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

Velocity Experiments on the Mediterranean
Electric Telegraph Company’s Cable

Illustrated London News, 6 October 1855

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

In this article, published in the Illustrated London News in its issue of 6 October 1855, Whitehouse’s experiments on signaling speed through long lengths of submarine cable are described, and a letter from Whitehouse gives further details.

Unfortunately, as was to become clear later, signals passed through a long cable on land behave quite differently from the same signals passed through a long submerged cable.

--Bill Burns

Illustrated London News: 6 October 1855


It will be in the remembrance of many of our readers that about this time last year we drew attention to the departure from England of the first instalment of the Mediterranean Telegraph; and we gave a sketch of the cable itself, as well as of the vessel, the Persian, which was to convey it to its destination.

The second submarine length has just left our shores on board the Result—one of the splendid vessels belonging to that well-known firm, Messrs. Green, of Blackwall; and it is with pleasure that we recall attention to the continued progress of this work.

But a few years ago the bare possibility of submarine telegraphic communication, for even a few miles, was a problem: it has now, in ’55, become a national necessity; and this not for a few miles only, as if of friendly communication with a neighbour, but even hundreds of miles of sea must not now prevent the receipt of instant intelligence. Not an individual in the nation but must know daily the Crimean news, brief though it be. Experience seems to show—nay, has already abundantly proved—contrary to all our preconceived notions, that a well-made and well-laid cable is of all modes the very safest and most perfect means of establishing and maintaining the electric rapport. Its durability is undoubted; its structure is guarded from injury by the very depths in whose bosom it reposes while the storms and convulsions of both the physical and the moral world pass over it unheeded.

The Times, in a recent article, presses this point upon our notice, alluding to the interruption that recently occurred in distant parts at the European line, and urging the necessity, “in the present political aspect of the world,” of establishing lines of telegraphic communication “as little as possible liable to be interrupted,” and rendering available on the shortest notice the full resources of the Empire. Under all circumstance:, say they:—

It is natural that the public should look with interest to the speedy establishment of the lines completed and contemplated by the Mediterranean Electric Telegraph Company. From Spezzia this company has stretched a submarine cable to Corsica, and thence across that island and the strait of Bonifacio, its scheme is realised as far as Cape Spartivento, the southern extremity of Sardinia. Before the close of this month Algeria will be in telegraphic communication with France, and that country and Sardinia have each guaranteed five per cent per annum on the portions of the line in which they are respectively most interested. From Cape Spartivento the company proposes to go to Malta, and, arrived there, to stretch one line of telegraph by Corfu across the isthmus of Greece to Constantinople, and another by Alexandria, Suez, Aden, and the coast of Arabia, to Kurrachee, where communication with the Indian system will be established. For the completion of this extensive route not more than £1,000,000 of capital would be required, and it is confidently asserted that the whole might be finished in two years and a half. To say anything about the advantages which must result from the formation of such lines is unnecessary. Whether they pay or not, it is quite obvious that, even as a matter of State policy, they must shortly be carried out, and as time presses there seems no good reason why this country, so rich and great, and so especially interested in the undertaking, should not at once agree to share its risk with the friendly Powers of France and Sardinia.

The cable of which we now speak contains six wires. it was originally 150 miles in length, and has recently been augmented by twelve miles, in consequence of a change, under the direction of the French Government in the spot appointed for landing on the African coast. A cable of 162 miles in one length, and weighing upwards of 1200 tons, is no trifle to lay down in depths varying from one to two miles and it will require the combination of high nautical and engineering skill to submerge it successfully. Mr. Brett, the father of Submarine Telegraphy, and the gerant of this Company will, of course, superintend the operation. Profiting by the experience gained in the laying down of last year’s cable he has made improved arrangements for this, and we doubt not of its perfect success.

Turn we now to the more purely electrical part of the subject. Since the discovery of gutta percha, and its use for covering wire for telegraphic, purposes, certain peculiarities have been observed in the manner in which the electric current comports itself in such wires as contrasted with its habits in ordinary telegraph wires. Upon these phenomena Faraday has lectured at the Royal institution, and the attention of electricians has been directed to the same point. All that the public has gleaned upon the subject seems to have been a sort of half-doubt as to the practicability (electrically speaking) of working long submarine lengths. Two minutes have been spoken of in our hearing (we believe Faraday to have said two seconds) as the time required for the arrival of each current from London to New York, via the Transatlantic or rather Subatlantic Line. Again it was said somewhat jokingly that a message sent could actually be recalled before its arrival (Faraday we believe said “a signal”).

Now it is for the practical elucidation of every important point upon this subject that a gentleman well versed in electric telegraph matters, who is associated with Mr. Brett in his undertakings, has been for some time making experiments and observations upon this very cable; and at the same time upon the Newfoundland cable, recently made by the same manufacturers, and now on its way across the ocean to be laid down from the mainland to Newfoundland as the veritable first instalment of the Transatlantic Line. Mr. Brett has felt the necessity of looking the electrical difficulties (if there are any) full in the face. What advantage will there be in surmounting the engineering difficulties of the Transatlantic Line if, on its completion, we meet with an electrical impossibility? We must do Mr. Brett the justice to say that he has never believed in the existence of any insurmountable electrical difficulty whatever doubts others may have entertained, and the result of an elaborate series of experiments which Mr. Whitehouse has made on the subject seems to establish conclusively the practicability of working through almost an unlimited length.

Connecting up in one length the six wires of the Mediterranean cable (each 150 miles in length) and the three wires of the Newfoundland cable (each 75 miles) he has, with test instruments at every junction, worked signals satisfactorily through the whole length of 1125 miles. He has retained records—automatic records, we believe—of a very large number of experiments on this subject, which, we understand, he is going to lay in the form of a paper before the British Association at their next meeting. Meantime he has courteously allowed us to give a sketch of a part of his apparatus, viz., that for testing the velocity of the current; and has given our artist a slip of the recording paper whereon one of the velocity experiments for 900 miles was made. This we reproduce in facsimile, exact size. The accompanying note from Mr. Whitehouse will explain better than we can do his mode of ascertaining the velocity of a current travelling through any given length of wire.

Mediterranean Electric Telegraph
Apparatus for the Automatic Recording of the Velocity Experiments

[Click on the image for a larger view with the key to the parts]

a Metal drum driven by a weight and train of wheels, for the purpose of drawing the chemically-prepared paper. This drum revolves in a trough of water.

b Roll of chemically-prepared paper, enclosed in a circular box; lid removed to display the paper.

c Arm carrying four steel styles, or tracers, of Geneva mainspring, carefully insulated from each other, which press upon the paper. The styles are parallel to each other, and the points are placed in a line directly at right angles to, or across, the slip of paper.

d Pressing or biting roller, to prevent the paper slipping on the drum.

e Trough of water.

f Clock movement driving the pendulum.

g seconds pendulum.

h A “Bain’s break-piece and bar,” somewhat modified and arranged so as to change the contact, at every beat of the pendulum, from No. 1 to No. 4 style, or vice versa.

i Receiving apparatus, or relay, in connection with the home circuit: this makes connection between the printing battery and style No. 2.

j Similar apparatus in connection with the long circuit current, and placed in the middle junction of the wires. This makes connection between printing battery and style No. 3.

k Local printing battery, which may be of any required number of cells. From the zinc terminal (z) a wire goes direct to the frame-work of the metal drum. From the other end of the battery three wires proceed — one to each relay, and one to the “constant” end of the break-piece (h); while, from the alternating end of the break-piece two wires proceed, carrying the current to No. 1 and No. 4 styles, alternating at every beat of the pendulum.

Facsimile of Telegraphic Autograph

(To the Editor of the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS.)

Sir,—I can have no possible objection to your illustrating as far as you are able the subject upon which I have been experimenting. It is my intention to lay the results before the British Association at their next meeting, till which time I must reserve all more full description and details; but meanwhile, I will give you as I promised a short sketch of the mode in which I make my experiments for “velocity” in order to explain the slip which I gave to your Artist.

A slip of moistened chemical paper is kept moving by a train of wheels at a moderate speed over a metallic drum. Pressing upon the upper surface of this paper on the drum and parallel to each other, are four steel springs or styles, insulated from the drum and in connexion each with its proper wire. Two of these styles, the first and the fourth in order, record the beats of a seconds pendulum upon each side of the slip of paper alternately, the seconds having in this instance been subdivided into fractional parts—“twelfths” by a very simple revolving arrangement.

Two separate magneto-electric currents, “twin-currents,” as they may be called, synchronous in their origin, but differing in their destinations, and wholly distinct in their metallic circuits, are sent by one and the same movement of a handle. One travels about twenty feet, is received upon a “relay,” or instrument which instantly gives a contact for a local printing battery, and records itself upon No. 2 style; this serves to note the instant when the current going the long circuit began its journey.

The other current, and of course a much stronger one, is sent through 900 miles of wire, and is received upon a similar “relay” placed in the middle junction of these wires, and therefore, at the greatest practicable distance from the source of the current. This current actuating the “relay” when it arrives, gives a contact for the printing battery in the same way as the other, and records itself upon No. 3 style after an appreciable interval of time. For 900 miles this interval of time is very nearly 3-12ths of a second, as will be seen by reference to the slip.

I am, Sir, very truly yours,                      WILDMAN WHITEHOUSE.

Whitehouse’s results were presented to the British Association on 14 September 1855, and he subsequently printed the paper in pamphlet form for private circulation:

Report of a series of experimental observations on two lengths of submarine electric cable, containing, in the aggregate, 1,125 miles of wire. Being the substance of a paper read before the British association for the advancement of science, at Glasgow, Sept. 14th, 1855. [Brighton, A. Wallis, 1855]

The full text of Whitehouse's pamphlet may be read here.

A review of Whitehouse’s presentation at the British Association meeting was published in The Mechanics’ Magazine issue of Saturday, October 6, 1855; a version of this text also appeared in the official Report of the Twenty-Fifth Meeting, published in 1856.


British Association, 1855

After referring to the rapid progress in submarine telegraphy which the last four years have witnessed, Mr. Whitehouse said that he regarded it as an established fact, that the nautical and engineering difficulties which at first existed had been already overcome, and that the experience gained in submerging the shorter lengths had enabled the projectors to provide for all contingencies affecting the greater. With this view, a glance at our insular position on the map of the world, at the distance which separates us from our colonies and dependencies, as well as from the vast continents of India and Australia, awakens at once in the mind the inquiry,—“Are these remote families of the earth (or rather parts of our own family) accessible by telegraph? Or, are they to be for ever denied the advantages which we enjoy?” The world is ready, and society is eager, for its unlimited extension. Public interest is awakened; nations are stirring; and in America, as in England, capitalists are not wanting who are ready to aid in the stupendous work of an Indian or a Transatlantic line. They wait only for an answer to the question—Can it be proved to be practicable, commercially practicable, and capable of working at such a speed as will admit of messages being sent at a low tariff?

The author then drew the attention of the section to a series of experimental observations which he had recently made upon the Mediterranean and Newfoundland cables, before they sailed for their respective destinations. These cables contained an aggregate of 1,125 miles of insulated electric wire, and the experiments were conducted chiefly with reference to the problem of the practicability of establishing electric communications with India, Australia, and America. The results of all the experiments were recorded by a steel style upon electro-chemical paper by the action of the current itself, while the paper was at the same time divided into seconds and fractional parts of a second, by the use of a pendulum. This mode of operating admits of great delicacy in the determination of the results, as the seconds can afterwards be divided into hundredths by the use of a vernier, and the result read off with the same facility as a barometric observation. Enlarged fac-similes of the electric autographs, as the author calls them, were exhibited as diagrams, and the actual slips of electro-chemical paper were laid upon the table.

The well-known effects of induction upon the current were accurately displayed; and contrasted with these were other autographs showing the effect of forcibly discharging the wire, by giving it an adequate charge of the opposite electricity, in the mode proposed by the author. No less than eight currents—four positive and four negative—were in this way transmitted in a single second of time through the same length of wire (1,125 miles), through which a single current required a second and a half to discharge itself spontaneously upon the paper. Having stated the precautions adopted to guard against error in the observations, the details of the experiments were then concisely given, including those for “velocity,” which showed a much higher rate attainable by the magneto-electric than by the voltaic current The author then recapitulated the facts, to which he specially invited attention.

First, the mode of testing velocity by the use of a voltaic current divided into two parts (a split current), one of which shall pass through a graduated resistance-tube of distilled water, and a few feet only of wire, while the other part shall be sent through the long circuit, both being made to record themselves by adjacent styles upon the same slip of electro-chemical paper. Second, the use of magneto-electric “twin currents,” synchronous in their origin, but wholly distinct in their metallic circuits, for the same purpose, whether they be made to record themselves direct upon the paper, or to actuate relays or receiving instruments which shall give contacts for a local printing battery. Third, the effects of induction, retardation of the current, and charging of the wire, as shown autographically; and, contrasted with this—Fourth, the rapid and forcible discharging of the wire by the use of an opposite current; and hence—Fifth, the use of this as a means of maintaining, or restoring at pleasure, the electric equilibrium of the wire. Sixth, absolute neutralization of currents by too rapid reversal. Seventh, comparison of working speed attainable in a given length of wire by the use of repetitions of similar voltaic currents, as contrasted with alternating magneto-electric currents, and which, at the lowest estimate, seemed to be seven or eight to one in favour of the latter. Eighth, proof of the co-existence of several waves of electric force of opposite character in a wire of given length, of which each respectively will arrive at its destination without interference. Ninth, the velocity, or rather amount of retardation, greatly influenced by the energy of the current employed; other conditions remaining the same. Tenth, no adequate advantages obtained in a 300 mile length by doubling or trebling the mass of conducting metals.

The author, in conclusion, stated his conviction that it appeared from these experiments, as well as from trials which he had made with an instrument of the simplest form, actuated by magneto-electric currents, that the working speed attainable in a submarine wire of 1,125 miles was ample for commercial success. And may we not, he added, fairly conclude also that India, Australia, and America, are accessible by telegraph, without the use of wires larger than those commonly employed in submarine cables?

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Last revised: 23 April, 2010

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