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

Jacob Brett, 1808-1897

Note: The images in the obituary are not present in the original, but are included here to give further informaton on some of the details mentioned in the text.

--Bill Burns

The Electrician, 15 January 1897 p.368


It is with deep regret that we announce the death, on Saturday evening last, of Mr. Jacob Brett.

Jacob Brett was born in the parish of St. James, Bristol, on October 16, 1808, so that, at the time of his death, he had just passed his 88th birthday. It was more than half a century ago, that is to say, in 1845, that he took out his first patent in connection with telegraphy. On June 16th in the same year he registered a concern called the “General Oceanic Telegraphic Company,” the objects of which were stated to be “To form a connecting mode of communication by telegraphic means, from the British Islands and across the Atlantic Ocean to Nova Scotia and the Canadas, the Colonies and Continental kingdoms.” This afterwards developed into the Atlantic Telegraph Company. On July 23, 1845, Mr. Brett laid before the Government a plan for connecting the Government Offices in London with the most distant parts of the United Kingdom and with the Colonies, the letter, a copy of which is given below, being acknowledged by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, on July 25th.

[Copy of a Letter submitted to the Government in July (1845).]
Printed by Brett's Electric Telegraph.

To the Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel, Bart
            London, July 23, MDCCCXLV.

We beg the honour to submit a plan for general communication by means of oceanic and subterranean inland electric telegraphs for which patents have been secured by the undersigned, and for their construction on cheap and efficient plans.

By means of this telegraph any communication may be instantly transmitted from London or any other place, and delivered in a printed form, almost at the same instant of time, at the most distant parts of the United Kingdom or of the Colonies.

The advantage and power offered to the Government by this invention render it of the greatest importance that they should have it under their own control, and arrange and conduct this plan of general telegraphic communication. The following are a few advantages offered by this patent:--

I. The immediate communication of Government orders and despatches to all parts of the Empire, and the instant return of answers to the same from the seats of Local Government, &c., all delivered in an unerring and printed form.

II. A general telegraphic Post-Office system, uniting the chief and branch offices in London in communication with all the offices throughout the kingdom, for transmitting messages of business, &c., from merchants, brokers, tradesmen, and private persons, at a fixed rate of charge. These communications, being printed on paper, may be enclosed in sealed envelopes, and addressed by confidential clerks, to be issued by special messengers, or the usual Post-Office delivery.

III. The advantages of this plan applied to police arrangements through out the United Kingdom, to the army and departments, must be at once obvious to the Government. By it instructions might be conveyed instantaneously, and the movements of the forces so regulated that any available number of them may be brought together at any given point in the shortest possible time necessary for their conveyance.

These are some of the advantages, others readily suggest themselves, namely, general communication between the stations on the coast, such as lighthouses, Channel Islands, &c., so that a general supervision of the coast might be obtained for the use of Navy, Lloyd's, and for the prevention of smuggling, &c.

J.W. and J. BRETT, 2, Hanover-square.

To appreciate the full significance of these efforts it is only necessary to bear in mind that submarine telegraphy was at this date entirely unknown, and that the earliest telegraph company in the world, the Electric Telegraph Company, was not incorporated until the following year, only opening its doors for the reception of land messages in 1848.

Mr. Jacob Brett, and his brother, Mr. John Watkins Brett, having failed to secure sufficient financial support in England on behalf of the General Oceanic Telegraphic Company, applied, in April, 1847, to King Louis Philippe for permission to lay a submarine cable across the Channel from Dover to Calais. After a lengthy correspondence they were granted, on December 9, 1847, a concession, though not an exclusive one. In April, 1849, the brothers Brett obtained from Louis Napoleon, then President of the French Republic, the exclusive right for the next ten years to lay cables from England to France.

On August 28, 1850, the two brothers, at their own cost, and with the assistance of friends, laid the first submarine telegraph cable, and transmitted type-printed messages through it. This cable was merely a copper wire insulated with gutta-percha. It was almost immediately destroyed by some ignorant French fishermen, who had accidentally hooked it.

In the following year Messrs. Brett formed the Submarine Telegraph Company, with the late Sir James Carmichael as Chairman, and laid a successful four-conductor iron-sheathed cable. In the course of a Friday evening discourse, “On the Submarine Telegraph,” delivered at the Royal Institution on March 20, 1857, Mr. J.W. Brett refers to this supreme success in the following terms: “I well remember the impressive moment when Dover and Calais first responded by instantaneous communication, the electric spark not only delivering its message, but at a given signal, firing guns at an instant of command on the opposite side of the Channel; my only impression was that of profound humiliation—how feeble had been our efforts, how wonderful, and past explanation, the result of the agency employed!” The two brothers next laid, in 1853, the Dover-Ostend cable, formed the Mediterranean Telegraph Company, and in 1854 laid a cable from Algiers to Sardinia and Corsica; they also made many endeavours to form a company to lay and work submarine cables between Suez and India.

In 1852 they formed the European and American Telegraph Company, which afterwards became the Magnetic Telegraph Company, and was eventually amalgamated with the British Telegraph Company. They also laid the first underground lines from Dover to London, and thence on to Birmingham and Manchester.

In October, 1856, the first Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed, in which Mr. J.W. Brett, who died in 1863, was largely interested; but by the time Atlantic telegraphy had become a completely accomplished fact Mr. Jacob Brett had retired into private life.

The closing years of Mr. Jacob Brett's long life were passed in positive penury, the fortune he had acquired in early days having been lost, mainly through injudicious investments. In 1886 he was granted a Civil List pension of £100 a year, upon the recommendation of Mr. Gladstone; beyond this he had no regular income of any kind. This sum being found insufficient for his maintenance, an application was made in 1892 to the First Lord of the Treasury by the Institution of Electrical Engineers, in response to which a grant of £200 was made from the Royal Bounty Fund. But notwithstanding the rigid economy exercised by Mr. Brett, this grant was soon exhausted; and, but for the benevolent assistance of old electrical friends, he would have wanted many things which, to an infirm old man of nearly 90, are absolute necessaries. And, once again, a few weeks ago, a petition was prepared, signed by Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Dr. John Hopkinson, Mr. W.H. Preece, Sir Henry Mance, and Mr. Latimer Clark; but before relief came the sufferer had passed away. It is some consolation to learn that he was in no way, embittered by his lack of means, but continued to take life with cheerful resignation unto the end.

The editors of The Electrician added this further note on Jacob Brett’s sad circumstances at the time of his death:

The Electrician 15 January 1897 p.376

The death of Mr. Jacob Brett has so far entirely escaped notice in the daily Press; and the sad circumstances surrounding the close of his life may not, therefore, be seized upon, as well they might, to point a moral or adorn a tale. But one question, and possibly two, must, we think, arise in the minds of many who read the short story of Mr. Brett’s career. How came it that one who had such unique opportunities of honourably acquiring wealth was dependent in his old age upon doles from the Royal Bounty Fund, the benevolence of old friends like Mr. Latimer Clark, Sir Henry Mance and others, and a Civil List Pension of £2 a week 2 How is it also that the electrical profession, which owed not a little to his indefatigable endeavour, has no regular fund from which assistance can be given to those who fall by the wayside?

In the Brett partnership, it is tolerably evident that the head of the firm was John Watkins Brett. He it was who possessed the push, the self-confidence, the business acumen. He undoubtedly was animated with a disinterested enthusiasm for the beneficent cause of international telegraphy, and was fired with the noble idea of uniting the scattered portions of the British Empire in one grand telegraphic federation. And it was to this alloying of the pure gold of absolute disinterestedness with the baser metal of self-interest that his worldly success was due. Jacob Brett, on the other hand, appears to have possessed more of the inventor's spirit. Instead of devoting his whole attention to the financial side of his brother's schemes, it is complained of him that “the Roman type electric printing instrument of Mr. House, an American,” interested his mechanical predilections, and that “he devoted many years to improve it, which incurred a sacrifice on my (J.W. Brett’s) part of many thousand pounds, without any valuable result for general purposes, all such instruments hitherto having been too complicated to compete with the simple, and now (1858) universal, marking instrument of Prof. Morse.” Perhaps, in this somewhat petulant reference, we have the true key to the mystery of a man dying in the deepest poverty, who, had he possessed only a very small bump of acquisitiveness, might, such were his opportunities, have amassed, if not wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, wealth enough to have placed his old age beyond the reach of anything like want. Many a good dish is completely ruined by a slight disproportion in the different ingredients; and very probably Jacob Brett’s “great natural mechanical talent” was the ingredient which, being in slight excess, entirely spoilt his chance of continued material prosperity, the moment the guiding hand of his elder brother was removed, as removed it was in 1863. One need neither be extravagant nor self-indulgent to earn poverty. A careless indifference about material interests, about such wearisome details as judicious investments, is, as has well been said, “by far the most dangerous of all tempers to the pecuniary well-being of a man.” Indeed, Sydney Smith declares in his paradoxical way that we are on the high-road to ruin the moment we think ourselves rich enough to be careless. It cannot, we think, be fairly said of men like these that others reap what they sow, since in no case would they themselves become reapers. Neither, on the other hand, can one salve the conscience and shut the purse with a snap by the simple expedient of specifying a failing for which poverty and obscurity are no more than a just reward. How extremely short-lived the names of many of the pillars of this engineering age are likely to be, has been strikingly exemplified in the case of Jacob Brett. Less than half a century ago the names of the two brothers were on everybody's lips; and even the sober Times, in referring to the laying of the 1850 Channel cable, was of opinion that the wildest exaggeration of an Arabian tale had been outdone by the simple achievement of modern times. To-day, we may scan its columns in vain for a notice even as long as that accorded to a minor poet.

The electrical profession is apt to think of itself as extremely youthful, and so it is if we compare its age with that, say, of the legal profession, which, like the poor, we have always with us. On the other hand, the jubilee of land-line telegraphy has been celebrated these ten years; in 1901 we shall be celebrating the jubilee of submarine telegraphy, and two years after that we may, if we wish, commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment in this country of the first telephone company; and even electric lighting, if it is to take date in England from the Act of 1882, is, well--past its first youth. It is time, therefore, one would think, to set about in earnest to build up an adequate benevolent fund. Nature has charged everyone with his own support; but everyone who has manfully put forth all the strength he possesses, and has been “overborne by odds,” has a claim upon his more fortunate brethren. As each army is charged with the care of its own wounded, so each profession should see to it that, at any rate, the most necessitous and most deserving of the maimed shall not in their last days be exposed to the pangs and indignities of actual want.

Last revised: 19 July, 2020

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