: 30 July, 2018

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