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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 Indo-European Telegraph Company
by Steven Roberts

The Indo-European Telegraph Company – was founded in 1868, just as the Government was legislating to appropriate the domestic telegraph companies. It was almost certainly intended to be a successor-enterprise for the proprietors and management of the Electric & International Telegraph Company. The Chairman of the “Indo” was Robert Grimston; the Secretary and Manager was Henry Weaver, who had identical positions at the Electric. Its head office was at 16 Telegraph Street, the General Offices of the Electric company. Julius Reuter also had a substantial interest.

The Indo-European Telegraph Company was incorporated under the Companies Act 1862, as a simple joint-stock limited-liability company with a share capital of £450,000 in seventeen thousand shares each of £25 to construct an overland telegraph to India by special lines, in connection with the Government of India cables, through the Persian Gulf. An annual income of £85,000 was expected from 200 messages a day, which would provide a yearly dividend of 20%.

This capital compares with the £2,500,000 raised by the domestic telegraph companies, the £1,200,000 of the British-Indian Submarine Telegraph Company and the £250,000 of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

The Indo-European Telegraph Company was registered and projected on April 8, 1868 to complete a line from London to Calcutta in competition with a planned all-submarine route. The circuit extended from Lowestoft to Emden in Prussia, then to Berlin to Thorn on the Vistula river in West Prussia, into Russia to reach Warsaw, Zhitomir, Odessa, Kertch, Suchum, Tiflis, Erevan, then to Djulfa in Persia through Tabreez to Teheran, then to Bushire on the Gulf, underwater to Karachi, through India to Calcutta on the Gulf of Bengal. Of the capital of £450,000, 80% was taken up in Britain and 20% by the Siemens companies in London and Berlin. Siemens financed their shareholding through the Rothschild, Schaafhausen and Mevissen banks.

Indo-European Telegraph Station, Bushire
Image courtesy of Bill Glover

The Siemens family were the power behind the Indo-European: they involved their three manufacturing companies, in Berlin, St Petersburg and London. They had used their close relationships with the director of the Royal Prussian Telegraphs, Colonel of Engineers Georg von Chauvin, and the head of the Russian telegraph administration, General of Engineers Karl Karlovich von Lüders to facilitate the concessions in those countries for the line in 1867. In addition the concessions for circuits through the dangerous territories in the Caucasus were negotiated by members of the Siemens family. Werner, Walter, Otto, Karl and William all visited Georgia in connection with the telegraph lines in the Caucasus from Tiflis to Kutaissi, Poti and Djulfa, and the separate wire from Tiflis to Baku. Siemens were to be paid £400,000 for the construction of the Indo line and £34,000 a year subsequently to maintain its length.

Map of the Indo-European line

The Russian Vice-Royalty of the Caucasus was on the margins of the Empire; it had been nominally subdued in a vicious war in the 1830s but was in a constant state of tribal unrest. Lüders had managed the creation of a basic military telegraph from Moscow to Tiflis in Georgia and Erevan in Armenia. Although this had been relatively inexpensive to construct, just a single wire on wooden posts, it was expensive in money and lives to maintain. Lüders was convinced that this militarily-essential telegraph could be made more efficient by having the English mercantile interests in London and India pay for a replacement, effectively subsidising Russian communications. The risks of wires through the Caucasus were such that Siemens proposed an in-shore underwater cable between Kertch and Suchum rather than land-lines in the interior. The gangs erecting the line in the Caucasus and in Persia were given an armed escort of cavalry.

Although Walter Siemens was initially unsuccessful in Teheran after several months of talks, Georg Siemens eventually convinced the Persian government to accept 12,000 Tomans per annum on January 11, 1868 as the price of the wayleave.

The commitment of the Siemens family to the Indo was total; Walter Siemens, on his way home from Persia in 1868, and Otto Siemens, supervising the construction works in 1871, both died of illness in the South Caucasus and are buried at Tiflis in Georgia.

The line from London to Calcutta was to be 6,900 miles in length. Of the 3,725 mile circuit between Emden and Teheran the Company were required to build 2,900 miles as new, consisting of two 6mm gauge iron wires suspended from Siemens’ patent iron-capped earthenware insulators on 70,000 posts, having wood shafts in Poland and Russia and Siemens’ patent cast-iron shafts in the Caucasus and in Persia. A 100 mile submarine cable was laid in the Black Sea between Djulfa and Suchum, with a further 15 mile cable for the Straits of Kertch. The bulk of the materials were provided from Britain by Siemens Brothers, including the armour for the Black Sea cable; Hooper’s Telegraph Works Company provided the india-rubber insulation.

Straits of Kertch Cable
Submerged 1869
Recovered 1889
Siemens Bros Co London

Images courtesy of Angelika Sommer

The Black Sea cable was almost immediately broken by an earthquake on July 1, 1870, and had to be replaced by a coastal land line during 1871.

The Indo directly owned only the circuit between Emden and Teheran, it leased circuits from the Electric in England, from Reuter in the Norderney cable from Lowestoft to Hanover, Persian overhead lines south of Teheran, the 1,400 mile long British-Indian cable from Bushire to Kurrachee, and across India to Calcutta. As part of its concessions the Indo provided an extra third circuit in its Black Sea cable, as well as through the Caucasus and on its Persian overhead lines for Russian and Persian domestic traffic.

Between Julpa and Teheran.
Division superintendent and engineer of the Indo-European Telegraph Company with inspection and repair corps going over the lines.

Of the new construction, the isolated Persian sector between Djulfa on the Russian border and Teheran, 480 miles, was opened by the Indo on August 1868, connecting to Erevan and Tiflis. 

The circuit was completed after two years construction throughout to Calcutta on April 12, 1870.

The Company, after examining the Hughes type-printer, adopted Siemens’ adaptation of Wheatstone’s automatic telegraph for its circuits. Siemens also introduced a rotary magneto sender that transmitted from punched tape without batteries of cells. The Indo-European line relied upon Varley’s translator or relay that enabled very-long-distance, uninterrupted transmission. Dependent on conditions either three or five translators were used in the line between London and Teheran. It used English language and English operators throughout.

A twenty word message from London to Calcutta was estimated as costing £3 10s, this was to be split between the Electric Telegraph Company and Reuters Telegram Company 3s 3d, Prussia 1s 9d, Russia 3s 6d, Persia 8s 0d, the British India cable between Bushire to Kurrachee 16s 3d and for the Indian telegraphs 8s 8d, totalling £2 5s; the balance going to the Indo-European Telegraph Company. The agreement for these rates was negotiated with the recalcitrant Prussian and Russian members of the International Telegraph Conference by William Siemens personally.

Indo-Europea Telegraph Company Limited
Tariff Book

In 1870 messages could be sent from any office of the Electric & International Telegraph Company or from the offices of the Company to Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and all places west of Chittagong. Messages reached Teheran by automatic relay in just one minute; Calcutta was reached in twenty-eight minutes.

A new four-conductor cable was laid across the Straits of Kertch in 1884.

The Department - The Indo-European Telegraph Company is often, and unsurprisingly, confused, with the Indo-European Telegraph Department of the British-Indian Government. The Department worked overland telegraphs in South Persia to connect the lines of the Ottoman Turkish system and the British cables to India. It was based on a convention between London and Teheran dated February 6, 1863. A line was erected by Government engineers between Khanaquin on the Persian-Ottoman border by way of Hamadan and Kermanshah to the British-Indian cable head at Bushire on the Gulf coast. This was opened for messages on March 1, 1865. As the Department’s line involved several transcriptions the first message took 6 days, 8 hours and 44 minutes to travel from London to Calcutta.

A further convention in April 1868 allowed the Department to build an overhead line from Bushire along the Persian coast to Gwadur in British India which was connected to Kurrachee so as to avoid reliance on the underwater cables.

The alternative, riskier submarine cable, sponsored by the Magnetic company’s interests, was to be laid across the Bay of Biscay, into and along the Mediterranean Sea, down the Red Sea and across the north Indian Ocean. This was completed in 1871.

Apart from the obvious break in operation between August 1914 and August 1923 it was in continual operation until its concession in Persian was terminated in 1931, and the wires abandoned. Siemens’ engineering was so substantial that its iron posts each still with three iron-capped insulators were visible on the Caucasian coast and in the Persian desert over a hundred years after they were erected.

To read Steve Roberts' story of the Indo-European Telegraph Company in context with other British telegraph companies of the time, see his Distant Writing website.

Last revised: 11 October, 2011

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