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

Willoughby Smith

Introduction: Willoughby Smith was one of the first cable engineers, having been involved in laying the Dover-Calais cable in 1850. He subsequently had a long and distinguished career in the cable industry, working on many important projects.

-- Bill Burns

Willoughby Smith (1828-1891)

The Electrical Engineer, July 24, 1891, page 85:

Willoughby Smith

It is with deep and sincere regret that we have to record the death of Mr. Willoughby Smith. A short time since we chronicled the death of David Brooks, an American telegraphic pioneer. Now one of our own pioneers has gone, thinning the meagre ranks of those whose exertions and energy made submarine telegraphy practical.

Quite recently, too, our late friend completed and issued his monograph on the development of cable work. Before briefly sketching his career we may be permitted to speak of the man as a friend. After all, there is a something which appeals forcibly to older men—casting a glamour upon those good old days when, younger and more vigorous, they were pushing ahead in their career, surrounded by congenial companions, whose faces as time rolls on are seen less and less frequently, till they enter the great unknown. Among a small crowd of young men Willoughby Smith was not the least prominent. His friendship was not given hastily, but when given it was that of a “friend in need.” His principle was to speak of men, and act towards them, as he found them, and not from hearsay would he withdraw one atom of the confidence he reposed in his friend. True as steel, gentle, and considerate, though never permitting an imposition, he gradually passed, as we say, into the front rank of those connected with cable work.

As long ago as 1848 Willoughby Smith entered the service of the Gutta Percha Company, and soon after this date the Gutta Percha Company commenced experimenting with a view to covering iron or copper wires with gutta percha for telegraphic or other electric purposes. In 1849 they had so far succeeded with these experiments that they undertook to supply 30 miles of copper wire covered with a thick coating of gutta percha, to be laid from Dover to Calais, with a view to practically demonstrating the feasibility of submarine telegraphy. During the years 1849-50 Mr. Smith was busily engaged in the manufacture and laying of this line. The trouble and annoyance caused by the imperfect system of making the joints in the experimental line induced Mr. Smith to give this subject his special attention, and in the cable laid over the same course in the following year (in the manufacture and laying of which he was engaged) he introduced a system of joint making which proved a great success, and in 1855 the present system of joining and insulating the conductor.

From this time onward he was constantly engaged either with cable work or with underground land lines. Early in 1854 the first cable to be laid in the Mediterranean was commenced. Mr. Smith had charge of the electrical department during its manufacture, and assisted Prof. Wheatstone with his experiments on the retardation of signals through this cable, while coiled at the works of Messrs. Glass, Elliott, and Co., East Greenwich. These experiments were made for the purpose of verifying or correcting the results of similar experiments which had been made by Prof. Faraday on lengths of the core of this cable at the Gutta Percha Company’s works earlier in the same year. Mr. Smith took charge of the electrical department during the laying of this cable between Spezzia and Corsica, Corsica and Sardinia, and in the following year was similarly employed in the manufacture and laying of a cable between Sardinia and Bona. During the manufacture of this cable Dr. Whitehouse made experiments with it to obtain trustworthy data for giving suitable proportions for the core of an Atlantic cable which was then in contemplation.

On Mr. Smith’s return from this expedition he remained at home as electrician and manager of the wire department at the Gutta Percha Works, and at once commenced to prepare for the manufacture of 2,500 miles of core for a cable which was to be laid from Ireland to Newfoundland. In 1851, after the manufacture of the single-covered copper wire already referred to as having been laid from Dover to Calais, it was thought advisable to apply the gutta percha in two or more thin, instead of one thick covering, and to ensure adhesion between these separate coverings coal-tar naphtha was employed. But time showed that so strong a solvent of gutta percha was very prejudicial to its durability, and in 1858 Mr. Willoughby Smith invented an insulating and adhesive compound suitable for application between each covering of the gutta percha, instead of the coal-tar naphtha. This compound was soon adopted, and is in general use at the present time.

In 1864 the works of Messrs. Glass, Elliot, and Co., at Greenwich, and the Gutta Percha Company, were formed into “The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company,” Mr. Smith retaining his position at the Gutta Percha Works. In 1865 the late Sir Richard Glass, the then managing director of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, requested Mr. Smith to accompany the “Great Eastern,” and render assistance, if necessary, in the laying of the cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Early in 1866 Mr. Smith was appointed chief electrician to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, and in that capacity was engaged on board the “Great Eastern” during the successful laying of the cable from Ireland to Newfoundland, and the recovery and completion of the cable lost the previous year. Mr. Smith’s new system was adopted on that occasion. On the completion of the cables, Mr. Smith applied his system to their working, and before he left the station at Heart’s Content to return home in the “Great Eastern,” he had the pleasure of seeing a speed of 13 words per minute obtained on each cable.

Subsequently, Mr. Willoughby Smith took charge of the French Atlantic cable expedition. The cable was successfully laid, but the strain had been too great, and the chief electrician was for some time incapacitated from work. After his recovery he experimented upon and improved the manufacture of gutta percha for cable work.

But is not his life-long work well set forth in his recently published book and to it our readers should turn to see what progress was made in one industry during a lifetime. Mr. Willoughby Smith was a fairly prolific writer, contributing to periodical literature, and to the Journal of the Institution of Telegraph Engineers, of which he was president in 1882-3. It was not till after about 40 years of active service that Mr. Smith severed his connection with cable work.

His remains were interred at the Highgate Cemetery on Wednesday, in the presence of a large number of friends. The Institution in which he had taken so great an interest was represented by Prof. W. Crookes, F.R.S., president; Prof. Cary Foster, F.R.S., vice-president; and Mr. F.H. Webb, secretary.

The memorial to Willoughby Smith may be seen at Find A Grave.

See also Willoughby Smith’s history of the 1850 and 1851 Dover-Calais Cables

In 1866, Smith developed a method for continually testing an underwater cable as it was being laid. For his test circuit, he needed a semi-conducting material with a high resistance and selected selenium rods for this purpose. The selenium seemed to do the job properly, except that in actual use the device gave inconsistent results. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the conductivity of the selenium rods increased significantly when exposed to strong light.

A note on Smith’s research was presented on his behalf by Latimer Clark at the 12 February 1873 meeting of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, and a brief summary was published as “Effect of Light on Selenium during the passage of an Electric Current” in the 20 February 1873 issue of Nature. Then at the Society’s meeting of 28 November 1877, Smith presented full details of his work in a paper titled “‘Selenium,’ Its Electrical Properties and the Effect of Light Thereon.”

In 2017 his work on selenium was recognized with a Technology and Engineering Emmy Award for "Concept of Opto-Electric Transduction" by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. As the Emmy can be presented only to living persons, the award was made to three organizations (or their successors) with which his work was associated: Telcon (now Alcatel-Lucent), the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the Institution of Engineering and Technology, IET) and Siemens.
[text expanded from the Wikipedia article on Willoughby Smith]

Last revised: 27 October, 2021

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