Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

Richard Johnson & Nephew
by Bill Burns

Introduction: The Manchester wire-drawing firm of Richard Johnson & Nephew was one of the earliest suppliers of wire to the submarine cable industry. Much of the information in this article is taken from the history of the company by Michael Seth-Smith, published in 1973 and titled Two Hundred Years of Richard Johnson & Nephew. The book is anecdotal in nature, does not cite any sources, and has a somewhat non-linear chronology; nonetheless it presents much otherwise unobtainable information about the company.

The factory photographs reproduced here are from a catalogue published by the company in 1951, and show the modern machinery of the time.

--Bill Burns


RJ&N Logo, 1951

The history of Richard Johnson & Nephew goes back to 1773, when James Howard worked as a pin maker and wire drawer in Manchester, England. In 1804 he established a wire works on Long Millgate there, which was later bought by John Johnson and moved by him to the corner of Hanging Ditch and Withy Grove in 1818, and to Edge Street, Shudehill, in 1828. The business expanded to additional premises in Dale Street, and in Lees Street, Ancoats.

In 1838 John Johnson handed the business to his sons, Richard and William, and the name was changed to Richard Johnson & Brother. By 1848 the firm had eighty employees, and as well as selling wire they made finished goods including “every description of wove wire and wire work.”

Richard Johnson 1809-1881
From a painting at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester

In 1846 the first telegraph connection was made between Manchester and Liverpool; the Johnson brothers inspected the wire and saw the business possibilities for their firm. According to the company history, when the first cross-Channel cable was made in 1850 Johnson’s were contracted to supply “much of” the wire. However, the author’s source for this story evidently gave him the wrong year—at that time Johnson's made only iron wire, and the 1850 cable had an insulated, but un-armoured, copper conductor.

As other sources note, the copper conductor for the 1850 cable was supplied by Thomas Bolton & Sons of Birmingham, while Johnson’s made the armouring wires for the cable laid the following year. Both a 1928 prospectus (published on 12 June 1928 in The Times of London when the company was being reorganized) and the 1951 Johnson’s catalogue correctly state that the firm supplied the galvanised armouring wires [to R.S. Newall] for the 1851 Channel cable, the first commercially successful cable ever laid.

This involvement in the earliest days of submarine cable making was the beginning of a long association of Johnson’s with the cable industry. The company was consulted on technical details of armouring wire on many occasions in the coming years, and supplied wire for a number of significant cable projects. The 1928 prospectus notes that “the Company are still to-day among the chief suppliers of material for sheathing Submarine Cables”.

Manchester Works, Aerial View, 1951

Another high-profile line for the company for many years was the supply of large quantities of wire for suspension bridge cables, their first such project being the Niagara Suspension Bridge, a double-decker bridge designed by John A. Roebling, which opened for service on March 18, 1855.

When Cyrus Field proposed the Atlantic Cable, Johnson’s were given the order to produce 950 tons of wire to be sent to R.S. Newall & Company in Birkenhead, near Liverpool (and about 40 miles from Manchester), to be spun into the armouring for the finished cable. Newall’s made 1,250 miles of cable using the wire supplied by Johnson’s, finishing the project in June of 1857. Attempts to lay the cable in 1857 were unsuccessful, and the 1858 cable worked only for a short time, but Johnson’s remained involved with cable projects.

Presentation section of the 1857 Atlantic cable,
for which Johnson's supplied armouring wire.

Atlantic Telegraph Coy Cable 1857
Presented By Rd. Johnson & Brother

The company history reports that Sir Charles Bright visited the factory after working on the Red Sea cable to discuss why the armouring wires became brittle and split, which was evidently caused by the method used for galvanising the wires. The resolution of this problem is not described.

Another member of the family, Richard and William’s nephew, John Thewlis Johnson, began working for the firm in 1860. The history notes that Richard took a dislike to him, and in 1864 Thewlis went to work for one of the firm’s best customers, W.T. Henley, the London cable maker, although he still continued to spend some time at the family firm in Manchester. He made several trips to Italy in March 1864 to resolve a problem with Henley’s Otranto (Italy) to Valone (Albania) cable, but despite his differences with Richard Johnson, by December 1864 Thewlis was back in Manchester. He became a partner in the firm in January 1865, and its name was again changed, to Richard Johnson & Nephew. The company then kept this name for over a hundred years.

The company history notes that Cyrus Field visited the factory in 1862 to “discuss various matters concerning wires and cables”, but does not record that any material was supplied by the firm for the 1865 Atlantic cable. And Johnson’s made only a limited contribution to the 1866 Atlantic cable, their work being the galvanising of the armouring wire made by Webster & Horsfall at Hay Mills, Birmingham, of which they processed about 250 tons per week. Johnson’s were the acknowledged experts on the galvanising of cable armouring wires, having performed experiments involving submerging galvanised steel plates in the Irish Channel, among others. The firm received visits from many of the cable men of the time, including Sir James Anderson, C.F. Varley, and Latimer Clark.

Patenting Steel Wire

An indication of the company’s importance to the cable industry was the invitation of Thewlis Johnson to be one of 200 guests at the banquet given by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce in October 1866, at which gold medals were presented to the principals involved in laying the Atlantic cable. Earlier that same year Johnson’s had supplied all the wire for the Cincinnati Suspension Bridge, also built by John A. Roebling, whose son Washington visited the factory and took suggestions from the experts there on a coupling for joining the wire ends. The company also supplied 700 tons of telegraphic (landline) wire to the Indian Goverment in 1866. Johnson’s also had a considerable business in America, supplying Western Union and other companies with telegraph wire.

In 1870 the firm supplied wire for the West Indies and Panama cable and John Pender’s cables linking Britain with China, Singapore, and Australia, along with 1,200 tons of wire for the British Post Office. In 1871, the company brought a lawsuit against an infringer of its 1863 patent for a method of testing the strength of wire for telegraphic purposes. Cromwell Varley and Robert Stirling Newall testified as to the effectiveness of the Johnson’s’ method, and the case was decided in their favour.

In 1873 Thewlis Johnson was again invited to a cable celebration; this time a banquet to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the beginning of the Atlantic cable enterprise in 1854, given in London on March 10th 1873 by Cyrus Field and other directors of the recently formed Globe Telegraph Company (an investment trust). A report on this event was published as Europe and America. Report of the proceedings at an anniversary banquet given by Mr. Cyrus W. Field, of New York at the Buckingham Palace Hotel, London, on Monday, the 10th March, 1873, in commemoration of the signature of the agreement on the 10th of March, 1854, for the establishment of the telegraph across the Atlantic.

Wire Drawing Machine (Steel Wire Mill)

Also in 1873 the company submitted a tender for 3,400 tons of cable for the Brooklyn Bridge, and their wire was rated by Washington Roebling as the best of the samples submitted by eight English, German, and American manufacturers. However, partisan politics came to the fore and the contract was awarded to an American contractor, J. Lloyd Haigh, whose substitution of an inferior grade of cable caused many problems in the construction of the bridge.

In July 1879 the International Telegraph Union (ITU) Conference was held in London, and a hundred delegates travelled north to visit the Johnson works. They were brought to Manchester on a special train with Pullman cars and given a conducted tour of the factory, a lunch presided over by the now 69-year-old Richard Johnson, and dinner on the train on the return journey. Despite this generous hospitality, one delegate was observed to be engaged in industrial espionage, sketching one of the ripping blocks used in the wire forming process; although nothing was said in public, he was later upbraided by management in private.

Although it seems likely that Johnson’s continued to supply wire to the cable industry through the rest of the nineteenth century, the next mention of telegraphy in the company history is not until 1904, when it is recorded that the firm entered the copper trade. Johnson’s had maintained the close relationship with Henley’s which had started when Thewlis Johnson worked there in the 1860s, and Henley’s now invited Johnson’s to produce all their copper wire. Taking advantage of this contract, the firm also supplied copper wire, strip, and commutator bars to its other customers, and by 1914 had become second only to Thomas Bolton & Sons in this industry. The UK division of the Western Electric Company (which became Standard Telephones and Cables, or STC, on its purchase by ITT in 1925) was one of their customers.

Galvanising Frames

After the First World War, the company history is concerned mostly with business and labour relations details, and little further mention is made of technical developments. The history does note that Johnson’s supplied 4,700 tons of 0.0192” galvanised wire in 1943 for the PLUTO pipeline, and it is also mentioned that after the war a shortage of steel billets resulted in a corresponding shortfall in production of cable armouring, among other products. And in 1956 the company produced a large proportion of
the copper tape and steel armouring wire used in the first transatlantic telephone cable , almost 100 years after its involvement with the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The company continued under the Richard Johnson & Nephew name until its merger in 1973 with another old established firm, Thomas Firth & John Brown Limited, the combination being known as Johnson & Firth Brown Limited. The Johnson name finally disappeared in 1987 on the company’s merger with Woodhouse and Rixson to form Firth Rixson Limited, the name it trades under at the present day.

Despite the scant information in the history, further evidence of the company’s continuing involvement in supplying the submarine cable industry comes in the form of a sample case of cables now at the Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno, Cornwall. This came from Alcatel at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich. Alcatel still occupies the same premises which were used continuously for cable manufacture from the 1850s, and is the successor to the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance company (Telcon), which had been a maker of cables at the location since that time. Such cable sample cases were made up for presentation or demonstration, and many of them exist back to the earliest days of the industry.

Johnson’s Cable Sample Case
Image courtesy of Allan Green, copyright
© 2007 Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno

The case has a label inside inscribed: “Specimens of Submarine Cables (Shore-end, Intermediate & Deep Sea) with JOHNSON’S Steel Sheathing Wires & Copper Conductors”.

A technical analysis of the cable samples shows the use of gutta percha as the insulating medium; this material was used in almost all submarine cables from the 1840s until the late 1930s, when it was superseded by polyethylene. The core is formed from multi-strand copper wire, and the insulation on each core is surrounded by a spiral-wrapped tape of copper, a technique developed in the early 20th century to improve the speed of transmission, and perfected by the 1920s. This technical advance also permitted voice signals to be carried over short to medium distances without the use of amplifiers, or repeaters, which would not be developed until the 1940s. From this analysis, it seems likely that the cables date to the 1920s or 1930s, and could have been used for either high speed telegraphy or short distance telephony.

Detail view of the shore-end cable from the sample case
Image courtesy of Allan Green, copyright
© 2007 Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno

The following illustrations of the 1921 Key West - Havana Telephone Cable shows a very similar lay on the outer armouring wires of its shore-end cable to those on the Johnson’s sample. Allan Green notes that he has seen this short-lay “rock armour” on shore-end cables from various manufacturers, and the museum at Porthcurno has a Henley’s example from around the 1890s, later versions from Silvertown, and some quite recent Alcatel optical cables.

The 1921 cable shown in the diagrams below was made by Telcon, so it is possible that the Johnson’s cables were also made by Telcon and the sample case kept at Enderby’s Wharf until the acquisition by Alcatel. Note that the Johnson’s shore-end sample above also has lead sheathing around its cores, similar to that shown in the diagrams.

Thanks to Allan Green, Research Fellow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, for supplying the cable sample case photographs and the impetus for this article.

• CASPER, Louis, Telephone and Telegraph Cables, Scranton, 1928, International Textbook Company.
• RJ&N Ld., Wire Tables and Data, Manchester, 1951, the company.
• SETH-SMITH, Michael, Two Hundred Years of Richard Johnson & Nephew, Manchester, 1973, the company.
The Times, London, 28 June 1928.
Information sheet at Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester (PDF)

Last revised: 22 December, 2019

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: