Escher.gif <span class=

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

Sir William Thomson, on the 150th
Anniversary of the Atlantic Cable
by David and Julia Bart

Introduction: This article on Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) was first published in the Antique Wireless Association Review, Volume 21, 2008. Thanks to authors David and Julia Bart for permission to reproduce it here.

-- Bill Burns

Sir William Thomson, on the
150th Anniversary of the Atlantic Cable

Copyright © 2008 David and Julia Bart


At the dawn of the 20th century, Sir William Thomson, known as Lord Kelvin (of Largs), was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scientists in history. (Crocker, 1902; Lord Kelvin, 1902) More recently, polls of over 500 physicists from around the world failed to even nominate him for consideration as one of the great physicists of all time. (Physics World, 1999; Physics Web News, 1999; Top 10, 1999) Is it confusion over his name? Is he one person or three: 'William Thomson' or the misspelled 'William Thompson' or is he 'Lord Kelvin'?1  Or are his many contributions to classical physics and electrical communications so easily overlooked? More likely, Lord Kelvin defies a ready definition. Is he a mathematician, a physicist or an engineer? He contributed to theoretical classical physics while simultaneously applying empirical mathematical analysis to the new fields of engineering and electrical science. Many physicists consider him an engineer. Engineers consider him too theoretical. Mathematicians overlook his applications. In today’s technical world, his contributions across many areas of study, now highly specialized, have left him ill defined; however, no one else has accomplished so much in so many disciplines. (Crocker, 1902)

William Thomson is credited with many of the important theoretical and mathematical concepts that underlie the 19th century’s great progress in classical physics. He established key concepts leading to the Law of Conservation of Energy, the first and second laws of Thermodynamics, and introduced the words "potential" and "kinetic" energy into the physics lexicon. He established the absolute temperature scale (now known as degrees 'Kelvin') and was instrumental in promoting the international adoption of standard electrical measures and the French metric system. He was also a public figure, renowned as an important telegraph engineer and inventor, and the scientist responsible for the success of the Atlantic Cable. Thomson used innovative mathematical approaches and analogies drawn from physics to solve many of the crucial engineering problems facing the Atlantic cable project. He was the first person to explain the electrical theory behind the operation of land based telegraph lines allowing him to conceive a new system for successful undersea telegraphy. During his lifetime, he wrote 661 scientific papers and was awarded 75 patents in the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland. (Trainer, 2004) He was knighted in 1866, and in 1892 he was the first scientist in British history to be named a Lord. He was also the first scientist to be raised to the Privy Council in 1902. Among his many honors, William Thomson was Fellow and President of the Royal Society, Fellow and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, recipient of the Copley Medal (the 19th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize).2 He was laid to rest as Lord Kelvin in December, 1907 next to Sir Isaac Newton in London’s Westminster Abbey. He was buried with all the pomp and honor that the British Empire could bestow on one of its most famous sons.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first successful Atlantic Cable in 1858, and in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Lord Kelvin’s death, this article will explore his many contributions to telegraphy and the Atlantic Cable project.


William Thomson was a child prodigy and his talents were recognized early. He was born in 1824 and was home schooled until age 10 when he matriculated to the University of Glasgow. At age 16, he won the University prize in astronomy for his essay on the earth’s density and the moon’s elliptical orbit. Thomson first encountered the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier’s landmark work The Analytical Theory of Heat while attending the University of Glasgow. He was transformed by Fourier’s conclusions that "primary causes are unknown to us; but are subject to simple and constant laws, ...[and] the effects of heat are subject to constant laws which cannot be discovered without the aid of mathematical analysis." (Fourier, 1822). Fourier’s great insight was to use abstract reasoning to explain physical behaviors and relationships through the logic of mathematics without ever determining the root causes of the behaviors. Fourier’s paradigm permitted the forecasting of outcomes which could be tested empirically, using mathematical formulas to analyze quantifiable measurements. (Sharlin, 1979)

In the early years of the industrial revolution, the British paid little attention to Continental science. Thomson, now 16 years old and fluent in both French and German, read Fourier’s book while on vacation from the University of Glasgow. He soon became one of the first British proponents of Fourier’s new ideas. (Sharlin, 1979) In 1841 and 1842, Thomson published three articles in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal under the pseudonym P.Q.R. to defend Fourier. In these articles, he mathematically established the connections between heat flow and electrostatics and explained the principles underlying the theoretical "Carnot Engine". That same year, Thomson used Fourier’s mathematical approach to prove Michael Faraday’s ideas about the geometry of curved lines of force and distributions of electric charge. He further demonstrated that Fourier’s mathematics could be used to answer questions about electrical attraction using heat exchange as an analogy. (Munro, 1895; Thompson, 1910; Sharlin, 1979; Lindlay, 2004)

Thomson’s articles represent the first attempt to mathematically explain Faraday’s concepts. Thomson’s insights would later provide the cornerstone for his subsequent work on telegraphy and submarine cables. (Ayrton, 1908; Munro, 1895; Thompson, 1910; Sharlin, 1979; Lindlay, 2004; Wroblewski, 2007) Much later, in 1856, Thomson observed, "Whatever electricity is, it seems quite certain that electricity in motion is heat; and that a certain alignment of axes of revolution in this motion is magnetism..." (Thomson, 1856a) James Clerk Maxwell stated that Thomson’s use of analogies between heat exchange and the behaviors of electricity and his application of mathematical relationships were one of the most valuable of all "science-forming ideas". (Sharlin, 1979) Maxwell would later credit Thomson with most of what he knew about the concepts of a dynamical theory of electricity and magnetism. (Maxwell, 1904; Sharlin, 1979)

William Thomson continued at Cambridge University, graduating in 1845 as Second Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos, the famed Cambridge examination for Mathematical Honors. He also won the Smith’s Prize for students in theoretical physics, mathematics and applied mathematics. In 1846, Thomson returned to the University of Glasgow, newly appointed as a Professor Of Natural Philosophy at the youthful age of 22. He remained at the University for the next sixty one years until his death at age 83. (Thompson, 1910)

In 1855, Hermann von Helmholtz described Thomson as, " of the leading mathematical physicists in Europe. I expected to find a man somewhat older than myself, and was not a little astonished when a very youthful, exceedingly blonde young man, almost girlish, appeared before me...He exceeds, I might add, all the scientific greats I know personally, in sharpness, clarity, and quickness of mind, so that at times I felt dull witted beside him." (Helmholtz, 1855).

By 1857, Cyrus Field, the dogged promoter of the Atlantic Cable project, turned to 33 year old Professor William Thomson for help solving the electrical and engineering dilemmas facing the cable project. Thomson would prove to be the man responsible for making the cable function.


The practice of science in the mid 19th century remained largely an avocation. British scientific laboratories traced their origins to the Royal Society under Robert Hooke in the 18th century and the laboratories of the Royal Institution under Sir Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday in the early 19th century. (See Note 2) However, none of these could be classified as "professional" scientific experimental laboratories. At this time, independent teaching laboratories could not be found on university campuses. (Gray, 1897; Ayrton, 1908; Phillips, 1983) Institutionally funded laboratories would not begin to be established for research and teaching until the 1860s. (Smith and Wise, 1989)

Thomson arrived as a new Professor at the University of Glasgow in 1846 finding, "apparatus of a very old fashioned kind...There was absolutely no provision of any kind for experimental investigation, still less idea, for anything like student’s practical work." (Thomson, 1885). He immediately recognized the importance of training students and advocated an experimental approach for both research and education. Instead of simply lecturing his students, he used demonstrations to test and illustrate scientific and mathematical principles.4 He "openly expressed his contempt for a university that spent its time merely in holding examinations." (Ayrton, 1908) Thomson believed that students benefited from learning "accuracy" and "perseverance" because "investigation in physical or chemical laboratories leaves no room for shady, doubtful distinctions between truth, half-truth, whole falsehood. In the laboratory everything tested or tried is found either true or not true." (Thomson, 1885) Further, students could also provide the labor to conduct the many measurements necessary for empirically based research. He fervently believed that science should be practical, and its assertions should be proven by rigorous mathematical analysis supported by empirical evidence.5

Fig. 3. Professor Thomson’s Lecture Hall at the University of Glasgow Circa 1896. (Gray, 1897)

Thomson instituted the world’s first professional academic laboratory on the campus of the University of Glasgow in 1846. After receiving advice from Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution regarding equipment purchases, Thomson established a corps of volunteer students who received instruction and generated original research. Thomson’s laboratory became the first acclaimed teaching laboratory in Great Britain; providing a training ground for physicists, electrical scientists and cable engineers. Thomson’s success would provide both inspiration and valuable lessons for the establishment of teaching and research laboratories at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. James Clerk Maxwell, the founder and principal designer of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory (established in 1874) and Professor Robert Clifton, the principal founder of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory (established in 1872), each consulted with Thomson on the purpose, structure and design of their laboratories.6 (Campbell and Garnett, 1882; Crother, 1974; Fox, 2005)

Thomson ran his own laboratory as a think tank for experimental design. As Ayrton recalled, "There was no special apparatus for student’s use in the laboratory, no laboratory course, no special hours for the students to attend, no assistants to supervise or explain, no marks given for laboratory work, no workshop and even no fee to be paid." (Ayrton, 1908) The laboratory served as a practical home for devising experiments and building experimental equipment. It provided a thought provoking training ground for theoretical development and practical experimentation. (Ayrton, 1908; Hunt, 1997; James, 2004) Thomson’s primary goals focused on teaching the student to be "self dependent and resourceful" while they learned from Thomson’s own example. (Gray, 1897) (See Note 6)

Fig. 4. Professor Thomson’s Laboratory at the University of Glasgow Circa 1896. Thomson sat at the table in the lower right foreground. (Gray, 1897)

For the next 53 years, Thomson shared his investigations, inventions and teaching with over 7,000 students at the university and the laboratory. (King, 1925; Glasgow, 2007) The laboratory was formally recognized in 1866. In 1870, it was relocated to new quarters and was officially incorporated into the new University of Glasgow. (Gray, 1897; Thompson, 1910; Phillips, 1983) Thomson’s later work on electrical instrument design and his development of precision instruments brought his laboratory practices into an industrial environment as he worked closely with James White and Company and its successors to invent practical measuring devices based on empirically tested designs. (Gray, 1897)


Many books and articles have explored the dramatic history surrounding the Atlantic Telegraph Cable which successfully established the first electrical communications link between the old and new worlds. The Atlantic Cable stands as one of the greatest technological achievements of the 19th century, often equated with the 20th century’s first moon landing. Both the United States and Great Britain funded portions of the project with the majority of cost borne by public shareholders. The American entrepreneur, Cyrus Field, spearheaded efforts which spanned more than 14 years and ultimately cost over $12 million, approximately $150 million in today’s currency. Key scientific and engineering contributions were made by Sir William Cooke, Sir Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday and Professor James Clerk Maxwell. Samuel F.B. Morse and William Thomson each spent significant time working onboard the ships to address the major engineering problems facing the project.

The Atlantic Cable project would require more than 50 transatlantic voyages made by hundreds of U.S. and British sailors, engineers and electricians on 13 ships in five major attempts before achieving success. (Dibner, 1959; Burns, 2007a) The attempts in 1857 and 1858 involved the two largest warships in the world, the USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon. The 1857 expedition ended in failure when the cable snapped as it was being released from onboard the ship. A second attempt in 1858 also failed. In a third attempt during July and August 1858, the Niagara and the Agamemnon successfully laid the first operable transatlantic cable; using over 340,500 miles of wire for the cable and its armor sheathing, enough to go 13.6 times around the world and 1.4 times the distance between the earth and the moon. (King, 1925) The project’s team of scientists, electricians and engineers onboard ship was enormous for the time, with 33 men just handling the cable. (Mullaly, 1858) Unfortunately, the 1858 cable failed after only three weeks. The failure was ultimately attributed to high signaling voltages which "burned out" the line. 8

A fourth attempt was made in 1865. At that time, the largest ship afloat was the bankrupt steamship the Great Eastern. 10 That year, the Great Eastern was refitted to carry over 500 crew and provisions, more than 8,000 tons of coal, and over 2,700 miles of cable weighing more than 5,000 tons. The new cable was nearly four times as bulky and almost twice as heavy as the 1858 cable based on design changes recommended by Professor Thomson and the Chief Engineer Charles Bright (see discussion below). The 1865 cable again broke in mid-ocean, leaving the expedition with another failure.

A fifth attempt in 1866 finally brought success. The expedition that year not only succeeded in laying a fresh cable, but also recovered the broken 1865 section from the ocean floor and attached it to a new portion laid in 1866, completing a second line. By September 1, both the new 1866 and the repaired 1865 cables were completed; becoming the first successfully operating Atlantic cable connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, a distance of nearly 2,100 miles. The 1866 cable operated successfully until 1872, and the restored 1865 cable operated until 1877. By then, both cables had been rendered obsolete. They were functionally replaced by a new 1873 Anglo-American Telegraph Company cable made by Telcon and the 1874 Direct United States Cable Company cables made by Siemens Brothers. (Telcon, 1950; Scott, 1958; Fagan, 1975; Glover, 2007)

The cable project spanned the terms of four U.S. Presidents (Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln and Johnson) and a significant part of Queen Victoria’s reign. It demanded new technologies and new science to overcome unforeseen obstacles and the rigors of the north Atlantic. The new science of undersea Oceanography was developed, in part, to determine how to lay the cable on an unexplored ocean floor more than 21/2 miles (2,600 fathoms) below the surface. The cable project stimulated many inventions including: the mirror galvanometer, new cable designs, new types of propeller and steamship technologies, new designs for hydraulic pumps and onboard winches, stronger and more durable types of insulation and wire rope, dynamometers and hydrometers. Even the adoption of standard units of measurement in electricity (watt, volt, ohm, ampere) stem from the four-year scientific commission assembled in 1859 to study the failure of the 1858 cable (see text below). The eventual success of the cable project revolutionized communication, reducing correspondence times between London and Washington from over three weeks to just 10 hours. It provided a permanent link between Europe and the Americas, and helped establish a worldwide communications network which would facilitate management and control of the British Empire.11 (Smith and Wise, 1989; Hunt, 1997)


Staffing USS Niagara HMS Agamemnon
Primary Electricians C.V. De Sauty, J.C. Laws

Prof. Wm Thomson, Mr. Bartholomew

Primary Engineers William E. Everett, Charles Bright W.H. Woodhouse, Samuel Canning, Henry Clifford
 Chief Electricians 2 2
 Cable Operators 4 4
Gutta Percha Joiners 1 2
Cable Splicers & Assistants 4 3
Total Electrical Department 11 11
Ship/Cable Engineers and Assistants 5 6
Total Complement 16 17


Fig. 5. "Awaiting the Reply" in the Great Eastern circa 1866 by Robert Charles
Dudley. Professor William Thomson is standing at the center. (Gift of Cyrus W. Field to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1892; Image 92.10.43)


As early as 1848, Thomson recognized the enormous possibilities for electrical science and its potential use of applied mathematical reasoning. (King, 1925) The key lay in Thomson’s unique combination of Fourier’s mathematical methods and his analogies between the theories of heat transfer and electrical impulses. Thomson described this approach in a letter to J.P. Nichol stating, "This, the first piece of physical mathematics I ever took up, has been since Fourier’s time ready and quite complete for the telegraphic problems, including every practical detail - resistance in receiving instruments (radiating power of the end of a bar), imperfect insulation (loss of heat from the sides of a bar), etc." (Thompson, 1910; Smith and Wise, 1989)

The scientists involved with the cable project soon realized that submarine cables behaved differently than land lines. Defining, measuring and accounting for differences in electrical resistance in underwater cables became the chief obstacle to successful long distance submarine telegraphy. In 1823, Sir Francis Ronalds first found that electrical signals were retarded when passing through an insulated wire, or core, laid under ground. The same effect was observed in wire immersed in water. Michael Faraday concluded that the retardation was caused by induction between the electricity in the wire and the earth or water surrounding it. Effectively, the cable acted as a Leyden jar: the cable’s core operated like the jar’s tinfoil; the cable’s insulation acted as the glass; and the soil or water performed as the outer tinfoil. As the cable’s core receives a charge from a battery, the electricity induces an opposite charge in the water as it travels along; and, as the two charges attract each other, the 'exciting' charge is restrained. The resulting speed of a signal through the conductor is "thereby retarded by its own making". (Thomson, 1855a; Munro, 1895; Thompson, 1909) Munro best described the differences between land line and submarine telegraphy:

"In overland lines the current traverses the wire suddenly, like a bullet, and at its full strength, so that if the current be sufficiently strong these instruments will be worked at once, and no time will be lost. But it is quite different on submarine cables. There the current is slow and varying. It travels along the copper wire in the form of a wave or undulation, and is received feebly at first, then gradually rising to its maximum strength, and finally dying away again as slowly as it rose...This is owing to the phenomenon of induction, very important in submarine cables, but almost entirely absent in land lines. In submarine cables...the copper wire which conveys the current is insulated from the sea-water by an envelope, usually of gutta-percha. Now the electricity sent into this wire induces electricity of an opposite kind to itself in the sea-water outside, and the attraction set up between these two kinds 'holds back' the current in the wire, and retards its passage to the receiving station. (Munro, 1895)

Thomson recognized that the speed of a telegraph signal was limited by both its capacity and resistance. He calculated that the speed decreased as the square of the cable length increased for any given diameter of the core conductor. His computations confirmed the 'capacitance' (the amount of stored electric charge for a given electric potential) of a cable. He found that a cable surrounded by an insulator residing in a conducting medium (salt water) acted as a form of condenser; interacting and exchanging electrical potential with the surrounding medium. Thomson devised his "doctrine of squares" to define the relationship. His concept soon came to be known as Thomson’s "Law of Squares". (Thomson, 1855a; Thompson, 1909; Thompson, 1910) According to the Law of Squares, a cable two miles long would have four times the retardation in signal strength of a cable that was one mile long, and the strength of the signal would therefore be only ¼ as strong. Consequently, for any given cable, signaling speed is inversely proportional to the square of the cable length, when holding the capacitance and resistance constant. Thomson used these relationships to define signal arrival curves in which he could compute the arriving signal current after any interval of time following the signal transmission based on the battery voltage, the cable resistance, the cable capacity, and length of the cable.12 Thomson had succeeded in mathematically proving Faraday’s initial theory.

The Law of Squares and Thomson’s signal arrival curves were not immediately accepted in scientific circles. In the debate which followed, Jenkin and Varley proved Thomson’s Law of Squares in a series of experiments in which signal speed, measured as words per minute of a standard length (8 dots and dashes), was first defined for measuring and evaluating electrical performance. (Jenkin, 1859; Bright, 1898; Cookson and Hempstead, 2000; Beauchamp, 2001) Thomson’s writings, supported by Jenkin and Varley’s experiments firmly established the crucial parameters under which a submarine telegraph system had to operate. These parameters necessitated design modifications for the 1865 and 1866 cables. Seven years after the failure of the 1858 Atlantic Cable, the 1865 and 1866 cables were now manufactured to overcome the expected retardation in signal strength that would be experienced over each cable’s great length. As a consequence, the diameter of the 1865 and 1866 copper cores and the surrounding insulation were increased almost three-fold over the original 1858 cable design to allow the weak currents to flow more easily.

Fig. 7. Siphon Recorder Signals Received Through Submarine Cables of Various Lengths. Generally, longer cables produce less sharp and well-defined signals. Signals on top are received on short cables, signals on the bottom are received through long cables. (Fleming, 1921)

Thomson’s interest in electrical fields and magnetism led him to discover another critical relationship that would govern the operation of sounders, relays and registers used in telegraphy. Thomson analyzed electro-magnets and concluded that similar iron cores with winding lengths proportional to the squares of their linear dimensions produced equal intensities of magnetic fields when they were supplied with equal currents. (Pope, 1891) Thomson’s conclusion successfully identified the relationship between iron cores and copper conducting windings. Knowledge of this relationship enabled the production of electromagnets which could yield similar magnetic intensity despite using different sizes of iron cores and different lengths of windings. Thomson had defined the parameters under which all future electromagnets would be manufactured.


The initial idea of transmitting electrical impulses through submarine telegraph lines was suggested as early as 1795 by Salva, a Spanish scientist. Between 1811 and 1840, Sommering, Schilling and Sir Charles Wheatstone all performed experiments in this area. (Bright, 1898) In 1842, Samuel Morse conducted tests of a submarine cable across the Hudson River in New York City, and by 1843 he was predicting the eventual success of an ocean cable. (Briggs, 1858; Munro, 1895) In 1850-51 John Watkins Brett laid the first successful submarine telegraph lines across the English Channel. (Briggs, 1858; Prescott, 1866; Munro, 1895) By 1855, nineteen successful submarine cables had been laid worldwide at distances reaching 360 miles, and thirteen of these were still in operation. (Prescott, 1866) Between 1854 and 1856, serious interest in a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, which would span more than 2,000 miles, finally took hold under the leadership of Cyrus Field (see Note 7). Despite early successes over relatively short distances, scientifically and empirically derived explanations for the electro-magnetic operation of submarine telegraph systems were still not available. The science behind cable operations would need to be developed before a trans-Atlantic cable could succeed.

Thomson believed in the cable project from the outset. He was drawn into the theoretical problems facing the Atlantic Cable in October, 1854 when Gabriel Stokes asked for his opinion on Michael Faraday’s conclusions regarding the design of the cable and whether the design would limit the signal capacity. (Stokes, 1854) Stokes and others now recognized that the operation of submarine cables required a more in depth understanding of electrical theory than land line telegraphy. By December, Thomson had written a series of letters to Stokes laying out an entire mathematical theory explaining how a pulse of electricity traveled in an insulated submerged wire. In the Stokes letters, Thomson analyzed the data rate that could be achieved, and explained the feasibility and economic consequences of completing a trans-Atlantic cable. (Stokes, 1854; Thomson, 1855a; Lindley, 2004) The Stokes correspondence marks the first time that the operation of the telegraph had been subjected to such careful theoretical analysis. (Sharlin, 1979)

Dr. Edward O. Wildman Whitehouse, Chief Electrician for the Atlantic Telegraph Company, disputed Thomson’s conclusions in letters to the British Association. Thomson published his responses in the Atheneum magazine where he recommended use of a larger cable with more insulation based on his earlier research. (Thomson, 1855b) Whitehouse, the older and more established telegraph expert, had the support of the more senior Faraday and Morse. All three advocated a brute force approach to push the signal down a narrow cable with increasing voltages. The much younger Professor Thomson was viewed as a scientist rather than an applied engineer or electrical telegrapher. In the end, Whitehouse, with the support of Faraday and Morse, prevailed; and his designs for a smaller cable were employed in the 1857 and 1858 cable expeditions. 13 (See also Notes 7 and 17).

By 1856, Thomson had conceived a complete system for submarine telegraphy. Thomson attributed his concepts to Fourier’s mathematics and the recognition of "double harmonic distributions" of "symmetrically and oppositely electrified" discharges of currents. His plan focused on detecting weak telegraph signals and adapting the Morse code for submarine work. (Thomson, 1856b) Within a year, he would develop the mirror galvanometer, bringing many of his initial concepts to fruition. (See discussion below)

In December 1856, Thomson was appointed as an unpaid scientific advisor to the Board of Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Though unpaid, his enthusiasm, willingness to work and practical problem solving skills often placed him in a position to offer solutions for many of the challenges facing the project.14 Over the next nine years, he personally participated in each of the major cable expeditions: one in 1857, two in 1858, one in 1865, and the round trip in 1866 where the 1866 cable was laid and the 1865 cable was completed.

During 1857 and in 1858, Thomson remained an unpaid director and scientific advisor to the Atlantic Cable Company. Although his new mirror galvanometer was used during the cable laying operations to test for electrical continuity, Whitehouse’s equipment was installed upon completion of the 1858 cable. (See Notes 7 and 17) Following the failure of the 1858 cable, the Lords of Committee of Privy Council For Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company formed a Joint Committee on Submarine Telegraphs to determine the cause of the failure. (Report, 1861) The committee held 22 sessions eventually meeting with 43 scientists, engineers, electricians and naval officers. The committee’s work included taking testimony, conducting experiments and reviewing reports as part of their investigation and evaluation of submarine cable technology (Bright, 1898 and 1903; Sharlin, 1979; Fouchard, 2002). Thomson’s explanations, given in testimony and written papers, together with those of Charles Bright, the Chief Engineer, ultimately prevailed; firmly establishing a foundation for future cable design (see Notes 12 and 17). Thomson was subsequently appointed to a five member Committee for the Atlantic Telegraph Company to select a new cable design for the next expedition. This new cable would incorporate Thomson’s costly recommendations; permanently influencing the manufacture of all future submarine cables. For the first time, the new design specifications established requirements for the conductivity of the copper core, the size of the conductors and the insulation. (Report, 1863) The directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company unanimously approved Thomson’s new design despite the much higher costs. (Sharlin, 1979)

In 1865, Thomson was named Electrical Consultant to the Atlantic Telegraph Company, although he had no direct authority over any cable operations. The electrical department itself remained under the control of the subsidiary com-pany, the Telegraph Maintenance and Construction Company, which was directly responsible for laying the cable. In preparation for the expedition, the company’s directors implemented a strictly defined command structure onboard ship requiring written requests, instructions and authorizations. Thomson possessed no direct authority, and his comments and recommendations issued through the project’s Chief Engineer. This strict protocol remained in place for the 1866 expedition. Despite the restrictions on his authority, Thomson’s advice proved crucial to the enterprise. (Thompson,1910; Dibner, 1959; Sharlin, 1979; Lindlay, 2004)


William Thomson had long maintained a belief in the impor tance of quantitative measurement. (Bright, 1903; Thomson, 1883) The precise measurement of electricity and magnetism were "merely an extension of the astronomer's method of reckoning mass in terms of what we may call the universal gravitation unit of matter, and of the reckoning of force…according to which the unit of force is that force which, acting on a unit of mass for a unit of time, generates a velocity equal to the unit of velocity." (Thomson, 1894). His search for absolute and fundamental units of measurement for mass, space and time constituted a lifelong quest that eventually led to the development of his absolute temperature scale (measured today in degrees 'Kelvin') and the adoption of absolute units of electrical measurement. (Thomson, 1851; Pope, 1891; Tunbridge, 2002)


Gutta Percha Co. (core)
 W.T. Henley Telegraph Works

and Glass Elliot & Co.
(Irishshore end) and

Telegraph Construction and

Maintenance Company Ltd.
Atlantic Telegraph Co.
Atlantic Telegraph Company

(Ango-American Telegraph

Company after March, 1866)

Conductor 7 Copper Wires (1 Center, 7 Copper Wires (1 Center, 6

6 Surrounding) Surrounding) Weight of Conductor 107 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile 300 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile Base Coating Layer None Chatterton’s Compound Insulator 3 Layers Gutta Percha 4 Layers Gutta Percha

Alternating With Layers of

Chatterton’s Compound Weight of Insulator 261 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile 400 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile Padding Layer Jute Yarn (Hemp) Soaked Jute yarn (Hemp) Soaked

with Compound of with Preservative
Stockholm Tar, Pitch,
Boiled Linseed Oil &
Common Bees Wax

External Protection (Armor)18 Strands of Charcoal 10 Solid Wires (each wire Iron Wire (each strand surrounded by Manila Yarn composed of 7 wires soaked in a preservative

 Wound Spirally Around compound) Wound Spirally the Core, No. 14 Gauge around the Core, No. 13 Gauge Outer Covering Compound of Tar, Pitch Part of Armor Strands

& Linseed Oil Cable Circumference 2.00" 3.53" Cable Weight In Air 2,000 Lbs. Per Nautical 3,575 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile

Mile Cable Weight In Water 1,340 Lbs. Per Nautical 1,400 Lbs. Per Nautical Mile

Mile Deepest Section Laid 2,400 Fathoms (14,400 ') 2,400 Fathoms (14,400 Feet) Length Laid 2,036 Nautical Miles 2,538 Nautical Miles (1,214 Nautical Miles Laid In 1865,

Completed In 1866) Maximum Communication 2-3 Words Per Minute 8-10 Words Per Minute Speed Transport Vessels HMS Agamemnon & USS Great Eastern


The Atlantic Cable’s ultimate success stemmed, in part, from Thomson’s early recognition of the crucial importance that rigorous testing and control played in the manufacturing of the cable. When Thomson first joined the team in early 1857, Cyrus Field and the other directors were already intent on making their first attempt to lay the cable that summer. Unfortunately, the project was so hastily managed, that careful controls were not even contemplated. The cable itself was already being manufactured by two separate firms, Glass & Elliott & Co. of London and R.S. Newall & Co. in Birkenhead. The cable consisted of a conducting core of seven wires surrounded by layers of gutta percha insulation and protective armor wire (see table). However, manufacturing specifications for the cable lacked precision. Worse, the cable itself was manufactured in 1,200 two-mile length pieces. It was discovered, only after production, that the armoring wires from each manufacturer had an opposite lay (winding in opposite directions); presenting great difficulties in making the splice between the two sections. (Thompson, 1910)

As Thomson became involved with the project, he objected to the use of two separate cable manufacturers who manufacturing the cable without effective controls or oversight. He soon became concerned about impurities and irregularities in the copper conductor and presented his analysis to he Royal Society in June 1857. Thomson’s On The Electric Conductivity of Commercial Copper offered a detailed explanation of his investigations "in terms of an 'absolute' system of measurement" providing a table of his experimental results and comparisons with standard wires. (Thomson 1857a; Thompson, 1910) After the failure of the 1857 cable, Thomson pushed for "systematic and searching tests for the purity and conductivity of the copper." (Bright, 1903) His tests of the 1857 cable found that portions of the cable conducted current no better than iron. (Thomson, 1857a; Thompson, 1910) Thomson demonstrated the critical importance of using copper wire with high conductivity for all future submarine cables. (Dearlove, 1896)

William Thomson’s ideas had major implications. Prior to 1857, cable contracts only specified the weight or gauge of the wire. Following his research, Thomson insisted that contracts for production of the 1858 cable specified chemical purity, high electrical conductivity and testing. This was the first time that any manufacturing contract had included such language. (Dearlove, 1896; Bright, 1903; Tunbridge, 1992) In order to ensure compliance with the new provisions, Thomson set up testing apparatus at the factory. (Thompson, 1910) Over the next year, every inch of the new 1858 cable was tested. Every section that demonstrated inferior conducting values, due to defects in the conducting core and/or insulating envelope, was rejected. Thomson’s rigorous procedures established the first documented performance testing of manufactured products at the factory. Today, these con-cepts are considered the foundation of future quality control procedures. (Cookson and Hempstead, 2000; Tunbridge, 2002) Thomson himself noted, "It was not until practical testing to secure high conductivity had commenced at the factory, that practical men came thoroughly to believe in the reality of the differences in conductivity in the different specimens of copper wire, all supposed good and supplied for use in submarine cables." (Thomson, 1859)

In 1859, Thomson and Jenkin began a correspondence where they sought to measure the resistance of both copper and gutta percha used in the cables. In order to compare the resistances of these two materials, Jenkins was forced to decide upon the standard units he would use to report his results and the standards used to calibrate the measurements. (Hunt, 1994) Jenkin’s need for absolute standards confirmed Thomson’s own beliefs in their necessity. This helped propel Thomson toward his later involvement with the British Association as it struggled to define and adopt the British ohm as the first widely accepted electrical standard.

Thomson’s testing procedures were implemented for all subsequent cable manufacturing to ensure uniform performance. (Bright, 1903) His ideas soon received widespread acceptance in other areas. For example, his work with defining common screw-thread dimensions constituted the first widely adopted industrial standard. Thomson’s methods thus provide the foundation for today’s concepts of quantifiable quality controls, standardized measures of performance and the specification of acceptable tolerances within defined measurement error rates. (Tunbridge, 1992)


Professor Thomson’s mathematics background and his search for solutions to practical problems led him into many other areas of the cable project. During the 1857 cable expedition, the cable broke under the strain of its payout. The ships averaged 5 2/3 miles per hour when laying the cable which was being released at an angle of 10-19 degrees from the ship’s stern. (Mullaly, 1858) Kelvin mathematically explained the reason for the fatal break in the 1857 cable. He used differential equations to analyze the mechanical forces involved in dropping a submarine cable to the ocean floor. He concluded that the cable broke due to the strain placed on it by the braking machinery as the cable was sent over the stern. Thomson demonstrated that when the cable was run out of the ship at a constant speed in a uniform depth of water, it sank on a slant or straight incline from the point where the cable entered the water to that where it touched the bottom. The angle of the cable during its descent depended on the speed of the ship and the mechanical stresses placed on the physical characteristics of the cable. (Thomson, 1857b and 1865) The implications of these insights were enormous. They led to redesign of the cable payout machinery onboard ship which handled and released the cable as well as nautical considerations regarding the speed of the ship during cable laying operations. Thomson’s computations and their impact on operational procedures and the design of cable laying machinery redefined cable laying operations and were used well into the 20th century. (Bright, 1903; Commercial Cable Company, 1915)

Thomson’s computations also proved essential for the 1866 attempt to recover the lost 1865 cable. He determined that raising the lost cable, grappled from the ocean floor at a depth of two miles, resulted in the suspension of approximately 17 miles of cable length between the ship and the ocean floor. His computations, together with expert navigation and Bright’s idea to employ multiple buoys to spread the load, directly facilitated the successful recovery of the 1865 cable. (Thomson, 1865)

Thomson provided a number of other insights and his own engineering designs used in submarine cable technology. For example, he redesigned the method for "sounding" the depth of the ocean floor. The old method involved sinking a lead-line from the stern and waiting for it to slacken as it reached the ocean floor. Thomson replaced the rope with steel wire using a pressure gauge to record the depth. (Munro, 1895) Thomson also spent many years developing and refining his Mariner’s Compass resulting in a number of patents. His compass was later adopted as the standard by the British Navy. (Sharlin, 1979; Smith and Wise, 1989; Lindley, 2004)


Throughout his life, William Thomson demonstrated an unorthodox approach to problem solving. This was most apparent in his design for the mirror galvanometer, the instrument which would be essential for detecting submarine telegraph signals. Many of the eminent engineers and scientists of the period, including Whitehouse, Morse and Faraday, argued in favor of a brute force approach to sending electrical signals over long distances; using high voltages to push the signals through smaller sized cables. (See Note 13) They favored developing more powerful instruments to force the message down a long narrow cable. Consequently, the first Atlantic Cable was expected to operate with a potential of 500 volts or more. (Bright, 1898, 1903 and 1908; Commercial Cable Company, 1915) Thomson postulated that if weaker signals could be detected, there would be no need to apply such high voltages. He conceived an instrument that would detect the smallest possible electrical signal. His understanding of the Law of Squares and his mathematical appreciation of the relationships between electricity and magnetism enabled him to design the highly sensitive mirror galvanometer (known at the time as a "marine galvanometer").

Thomson developed the mirror galvanometer between 1856 and 1858 receiving his British Letters Patent No. 329 on February 20, 1858. Thomson’s mirror galvanometer was a direct extension of Hans Christian Oersted’s original 1819 observations that a wire carrying an electric current affected the orientation of a magnetic compass needle.16 The mirror galvanometer operated on the principle that a tiny magnet made of a watch-spring, attached to the back of a minute convex mirror which hung in the center of a coil of fine wire, would move when a minute electrical signal through the coil affected the magnetic field in which the mirror was suspended. A "double-current" telegraph key had two keys which sent signals in opposite polarities as each key was depressed (one with a positive and one with a negative current). A lamp directed light onto the mirror which reflected a tiny spot of light onto a scale; and, as the mirror was deflected by the changing polarity of the magnetic field, the spot of light would move left or right, enabling a Morse code based message to be interpreted. By design, a very slight motion of the suspended mirror was optically magnified onto a visible scale which could be easily observed and recorded. Each instrument had an adjustable control magnet or group of magnets, and moveable glass rods could be used to pin the mirror and prevent its motion when not in use. Thumb-screws were used to adjust the zero position of the suspended mirror and its consequent light spot on the scale. (Munro, 1895; Bright, 1898; Thompson, 1909; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Dibner, 1959; Green, 1970)

Thomson’s mirror galvanometer differed from his land based designs in several ways. It used a heavier magnet to balance the mirror and more robust construction using platinum wire to suspend the mirror in order to balance the effects of the ship’s motion and earth’s magnetism. Later models in 1865 and 1866 were housed in an iron casing to block local magnetic disturbances created by a new generation of ocean vessels with iron hulls. This proved to be an important modification for use on The Great Eastern. Finally, the platinum wire suspension was replaced with silk thread attached to a spring to further offset the effects of a ship’s motion. All of these modifications sought to stabilize the small mirror and beam of light on the scale despite the effects of motion and outside magnetic forces. (Preece and Sivewright, 1876; Prescott, 1892; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Thompson, 1909; Green, 1970).

The highly sensitive mirror galvanometer provided the critical link; finally enabling the successful operation of a submarine cable over long distances. In a notable demonstration of its capabilities, Thomson’s galvanometer successfully detected the weak signals transmitted through the cable using a Dickerson’s cell, a gun-cap containing one drop of acidulated water and a small anode of zinc. (Bright, 1908; Thompson, 1910) Unfortunately, the mirror galvanometer was only used onboard the ships to test the circuits on the 1857 and 1858 expeditions. Instruments designed by Whitehouse were used at the landed cable ends. The mirror galvanometer would not be accepted for general use until the 1865 expedition.17 Thereafter, the mirror galvanometer would remain the standard method of receiving submarine telegraph signals until it was replaced by his siphon recorder in the 1870s. (see below)


The mirror galvanometer enabled submarine cables to be fully tested and monitored. As the cable was manufactured, shipped and subsequently released onto the ocean floor, the "electrical character of every mile of the core and cable is found, and registered for future reference." (Munro, 1895) Detailed records allowed engineers to detect the existence of a fault and to calculate the distance of the fault from either end of the line. To accomplish this, daily tests were made of the cable at the factory and during shipment to provide well maintained logs of the results for comparison. (Munro, 1895)

Although the 1865 expedition resulted in failure, the official report to the investing companies and the British Government summarized the expedition’s successes and recommended further improvements for the next attempt. Of note, were Thomson’s findings which showed the importance of quantitative approaches, and the benefits of constant testing and manufacturing controls. Thomson and the electricians were able to determine "That the insulation of a cable improves very much after its submersion in the cold deep water of the Atlantic, and that its conducting power is considerably increased thereby." They found that the 1865 cable was "more than 100 times better insulated than cables made in 1858." And finally, that "electrical testing can be conducted with such unerring accuracy as to enable the electricians to discover the existence of a fault immediately after its production or development, and very quickly to ascertain its position in the cable." (Certificate, 1865)18

Thomson’s careful approach and the routine collection of volumes of electrical data would continue in the 1866 expedition as well as all subsequent cable laying expeditions of the 20th century.


The success of the Atlantic Cable in 1866 permitted submarine telegraphic communication to continue using the mirror galvanometer. Signaling speeds using the mirror galvanometer generally achieved a rate of 8-10 words per minute through manual transmission and visually monitored optical reception. In 1866, Queen Victoria knighted Thomson and five others for their critical contributions to the cable’s success. (Illustrated London News, December 8, 1866; Thompson, 1910) Between 1867 and 1870, Sir William Thomson developed the Siphon Recorder for general use on submarine cables.19 The galvanometer required constant visual observation. In contrast, the siphon recorder directly recorded submarine telegraph signals onto a paper tape which was pulled through the machine. Although Thomson received U.K. Patent No. 2147 for the siphon recorder in 1867, it took nearly three years to make the device fully operational. (Thompson, 1910; Trainer, 2004) The first public demonstration of the siphon recorder took place in London during June 1870 upon the completion of the British Indian submarine cable, though it had been used during its development years. (Beauchamp, 2001)

The siphon recorder was virtually equal in sensitivity to the mirror galvanometer, but reversed the arrangement of the coil and magnet. The siphon recorder carried the line current from the cable through a rectangular coil of wire which was suspended in a narrow gap between the soft iron poles of a powerful electromagnet. The coil was free to turn on its long axis.

The motions of the swinging signal coil transferred to a delicate glass siphon pen (a glass tube 3"4" long and the diameter of a needle) whose upper end dipped into an inkwell and whose open lower end hung suspended above a brass table upon which a paper tape traversed. A constant difference in electrical potential was maintained between the ink and the brass table. As the signal current passed through the coil, the ink was projected in minute drops onto the passing paper tape. Thus the siphon traced a fine line of ink drawn on the paper tape providing a record of the transmission. If no current passed, the line remained straight on the passing paper tape. When the coil moved in response to a positive or negative current, the line deviated to the left or right (read as "up" or "down"), permitting the interpretation of telegraphic code.20 In the 1880s, the electromagnets were replaced by permanent field magnets, and the ink was no longer electrified but was transferred by rapid vibration of the siphon point. (Thomson, 1873; Prescott, 1892; Munro, 1895; Sayers and Grant, 1897; Bright, 1898; Western Union Telegraph Company, 1921)

Thomson’s siphon recorder was the forerunner of all moving coil instruments later used in designs of galvanometers, ammeters and voltmeters and his designs which utilized the magnetic attraction of the inking fluid would eventually form the basis for all facsimile and printing machines. (Munro, 1895; Murray, 1902; Thompson, 1909; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Cameron, 1927; Green, 1970)

The siphon recorder quickly proved to be more economical and practical than the mirror galvanometer. It did not depend on clerks to perform the fatiguing task of watching a spot of light for movements. Instead, it produced a verifiable record of the incoming signal. In addition, only one clerk was required, replacing the "mirror clerk" and "writer" employed to operate the galvanometer. (Bright, 1898) The siphon recorder soon replaced the mirror galvanometer and provided the primary means of recording signals on submarine cables well into the 1930s. (Russell, 1912; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Beauchamp, 2001) Use of the siphon recorder permitted cable telegraphy to reliably reach speeds of 20 words per minute. (Munro, 1895; Fagan, 1975) The Muirhead automatic transmitter systems of the late 1890s and the full implementation of duplexing circuits (permitting the simultaneous sending of signals in both directions down the same line), first begun in 1875, finally enabling submarine telegraphy transmission speeds to effectively reach 90 words per minute by 1902.21 (Murray, 1902; Bright, 1903 and 1907; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Cameron, 1927; Green, 1970; Ash, 2001) As discussed above, use of "loaded" cables together with the automated signaling permitted speeds of 400 words per minute to be reached by the 1920s. (Report, 1941; Ash, 2001; Huurdeman, 2003) Interestingly, the first published suggestion of a method for duplexing cables was included in an 1854 Kelvin patent. (Bright, 1898)


Thomson’s success with the Atlantic Cable made him famous. The mirror galvanometer and siphon recorder established Thomson as a preeminent expert in submarine telegraphy. Together, they operated within a system where electrical signals with opposite polarities could travel long distances under water (see Figures 5 and 6). Thomson had been the first to describe the signal distortion that occurred on long submarine cables. The mirror galvanometer enabled the weak signals to be detected. Yet, despite attempts to clarify the incoming signals by varying the operators' sending practices, the electrical impulses still overlapped and became blurred. Scientists and engineers had known since 1861 that "The most important problem to solve in submarine telegraphy undoubtedly is, how the signals may be made to follow each other with the greatest rapidity..." (Report, 1861) One technique for clarifying signals involved quickly applying short bursts of the opposite polarity and of a shorter duration, or a reverse signal, known as "curbing" the signal. The short bursts effectively stopped the initial current from continuing to build after it had reached an observable value, enabling a second signal to be transmitted and more clearly received shortly after the first, thereby sharpening the signal. As the signaling speed increased, the bursts of curbing current necessary to achieve clarity became almost equal in duration to the signal currents. (Dearlove, 1896; Sayers and Grant, 1897; Fitzgerald, 1899, Ash, 2001) Modifications to the Morse code also helped (See Note 20), but signals sent by hand were still not timed well enough to permit great increases in speed. In 1875, Thomson and Jenkin developed an "automatic curb sender" to help impose accurate proportions in the lengths of the signal currents and spaces. (Ewing, 1876; Bright, 1898; Beauchamp, 2001) The Thomson-Jenkin automatic curb sender proved too cumbersome for regular work. (Dearlove, 1896; Bright, 1898) Still, Thomson’s techniques for "signal shaping" would be adapted by others for use in automatic transmitters developed well into the 20th century. (Bright, 1898; Beauchamp, 2001)


Thomson’s interest and direct involvement in laying submarine cables continued well into the 1870s as the cable industry expanded. By 1874, 206 submarine telegraph lines had been laid worldwide, 145 were still working, and eleven more were in the course of construction; all under the direction of 16 major companies. (Submarine Telegraphy, 1876) By then, Thomson’s siphon recorder had been installed on the British-India (Falmouth-Bombay) cable of 1870 and the Falmouth-Malta cable later that same year. (Thompson, 1910) Thomson himself participated in the French Atlantic Cable expedition of 1869 and worked with Fleeming Jenkin and James Alfred Ewing on the Western-Brazilian and Platino-Brazilian cable expeditions of 1873. Thomson was present at the laying of the Para-Pernambuco sections of the Brazilian coastal cables, also in 1873. (Thompson, 1910; Scott, 1958; Cookson and Hempstead, 2000; William Thomson, 2007) The Brazillian cables were laid by the first ship designed specifically for laying submarine telegraph cables. The CS Hooper, launched in 1873, was the second largest ship in the world, second only to The Great Eastern. Thomson had been instrumental in designing new hydraulic pumps. (Thompson, 1910) The Hooper’s state of the art elec-trical testing cabin had been designed by Thomson, together with Latimer Clark. (New Telegraph, 1873; Haigh, 1968; Finn, 1980; Ash, 2001) Finally, Thomson directed the electrical testing on the Direct United States Cable Co. line from Ballinskelligs to Torbay, Nova Scotia in 1875. Thomson performed the work on both the Platino-Brazilian cable and the Direct United States Cable for Siemens Brothers. (Scott, 1958)


 The Law of Squares had established parameters governing future cable design and manufacturing. Thomson’s system for defining the transmission of submarine telegraph signals was so successful that between 1866 and 1924 there was no material change in the basic design of the ocean cables themselves. (Report, 1941) Thomson’s original mirror galvanometer was so sensitive that could operate on no more than 60 volts of potential.22 Use of the mirror galvanometer increased communication speeds almost five-fold from 2-3 words per minute up to 8-10 words per minute for signals sent in one direction. (Russell, 1912; Commercial Cable Company, 1915; Fagen, 1975) Although duplexing permitted bi-directional signaling in cables (see discussion below), nearly 60 years passed before innovations in cable design increased the one-way speed of signals sent from transmitter to receiver. Concepts of "shielding" and "loading" the cables would not take hold until 1924.23 However the essence of their design still largely depended on Thomson’s original principles. (McDonald, 1937; Ash, 2001)


In the mid-19th century, scientific and technical units still remained arbitrary and depended on the individual experimenter, making them unsuitable for comparison to other results. (Thomson, 1883; Tunbridge, 2002) Thomson recognized, as early as 1851, that advances in science and engineering depended on uniform precise measurement of observed phenomena. (Thomson, 1851; Tunbridge, 2002) He took every opportunity to criticize the British system and argued in favor of the more structured French metric system. (Russell, 1912) Thomson spent years advocating for the adoption of absolute units to overcome the discrepancies he found in the measurements used to describe the effects of magnetism and electricity. His unique position as one of the leading scientists of the era in addition to his fluency in French, German and Latin allowed him to lead the international efforts to define standards for measuring electrical activity. (Tunbridge, 2002)

Thomson, in conjunction with Charles Bright and Latimer Clark, finally succeeded in pushing for the creation of a Committee on Electrical Standards at the British Association in 1861.24 (Prescott, 1892; Bright, 1903; Hunt, 1994; Tunbridge, 2002) Much of the foundational work centered on the underlying theory and definition of the international (formerly, the British) ohm as the unit of electrical resistance.25 The British Association’s Committee reports from 1861-1869 were subsequently summarized and published in 1873; providing the basis for the subsequent international adoption of a unified system of electrical measurement. (Jenkin, 1873) Between 1862 and the year of his death in 1907, Thomson provided critical leadership at the numerous International Electrical Congresses as they worked towards the development of standard units for electrical measurement and the adoption of the French metric system. (Thompson, 1910; Tunbridge, 2002; Lindley, 2004)

The adoption of the ohm and other standardized measures by the British cable companies provided a wide scale and critical example of the necessity of worldwide electrical standards. (Hunt, 1994) The needs of submarine telegraphy initiated the demand for precise measurement, and Thomson led the way in pushing the scientific establishment toward addressing the issue. The rapid acceptance of electrical standards also stimulated the development of university teaching laboratories in the 1860s and 1870s. Virtually all of them now emphasized the importance of electrical measure-

Volume 21, 2008 145 ment and empirical testing. (Hunt, 1994) For the first time, Thomson and the British Association had succeeded in unifying the interests of laboratory physicists, telegraphers and electrical engineers.

Thomson’s commitment to standardized measurement found application in the development of precision instruments and industrial tools. Here, he sought to introduce the use of rational constraints and accurate standardized adjustments to replace the accepted practice of force fitting components. In doing so, he showcased the need for accuracy and increased dependability in precision instruments. (Fitzgerald, 1899) Thomson patented a whole series of electrical measuring instruments including divided ring electrometers, graded galvanic potential electrometers, graded current galvanometers, quadrant electrometers and various meters and gauges. (Prescott, 1892; Tunbridge, 2002; Trainer, 2004 and 2007c; William Thomson, 2007) His work not only included electrical devices but mariner’s compasses, deep sea sounding devices for finding depths, and modifications to submarine cable equipment. (Thompson, 1909 and 1910; Sharlin, 1979; Lindley, 2004; Trainer, 2004)


Prior to 1860, most scientific and technical information was disseminated through the publication of learned societies, books and privately published letters, correspondence and pamphlets. The most respected scientific journals were "refereed" by the Royal Society. (Barton, 1998) The rapid growth of telegraphy and other new technologies stimulated demand for sharing more information in an organized and timely manner. Both telegraphers and scientists had much to learn from the public hearings which took place after the failure of the 1858 cable. These hearings involved a comprehensive review of the entire telegraph industry and the state of electrical science. Thomson’s testimony in particular and Thomson’s debate with Whitehouse (see Notes 7 and 17) were of particular interest. The committee’s findings and testimony were considered of such importance that some of the first technical journals emerged to disseminate this new information. The Electrician began publication in 1861, and The Telegraphic Journal was published weekly from 1861 to 1899 when it became The Electrical Review. (Bright, 1898; Lynch, 1985; Beauchamp, 2001) With the successful laying of the 1866 cable, every scientific and popular magazine or journal carried articles about submarine telegraphy. These magazines emerged to serve as "organs of science," in essence, connecting the public to the scientific world. (Barton, 1998)

The rapid change in this period is also reflected in the growth of the learned societies between 1870 and 1890. (Frary, 2008) Thomson himself recognized the need for a technical society and corresponding journal that would cater to the unique interests of telegraphers and electrical engineers. In 1871, Thomson was a founding member and the first vice-president of the new Society of Telegraph Engineers. He regarded the society as a vehicle which could bridge the gap between theory and practice in electrical science by providing a place for organized co-operative discourse on topics of common interest. Early on, Thomson provided several technical articles to support the new journal on topics that included tangent galvanometers, measurement of electrostatic capacity, batteries and siphon recorders. (Thompson, 1910) The society soon evolved into The Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians, and eventually became the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) which still survives today as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).26 (Frary, 2008; IET, 2008) Thomson provided valuable leadership serving as President of the organization on three different occasions in 1874, 1889 and 1907. (Thompson, 1910)


Thomson’s practical approach to teaching, experimentation, invention, research and theory were evident right from the beginning of his tenure at the University of Glasgow. On November 1, 1846 Thomson gave his Introductory Lecture To The Course On Natural Philosophy. In his opening lecture as a new professor Thomson articulated his belief that " the study of external nature, the first stage is the description and classification of facts...this is the legitimate work of Natural History. The establishment of general laws in any province of the material world, by induction from the facts collected in natural history, may with like propriety be called Natural Philosophy...A strong recommendation of the study of Natural Philosophy arises from the importance of its results in improving the physical conditions of mankind..." (Thomson, 1846) Many years later, Thomson would continue to argue, "There cannot be a greater mistake than that of looking superciliously upon practical applications of science. The life and soul of science is practical application...[turning] knowledge of the properties of matter to some purpose useful to mankind." (Thomson, 1883)

Thomson’s scientific methods stemmed from two fundamental ideas that he held throughout his life. First, that, "I am never content until I have constructed a mechanical model of the subject I am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand; otherwise I do not." (Thomson, 1904). And second, "In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and methods of practically measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be."

Fig. 18. Lord Kelvin’s Study at his University of Glasgow House Circa 1896. Kelvin sat at the writing table on the right and his secretary at the middle table. Kelvin was the first person in Great Britain to install electric lighting and among the first to install a telephone. (Gray, 1897)

(Thomson, 1883).

Thomson approached science from a practical and empirical perspective, applying theoretical ideas to real world engineering problems. Thomson’s theories generally applied to closed systems which were limited by logical reduction to eliminate the impact of outside influences. Thomson then carefully identified the individual questions and issues that could be defined and addressed within each system. Thomson’s work in all areas ultimately centered on the nature of energy, heat and temperature; laying the foundations for the new science of thermodynamics which would become the most significant development in physical science since Newton. (Haw, 2007) His insights would prove essential for the operation of worldwide te-legraphy and submarine communications.


The British physicist J.J. Thomson (no relation) said of Lord Kelvin, "His personality was as remarkable as his scientific achievements; his genius and enthusiasm dominated any scientific discussion at which he was present. He was, I think, at his best at the meetings of Section A (mathematics and Physics) of the British Association...He made the meeting go with a swing from start to finish, stimulating and encouraging, as no one else did, the younger men who crowded to hear him. Never has science a more enthusiastic, stimulating, or indefatigable leader." (King, 1925)

Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) was knighted in 1866 and raised to the peerage in 1892 largely as a result of his contributions to telegraphy and his importance to fostering the British Empire’s worldwide imperial communications. (Smith and Wise, 1989) He published 661 papers, obtained 75 patents and, according to one source, had more initials after his name than any other man in the British Commonwealth. (Trainer, 2004; Kelvin Probe, 2007) Yet, incredibly, Kelvin summed up his life’s work by stating, "One word characterizes the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five year, that word is FAILURE. I know no more of electric and magnetic force, or of the relation between ether, electricity, and ponderable matter, or of chemical affinity, than I knew and tried to teach to my students of natural philosophy fifty years ago in my first session as Professor...[B]ut in the pursuit of science, inborn necessity to make the effort...saves the naturalist from being wholly miserable, [and] perhaps even allows him to be fairly happy in his daily work." (Fitzgerald, 1899).27


Instruments and Apparatus 9
  Current Regulation and Testing 3
"Electrical": Measuring Apparatus For Current 6
  Measuring Apparatus (Other) 8
  Current Regulation 3
  Measurement and Recording Apparatus 6
  Total 35

Note: Based on Kelvin’s U.K. Patent Application titles specifying the "Telegraph" or "Electrical" classification.


Academic Degrees/Awards/Fellowships/Appointments 32
Royal Society of Edinburgh (Fellowships/Awards/Appointments) 6
Royal Society of London (Fellowships/Awards/Appointments) 5

British Assoc. For The Advancement of Science (Section President, Committees)

British Knighthoods and Royal Orders 5
International Science and Engineering Awards 16
Professional Society and Academic Memberships/Positions 96
Corporate Titles (i.e. Consultant, Chairman, Director) 7

Univ. of Glasgow Honorary Buildings/Medals/Prizes (i.e. "Kelvin" or "Thomson")


Honorary Scientific Names/Titles (i.e. "Kelvin Wave" or "Thomson’s Law", etc.)


Honorary Corporate/Ship/Product Names and Titles (i.e. "Kelvin" or "Thomson")


Honorary Topographical and Lunar Names (i.e. "Kelvin" or "Thomson")

Commemorative Postage Stamps and Currency 4

The list of academic awards and other recognitions bestowed upon Lord Kelvin during his lifetime illustrates the worldwide recognition of his many contributions to science and engineering. Throughout his life Kelvin maintained that "the life and soul of science is its practical application" (Thomson, 1894) Helmholtz wrote, "He has striven with great consistency to purify the mathematical theory from hypothetical assumptions which were not a pure expression of the facts. In this way he had done very much to destroy the old natural separation between experimental and mathematical physics, and to reduce the latter to a precise and pure expression of the laws of phenomena. He is an eminent mathematician, but the gift to translate real facts into mathematical equations, and vice versa, is by far more rare than that to find the solution of a given mathematical problem..." (Fitzgerald, 1899). Einstein put it more broadly stating "The extent of knowledge that we owe to the activities of Thomson in the areas of thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, electricity, nautical science, physical geography and measurement technology is almost incalculable." (Einstein, 1924)

On the occasion of Lord Kelvin’s 50th Anniversary Jubilee as a Professor at Glasgow University, some 2,500 dignitaries assembled to honor the man and his accomplishments. Representatives of the world’s great universities, leaders of the British Empire and Monarchy and numerous foreign governments attended or sent congratulatory messages. In a memorable highlight, the College of the University sent Lord Kelvin a congratulatory telegram which returned to the Jubilee seven and one half minutes after traversing the globe on the worldwide land and submarine cable network. Kelvin’s reply traveled the same 20,000 mile route. (Fitzgerald, 1899).

In many ways, Lord Kelvin bridged the gap between classical Newtonian mechanical modeling and the use of modern mathematical theory and strict empirical reasoning in physics. His belief in the practical purpose and the excitement of real applications for science would keep him focused on the complex issues involved in submarine telegraphy for much of his life. Today, we can recognize that Lord Kelvin’s work established the critical foundation for a modern electrical network of global communications. As the renowned mathematician P.G. Tait stated " you in all of these capacities is due the success of Long-line Submarine Telegraphy, with the innumerable benefits resulting from the power of practically instantaneous communication between all parts of the globe." (Fitzgerald, 1899). Just over twenty years later, Fleming would acknowledge Lord Kelvin’s full legacy, "[He was]...perhaps the greatest mathematical, physical and inventive genius that Great Britain has produced..." (Fleming, 1921)


We are greatly indebted to many people for contributing their time, energy and enthusiasm to this project. Bill Burns and Bill Holly offered invaluable information and documentation and helped review the content of this article. The "History of The Atlantic Cable" (Burns, 2007a) and "The Evolution Of The Submarine Telegraph" (Holly, 2004) offered valuable starting places for much of the research into this article.

Thanks also to Matthew Trainer of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Kelvin Building, University of Glasgow for his help verifying the many historical facts and references mentioned in the text. His knowledge about Lord Kelvin, Kelvin’s patents, and his internet site "Lord Kelvin Online" (Trainer, 2007b) proved to be invaluable resources for our research.

Special thanks are given to Dr. George R. Bart (David’s father) for his insights and recommendations on source material and to Ted Kamish (Julia’s father) for his demonstration of early scientific apparatus; thank you both for inspiring our lifelong interest in the history of science.


Ash, S. (2001). From Elektron to "e" Commerce; 150 Years of Laying Submarine Cables. Global Marine Systems. Extracts containing an additional epilogue are also available from Submarine Telecoms Forum internet site by WFN Strategies.

Ayrton, W.E. (1908, March). Kelvin in the sixties. Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 72. Personal recollections of Professor William Edward Ayrton reprinted from the Engineering Supplement of the London Times. See also "Lord Kelvin As A Teacher", Educational Review, May, 1908.

Barton, R. (1998). Just before Nature: the purposes of science and the purposes of popularization in some english popular science journals of the 1860s. Annals of Science, Vol. 55, No. 1.

Beauchamp, K. (2001). History of Telegraphy. The Institution of Electrical Engineers. Exeter, Devon: Short Run Press, Ltd.

Bottomley, J.T. (1872, May 9). Physical science in Glasgow University. Nature. London: Macmillan Journals.

Briggs, C.F. and Maverick, A. (1858). The Story of the Telegraph and a History of the Great Atlantic Cable. New York: Rudd & Carleton.

Bright, C. (1898). Submarine Telegraphs, Their History, Construction and Working. London: Corsby Lockwood.

Bright, C. (1903). The Story of the Atlantic Cable. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Bright, C. (1907). Submarine Telegraphy. Lecture delivered at Royal Unites Service Institution. London: J.J. Keliher and Co.

Bright, C. (1908). The Life Story of Charles Tilston Bright Civil Engineer. Revised Edition. London: Archibald Constable and Co. Ltd.

British Association for the Advancement of Science (2007, December 19). Wikipedia Internet Site.

Burns, B. (2007a, October). History of the Atlantic Cable and Submarine Telegraphy. Internet Site. .

Burns, B. (2007b, October). Salient features in cable design since 1850. See Burns, 2007a.

Calvert, J.B., (2004a, May 19). The electro magnetic telegraph. Telegraph: The History of Telecommunications and Related Matters. University of Denver. Internet Site.

Calvert, J.B., (2004b, May 29). The telegrapher’s equation. Engineering and Technology- Historical and Tutorial Articles in Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. University of Denver. Internet Site.

Cameron, D.H. (1927). Submarine Telegraphy. Scranton, Pennsylvania: International Textbook Company.

Campbell, L. and Garnett, W. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell With A Selection From His Correspondence and Occasional Writings And A Sketch of His Contributions To Science. London: Macmillan and Company.

Carter, S. (1968) Cyrus Field: Man of Two Worlds. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Certificate (1865). Certificate Signed By Persons Officially Engaged In Laying The Atlantic Telegraph Cable From The Great Eastern in 1865. Reprinted in Dibner, 1959 and Lindley, 2004.

Coe, L. (1993). The Telegraph: A History of Morse’s Invention and Its Predecessors In The United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company.

Cookson, G. (2003). The Cable: The Wire That Changed The World. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Cookson G. and Hempstead, C.A. (2000). A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and The Birth of Electrical Engineering. Brookfield, USA: Ashgate.

Commercial Cable Company. How Submarine Cables Are Made, Laid, Operated And Repaired (1915). Commercial Cable Company. Text and images courtesy of New York Public Library, Myers Collection at SIBL.

Crocker, F.B. (1902, June). Lord Kelvin his work and influence. The Engineering Magazine. Vol. 23, No. 3.

Crowther, J.G. (1974). The Cavendish Laboratory 1874-1974. New York: Science History Publications.

Dearlove, A. (1896, June 19). Lord Kelvin and submarine telegraphy. The Electrician. Vol. 37.

Dibner, B. (1959). The Atlantic Cable. Norwalk: Burndy Library.

Dugan, J. (1953). The Great Iron Ship. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Einstein, A. (1924, July 25). On the centenary of Lord Kelvin’s birth. Die Naturwissenschaften. English translation in Trainer, 2007a.

Ewing, J.A. (1876). Thomson and Jenkin’s automatic curb sender. Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. Vol. 5.

Fagen, M.D. (1975). A History of Engineering and Science In The Bell System: The Early Years (1875-1925). Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc.

Field, Henry M. (1893). The Story of The Atlantic Telegraph. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Finn, B.S. (1973). Submarine Telegraphy: The Grand Victorian Technology. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office Eyre & Spottiswoode, Ltd.

Finn, B.S. (1980). Development of Submarine Cable Communications. 2 Vols. New York: Arno Press.

Fitzgerald, G.F. (1899). Lord Kelvin: Professor of Natural Philosophy In The University of Glasgow 1846-1899, An Account of the Celebrations On The Occasion of Lord Kelvin’s Jubilee As A Professor. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. Reprinted by Cornell Library Historical Mathematics Monographs.

Fleming, J.A. (1921). Fifty Years of Electricity: The Memories of An Electrical Engineer. London: Wireless Press.

Fouchard, G. (2002). Historical overview of submarine communication systems. Undersea Fiber Communication Systems. Chesnoy, J. London: Academic Press.

Fourier, J.B.J. (1822). Theorie Analytique De La Chaleur (Analytical Theory of Heat). Paris: Libraries Pur Les Mathematiques, L'Architecture Hydraulique Et La Marine.

Fox, R. (2005). Physics in Oxford, 1839-1939: Laboratories, Learning, and College Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frary, M. (2008). The world of electricity: 1820-1904. IEC History. International Electrotechnical Commission Internet Site. .

Glasgow (2007, December). Biography of Sir William Thomson Baron Kelvin of Largs. University of Glasgow Story Internet Site. See .

Glover, B. (2007, October). Cable timeline: 1845-1900. See Burns, 2007a.

Gordon, J.S. (2002). A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story Of The TransAtlantic Cable. New York: Walker and Company.

Gray, A. (1897, March 25). Lord Kelvin’s laboratory in the University of Glasgow. Nature. Vol. 55, No. 1430. London: Macmillan Journals.

Gray, A. (1908). Lord Kelvin: An Account of His Scientific Life and Work. London. Reprinted New York: Chelsea Publishing Co., 1973.

Green, G. and Lloyd, J.T. (1970). Kelvin’s Instruments And The Kelvin Museum. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

Haigh, K.R. (1968). Cable Ships and Submarine Cables. United States Underseas Cable Corporation. London: Ebenezer Baylis & Son Ltd. The Trinity Press.

Harpers Magazine. Various articles and illustrations about the Atlantic Cable expeditions. 1857-1858 and 1865-1866.

Haw, M. (2007, November-December). From steam engines to life? What is the state of thermodynamics on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kelvin? American Scientist. Sigma XI, The Scientific Research Society.

Hearn, C.G. (2004). Circuits In The Sea: The Men, The Ships And The Atlantic Cable. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishing.

Helmholtz, H. (1855). Letter to his wife. Cited in Wroblewski, 2007.

Holly, B. (2004). The evolution of the submarine telegraph. AWA Review. Vol. 17. Antique Wireless Association.

Hughes, R.L. (1928, January). Recent developments in submarine cable design. Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Vol. 66.

Hunt, B.J. (1994). The ohm is where the art is: British telegraph engineers and the development of electrical standards. Osiris. 2nd Series, Vol. 9, Instruments. Chicago: History of Science Society, University of Chicago Press.

Hunt, B.J. (1997). Doing science in a global empire: cable telegraphy and electrical physics in victorian Britian. Victorian Science In Context. Editor B. Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hunt, B.J. (2005). The Maxwellians. Cornell History of Science. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Huurdeman, A. (2003). The Worldwide History of Telecommunications. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

IET (2008, March). Creation of a new Institution. Institution of Engineering and Technology Internet Site..

Illustrated London News. Various articles and illustrations about the Atlantic Cable expeditions. 18571858 and 1865-1866.

James, I. (2004). Remarkable Physicists From Galileo to Yukawa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkin, F. (1859). On the retardation of signals through long submarine cables. Cited in Cookson and Hemptstead, 2000.

Jenkin, F. (1873). Reports Of The Committee On Electrical Standards Appointed By The British Association For The Advancement Of Science (A Record Of The History Of Absolute Units And Of Lord Kelvin’s Work In Connection With These). London: British Association For The Advancement of Science.

Kelvin Probe Information Site (2007, October 24). Internet Site.

Kelvin Society (2007, October multiple dates). Internet Site..

Kennedy, P.M. (1971). Imperial cable communications and strategy, 1870-1914. The English Historical Review. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Vol. 86.

King, A.G. (1925). Kelvin The Man: A Biographical Sketch By His Niece. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lindley, D. (2004). Degrees Kelvin: The Genius and Tragedy of William Thomson. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

Lord Kelvin: England’s greatest living scientist (1902, May 3). Scientific American. New York: Munn and Company.

Lynch, A.C. (1985). History of electrical units and early standards. Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Vol. A 132:564-573. Cited in Lindley, 2004.

MacVicar, I. (2008, January 26). Tanakadate, Lord Kelvin and Glasgow. Internet Site.

Maxwell, J.C. (1904). A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Reprinted from 3rd edition. 2 Vols. London: Oxford University Press. Cited in Sharlin, 1979.

McDonald, P. (1937). Saga of The Seas: The Story of Cyrus Field And The Laying of The First Atlantic Cables. New York: Wilson-Erickson, Inc. Mullaly, J. (1858). The Laying of the Telegraphic Cable With All Its Incidents And Anecdotes. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Munro, J. (1895). Nerves Of The World. Bill Glover transcription of unpublished article.

Murray, D. (1902). How cables unite the world. The World’s Work.

Nahin, P.J. (2002). Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nebeker, J. (2001, July 25). Science And Technology: Lord Kelvin’s Atlantic Cable. 2001 IEEE Conference on the History of Telecommunications. St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

The New Telegraph Ship (1873, July 15). Journal of the Telegraph. Vol. VI, No. 16.

O'Connor, J. and Robertson, E.F. (2007, October 24). William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) 18241907, The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. Internet Site. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Perrine, F.A.C. (1906). Conductors For Electrical Distribution: Their Materials and Manufacture. New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Phillips, M. (1983, June). Laboratories and the rise of the physics profession in the nineteenth century. American Journal of Physics. Vol. 51, No. 6.

Physics World (1999, December 6). Physics: past, present and future - what happens when you ask some of the world’s leading physicists seven questions about the past, present and future of physics? Physics World. London: Institute of Physics.

PhysicsWeb News (1999, November 29). Newton tops physicsweb poll. London: Institute of Physics. PhysicsWeb News. Also cited in Physics World.

Pope, F.L. (1891). Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph: A Technical Handbook. New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Prescott, G.B. (1866). History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.

Prescott, G.B. (1892). Electricity And The Electric Telegraph. 2 Vols. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Records of Kelvin and Hughes Ltd. (October 24, 2007). Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology & the Environment. Internet Site. University of Edinburgh and Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP).

Report (1861). Report of The Joint Committee Appointed By The Lords of the Committee of Privy Council For Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company To Inquire Into The Construction of Submarine Telegraphs. London: British Parliamentary Papers.

Report (1863, October). Report of the Scientific Committee Appointed To Consider The Best Form of Cable For Submersion Between Europe And America. London: Atlantic Telegraph Company.

Report (1941). Supplemental Report On The Telegraph Industry. United States Senate, Appendix To Hearings Before Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, 77th Congress, 1st Session, Part 2. Washington.

Reyneau, P.O. and Seelye, H.P. (1922). Economics of Electrical Distribution. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Royal Institution (2007, December 19). Wikipedia Internet Site.

Royal Society (2007, December 19). Wikipedia Internet Site.

Royal Society of Edinburgh (2007, December 19). Wikipedia Internet Site.

Russell, W.H. (1865). The Atlantic Telegraph. London: Day & Son.

Russell, A. (1912). Lord Kelvin: His Life and Work. London: T.C.&E.E. Jack, New York: Dodge Publishing Co.

Sayers, R.M. and Grant, S.S. (1897, October 1). The working of long line submarine cables. The Electrician. Vol. 39.

Science Museum (1926). Catalogue of The Collections In The Science Museum South Kensington With Descriptive and Historical Notes: Electrical Communication Line Telegraphy. Compiled By R.P.G. Denman. London: Board of Education.

Scott, J.D. (1958). Siemens Brothers 1858-1958: An Essay In The History of Industry. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Sharlin, I. (1979). Lord Kelvin: The Dynamic Victorian. University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smith, C. and Wise, N. (1989). Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet. New York: Walker and Company.

Stokes, G. (1854). Letter from George Stokes to William Thomson dated October 16, 1854 and letters from Thomson to Stokes dated October 28, and December 1, 1854. Cited in Lindley, 2004.

Submarine telegraphy (1876, September 1). Journal of the Telegraph. Vol. IX, No. 17.

Telcon (1950). The Telcon Story: 1850-1950. London: The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company.

Telegraphy (1885). The National Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge. Illustration, Plate 2. Vol. XIII SPR-TRI. London: William Mackenzie.

Thompson, S.P. (1909). Elementary Lessons In Electricity and Magnetism. London, England: Macmillan Press.

Thompson, S.P. (1910). The Life of Lord Kelvin, 2nd ed. London, England: Macmillan Press. Reprinted New York: Chelsea Publishing Co., 1976.

Thomson, W. (1846). Introductory Lecture To The Course On Natural Philosophy. Reprinted in Appendix to Chpt. V in Thompson, 1910.

Thomson, W. (1851, December). Applications of mechanical effect to the measurement of electromotive forces and of galvanic resistances in absolute units. Philosophical Magazine.

Thomson, W. (1855a). On the theory of the electric telegraph. Proceedings of The Royal Society. Vol. 7, p. 382-99. Also in Thomson, 1911 ART. LXXIII.

Thomson, W. (1855b). Letters on telegraph to America. Atheneum. August 30, October 4 and November 30, 1856. Also in Thomson, 1911.

Thomson, W. (1856a). Dynamical illustrations of the magnetic and helicoidal rotary effects of transparent bodies on polarised light. Royal Society of London. Cited in Sharlin, 1979.

Thomson, W. (1856b, December). On practical methods for rapid signalling by the electric telegraph. Proceedings of the Royal Society. Published in the Philosophical Magazine, July 1857. See also Thomson, 1911 ART. LXXVII.

Thomson, W. (1857a, June 15). On the electrical conductivity of commercial copper of various kinds. Proceedings of the Royal Society. Also in Thomson, 1911.

Thomson, W. (1857b, October 16). Letter to Engineer magazine. Cited in Thomson, 1911.

Thomson, W. (1859). Analytical and synthetical attempts to ascertain the cause of the differences of electric conductivity discovered in wires of nearly pure copper. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 10. Includes revised footnotes added on June 27, 1883 as printed in Thomson, 1911.

Thomson, W. (1865, Dec. 18). On the forces concerned in the laying and lifting of deep sea cables. Atlantic Telegraph Cable Address of Professor William Thomson LLD FRS Delivered Before The Royal Society of Edinburgh. London: William Brown and Co.

Thomson, W. (1872). Reprint of Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism. London: Macmillan & Co Ltd.

Thomson, W. (1873, March 18). On signalling through submarine cables. Transactions of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders In Scotland. ART. LXXXV. Reprinted in Finn, 1980 and Thomson, 1911.

Thomson, W. (1883, March 5). Electrical units of measurement. The Practical Applications of Electricity. Printed in 1884. London: Institution of Civil Engineers.

Thomson, W. (1885, February 2). Address delivered at the opening of the Laboratories in University College, Bangor, N. Wales. Nature, Vol. XXXI. Reprinted in Thomson, 1894.

Thomson, W. (1894). Popular Lectures and Addresses 18891904 (3 Vols). London: Macmillan & Co Ltd.

Thomson, W. (1904). Baltimore Lectures On Molecular Dynamics And The Wave Theory Of Light. Cambridge: University Press, 1905. Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, LLC, June 1, 2007.

Thomson, W. (1911). Mathematical And Physical Papers (6 Vols). Michigan Historical Reprint Series. Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library, December 20, 2005. First 3 vols. edited by Thomson, last 3 vols. edited by J. Larmour.

The Top Ten Physicists (1999, December 5). IDEA & ISAAC Internet Site.

Trainer, M. (2004, December). The patents of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). World Patent Information. Vol. 26, No. 4. Trainer’s research on Thomson’s patents continues and was updated in an email to the authors dated January 16, 2008.

Trainer, M. (2007a). Celebrating The Life of Lord Kelvin: Einstein’s Centenary Tribute. University of Glasgow. Includes English translation of Einstein, 1924.

Trainer, M. (2007b, October multiple dates). Lord Kelvin Online. Internet Site.

Trainer, M. (2007c, October multiple dates). Kelvin’s U.K. Patents, 1854-1907. Internet Site.

Tunbridge, P. (1992). Lord Kelvin: His Influence on Electrical Measurements and Units. Institution of Electrical Engineers IEE History of Technology Series. London: Peter Peregrinus Ltd.

Western Union Telegraph Company (1921). Submarine Telegraphy. Instruction paper prepared by the engineers of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Chicago: American School.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (2007, October 3). Wikipedia Internet Site.

Wood, N. (1858). Diary entries. Quoted in King, 1925.

Wroblewski, A. (2007). Lord Kelvin: a look across a century. Kelvin 2007 Centenary Lecture At Kelvin 2007 Conference. University of Glasgow, organized by Institute of Physics. See conference internet site at and slide presentation [PDF file].


1 We will generally refer to 'Professor William Thomson' prior to 1866, ‘Sir William Thomson' after 1866, and 'Lord Kelvin' after 1892.

2 The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge is known simply as The Royal Society. Founded in 1660, it is the oldest institution of its kind still in existence serving as the academy of sciences for the United Kingdom. (Royal Society, 2007) The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organization devoted to scientific education and research, based in London. It was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish, and offers courses, philosophical lectures and experiments supporting academic research. (Royal Institution, 2007) The Royal Society of Edinburgh is Scotland’s national academy of science. Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh carry the designation FRSE in official titles. It provides annual grants for research and entrepreneurship, organizes public lectures and promotes the sciences in schools throughout Scotland. (Royal Society of Edinburgh; 2007) The British Association for the Advancement of Science, known as the British Association or the BA, was formed in 1831 with the object of promoting science, directing general attention to scientific matters, and facilitating interaction between scientific workers. (British Association, 2007)

3 A number of excellent biographies have been written detailing the life of Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). Especially noteworthy are Thompson, 1910; Russell, 1912; King, 1925; and Lindley, 2004. Accounts of Kelvin’s scientific works can be found at Thomson, 1872, 1894 and 1911; Gray, 1908; Sharlin, 1979; Smith and Wise, 1989 and Wroblewski, 2007. The internet sites at Trainer, 2007b; Kelvin Probe, 2007; Kelvin Society, 2007 and William Thomson, 2007 offer additional reading.

4 Thomson was notorious for breaking laboratory equipment. As Professor Ayrton recalls, "Thomson, with all his genius, all his power of advising how an experiment should be made, with all his creative originality in suggesting the details of scientific apparatus and methods, could not make the experiments with his own hands." After all the apparatus was broken, Thomson would apologize, stating to his students, "Faraday’s result was so and so; mine is just the opposite. But Faraday, with inferior apparatus, divined the truth. Remember his result, not what you have just seen me obtain." (Ayrton, 1908)

5 Thomson traced his faith in laboratory experimentation to his post-graduate studies in Paris under Victor Regnault during 1845. (Thompson, 1910) Thomson later stated that Regnault provided "a faultless technique, a love of precision in all things, and the highest virtue of an experimenter - patience." (James, 2004)

6 Thomson’s primacy in establishing the first university professional laboratory providing educational and research opportunities for students is widely acknowledged and considered of critical importance to the growth of empiricism in Great Britain. (Bottomley, 1872; Gray, 1897 and 1908; Ayrton, 1908; Thompson, 1910; King, 1925; Green, 1970; Sharlin, 1979; Smith and Wise, 1989; Hunt, 1997; James, 2004.) However, Thomson’s methods for instruction were based largely on the apprentice-master approach rather than offering a formalized course of instruction in experimentation. The Cavendish Laboratories and Clarendon laboratories later expanded on Thomson’s concepts in the 1870s, developing the first formally organized research and teaching classes in experimental physics. (Crowther, 1974; Philips, 1983).

7 A number of books, articles and internet sites offer first hand and/or comprehensive accounts of the Atlantic Cable expeditions. Especially noteworthy are Briggs, 1858; Mullaly, 1858; Russell, 1865; Field, 1893; Bright, 1898, 1903 and 1908; and, Dibner, 1959. Both Harpers Magazine and the London Illustrated News carried presented extensive news coverage of all the cable expeditions. Several recent books offer a modern perspective including Standage, 1998; Ash, 2001; Gordon, 2002; Steele, 2002; Cookson, 2003; and Hearn, 2004. A comprehensive internet site with many sources is available at Burns, 2007a. See also Holly, 2004 for a complete bibliography of research materials.

8 See Note 7 for references offering the complete story of the 1857 and 1858 cable expeditions and the 1858 cable failure. For all its faults, sections of the 1857 cable were accidentally retrieved after more than 100 years from the bottom of the North Atlantic, and were still capable of conducting electric current. (Carter, 1968)

9 See Mullaly, 1858; Bright, 1908; Thompson, 1910.

10 The story of the SS Leviathan, renamed The SS Great Eastern, constitutes its own epic tale encompassing revolutionary engineering, construction by brute force, and the iron will of its designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At the time of its launching, 50 years before the RMS Titanic, it was the heaviest object ever moved by man. It was over five times larger than the next biggest ship in the world, and would not be surpassed until the building of the RMS Lusitania. It could carry 10,000 troops from England to Australia and return without refueling, and was one of the first ships to use both side-wheel and screw propellers for propulsion. See Dugan, 1953 for the complete story.

11 Britain’s leadership and dominance over worldwide submarine telegraphy provided an efficient and secure means of communication which were vital to both the economy and imperial defense. French officials in 1900 commented, "England owes her influence in the world perhaps more to her cable communications than to her navy." (Kennedy, 1971)

12 The relationships derived in Thomson’s "Law of Squares" were also known in Thomson’s time as the "KR Law" (K referred to capacitance and R referred to resistance). Today, the naming convention for capacitance has been changed to the letter C, and the relationships are generally known as Thomson’s "CR Law". Thomson’s solution is a second order elliptic partial differential equation. Thomson’s equation and his inferences were later expanded by Oliver Heaviside into more a comprehensive theory about the electro-magnetic propagation of waves in electric lines. Heaviside’s development of Thomson’s Law of Squares would later prove to be a critical stepping stone leading to the full development of Maxwell’s equations and a comprehensive electro-magnetic field theory. (Bright, 1898; Hughes, 1928; Fagen, 1975; Beauchamp, 2001; Nahin, 2002; Calvert, 2004b; Hunt, 2005)

13 Interestingly, Chief Engineer Charles Bright reached the same conclusion that a heavier cable with smaller currents would be best suited for long distance submarine work. The young Bright was overruled by the older more experienced men Whitehouse, Morse and Faraday. Bright, however, lacked the scientific knowledge that would later be supplied by Thomson to prove their assertions based on theory of electro-magnetic impulses. (Bright, 1898, 1903 and 1908; McDonald, 1937)

14 Although Thomson provided a significant amount of unpaid work on the Atlantic Cable project, he received substantial income and became quite wealthy from the patents received on his instruments and other inventions.

15 Compiled based on Thomson, 1865; Munro, 1895; Murray, 1902; Telcon, 1950; Finn, 1980; Hearn, 2004; Burns, 2007b; and Glover, 2007.

16 A number of galvanometers preceded Thomson’s design. Pouillet constructed the first tangent galvanometer in 1837 to verify Ohm’s Law. Joule used a galvanometer in 1844 to study the heat exchange in chemical reactions. Weber and Helmholtz modified galvanometer designs in 1846, 1849, respectively. Astatic galvanometers, first conceived by Cumming, were improved by Nobili as early as 1830. (Thompson, 1909; Green, 1970). Thomson’s mirror galvanometer was originally intended as a modification of Helmholtz’s design to minimize the mass of the moving parts. Thomson, purportedly inspired by the reflection of light on his monocle, eliminated the mass of the magnetic pointer entirely. (Thompson, 1910; Sharlin, 1979; Lindley, 2004)

17 The full story of Whitehouse, his substitution of electrical instruments, his overcharging the cable with bursts of up to 2000 volts, the eventual "burnout" of the 1858 cable, the inquiries and public hearings, and eventual discrediting of Whitehouse are described in the histories of the Atlantic Cable identified in Note 7.

18 Based on Thompson, 1910; Trainer, 2004 and 2007c; William Thomson, 2007; Kelvin Probe, 2007; and searches on

19 The siphon recorder was also known as the 'undulator'. (Beauchamp, 2001)

20 During a series of international conferences first held in 1851 and 1854, general use of "Morse" code had been replaced by "Continental" or "International" code for most land line telegraph systems and submarine cables. Morse code continued to be used in the U.S. until after World War I. The International code replaced the arrangements of dots and dashes in certain Morse characters to enable easier and clearer identification of signals. (Prescott, 1892; Coe, 1993; Calvert, 2004a) Several additional changes were necessary for cable signaling. Rather than using pulses of equal polarity but different length for the dots and dashes, cable systems used pulses of equal length but opposite polarity. This approach enabled the signal to traverse the cable line as the signal induced an opposite charge in the surrounding water. (Thomson, 1855a; Prescott, 1892; Sayers and Grant, 1897; Thompson, 1909; Munro, 1895; Beauchamp, 2001) See related discussion in the text.

21 Dr. Alex Muirhead and H.A. Taylor first invented duplex telegraphy in 1873, receiving their patent in 1874. C.V. DeSauty, electrical engineer for the Eastern Telegraph Company, first attempted duplexing on the Lisbon to Gibralter submarine telegraph line in 1873 using condensers and concepts developed by J.B. Stearns that same year. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was not duplexed until 1878. By 1915 virtually all long submarine cables used duplex circuits. (Bright, 1898; How Submarine, 1915; Prescott, 1892)

22 In a famous 1866 demonstration performed by Latimer Clark, a silver thimble was filled with sulfuric acid and a piece of zinc at the Valentia, Ireland cable station. Upon instruction, the two operating cables in Newfoundland were attached end to end, making a circuit of over 3,700 miles. Clark completed the circuit and found that the returning signals were able to deflect the light beam cast by Kelvin’s galvanometer at least 12 inches. (Bright, 1903 and 1908; McDonald, 1937)

23 In 1924, Western Electric introduced an iron-nickel alloy ribbon named Permalloy; and Telcon, The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, introduced its copper-iron-nickel alloy ribbon named MU-metal. These ribbons wrapped around the copper cable cores; thereby providing the copper core with a magnetic shield. This shielding "loaded" the cable with inductance so the signals would not become as distorted over the great lengths traveled. "Loading" the cables enabled signal speeds of 250 words per minute to be reached. Automated transmission equipment used in combination with "loaded" cables enabled transmission speeds of 400 words per minute to be achieved. (Hughes, 1928; Report, 1941; Fagen, 1975; Ash, 2001; Fouchard, 2002; Huurdeman, 2003)

24 It was actually Charles Bright and Latimer Clark, eminent telegraph engineers, who first formally pressed the British Association in 1861 to adopt the standardized electrical measures that the telegraph industry had devised. Thomson had been working independently in the background to manage the politics behind the issue. (Hunt, 1994) Thomson’s conclusions that an absolute system of measurement was essential initially stemmed from his attempts to develop units of reckoning to measure the electromotive forces in voltaic cells. (Prescott, 1892) Later, Bright and Clark would complain that scientists had stolen their initiative while seeking to establish theoretical underpinnings for the standardized units. (Lynch, 1985) Ultimately, Clark recognized that "I was not mathematical enough to see the enormous value of an absolute system, founded on mass, time and space". (Letter from Clark to Thomson dated May 3, 1883, cited in Lindley, 2004) Thomson, for his part, credited both Bright and Clark for their critical roles in the matter. (Thomson, 1883; Bright, 1898 and 1908)

25 The development of international standards involving European and American scientists and engineers is detailed in Hunt, 1994 and Tunbridge, 2002. Thomson’s role is also highlighted in Gray, 1908; Thompson, 1910; Cookson and Hempstead, 2000 and Lindley, 2004. See also Jenkin, 1873; Bright, 1903 and Thompson, 1909 for additional information.

26 The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) was formed by the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and the Institution of Incorporated Engineers (IIE) on March 31, 2006. The decision to create a new Institution was taken by the members of both Institutions in 2005 following discussions between the Institutions and consultation with their members.

27 Based on Preece and Sivewright, 1876; Prescott, 1892; Dearlove, 1896; Fitzgerald, 1899; Perrine, 1906; Thompson, 1910; Reyneau, 1922; Haigh, 1968; Tunbridge, 2002; O'Connor, October 2007; Trainer, 2004; Trainer, 2007b; William Thomson, 2007; Business, 2007; Kelvin Probe, 2007; Records of Kelvin, 2007; Glasgow, 2007 and searches on


David and Julia Bart are both from the Chicago area, where they continue to reside with their two sons, John and Michael. They first met at the University of Chicago where they took a year-long course in the history of science and natural philosophy.

David received both his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Anthropology and Statistics (1985) and his Masters Degree in Business Administration (1993) at the University of Chicago. He is a financial consultant and expert witness in corporate bankruptcy and commercial litigation. David maintains a strong interest in the history of science and early communications and has collected radio, telephone, phonograph and telegraph devices for over 20 years. David’s interests focus on the history of telegraphy and the application of this technology. His current research on the history of teaching the Morse code in America is being compiled into the first comprehensive book on the subject. David holds a Ham Radio License and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Antique Wireless Association. He is the President of the Antique Radio Club of Illinois and is an active member of the Michigan Antique Radio Club and the Indiana Historic Radio Society. He is also Chairman of the Museum Advisory Council for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago where he is Curator of its radio and television collections. David has provided consulting services to the Newberry Library of Chicago and other organizations regarding exhibits exploring the impact of science and technology on society and the humanities.

Julia received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Behavioral Sciences (1987) from the University of Chicago and a Master of Arts in Reading from Concordia University (2007). She is an elementary school teacher with Certifications in Early Childhood Education and Reading. Julia’s professional interests focus on literacy, language acquisition, brain research and child development. Her personal interests include literature, science and the arts. She currently serves on committees for science, social studies and math curriculum and is involved in restructuring the programs for second language education in her school district. Julia has served as a judge for the Illinois Junior Science Academy regional and state competitions. Julia is a long time member and past Treasurer of the Antique Radio Club of Illinois where she continues to play an active role as a volunteer. Julia is also an active member of the Michigan Antique Radio Club and the Indiana Historic Radio Society.

Together, David and Julia, with their sons John and Michael, have enjoyed building their collection of communication devices and provided numerous demonstrations and programs for the Boy Scouts of America, school groups and local historical societies.

Last revised: 23 June, 2014

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: