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

1855 Varna-Balaclava Cable

Introduction: This article on the laying of the cable between Varna and Balaclava during the Crimean War was first published in the April 2008 edition of The War Correspondent: The Journal of The Crimean War Research Society.

Thanks are due to its author, Walter Peterson, for permission to reproduce the text of the article on the Atlantic Cable website.

Two short contemporary reports on the cable may be viewed on this page, which also shows an interesting souvenir of the unarmoured section of the cable.

—Bill Burns

The Queen’s Messenger:
An Underwater Telegraph to Balaclava

By Walter Peterson

One of the more interesting if frequently overlooked technological achievements of the Crimean War is the story of how a converted merchant ship, led by an armed hydrographic vessel and escorted by a warship, reeled out an underwater telegraph cable between Varna and Balaclava.  The 300 mile-long cable was longer than any ever previously attempted.  Supported by new electrical technology and unique ship’s machinery, these pioneers enabled virtually instant communication between the British and French field commanders and their respective sovereigns.

This paper explores the story of that achievement.  The cable reflected home front politics into battlefield decisions and dramatically brought the battlefield to the public—creating contentious situations that still confront military commanders and governments today.  Ironically, the proposal to lay the cable came from neither the government nor the military but rather from industry.  Briefly, this is the story of R.S. Newall and his company’s struggle to install the technology that provided modern connectivity to the battlefield.  Although the company’s records have not survived, enough other evidence remains to piece together the story of Newall’s achievement, including his determination to overcome natural disaster and technological setbacks, starkly contrasting with the bureaucratic inefficiency that remains one of the key legacies of the Crimean War.

Forty years earlier it had taken two days for the Prince Regent and the English populace to learn of Wellington’s glorious and decisive victory over Napoleon at Waterloo—a battlefield not quite 200 miles from London.  Despite huge intervening strides in communication and transportation technologies, twenty days elapsed before William Howard Russell’s dispatch from Balaclava appeared in the Times (London).  Russell’s gripping report was the first detailed account available in the capital city of the events upon the plains above Balaclava—some 1600 miles from London.  The Times had carried a few brief notices of the battle only days earlier, but none contained an inkling of the battle’s scale or the tragedy suffered by the Light Brigade.

The Press had previously publicly bemoaned the long delays in getting news from the battlefield.  Prime Minister Aberdeen’s increasingly beleaguered government, too, felt political pressure stemming from the lack of timely status reports from their military commanders in the Crimea and was pursuing remedies.  These remedies, including a joint venture with the French to extend the existing continental telegraph network to Varna, were neither bold nor imaginative and would have resulted only in a system with delays still measured in days.  In December, 1854, R.S. Newall and Co. proposed to solve the problem by laying a submarine telegraph cable connecting Balaclava directly with Varna.  The result would place British and French field commanders in direct telegraphic contact with their respective governments in London and Paris as soon as Varna became connected to the Austrian telegraph network.  If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “There is properly no history, only biography,” then the story of the Black Sea Cable tellingly speaks to the character of R.S. Newall and Victorian British private enterprise.

Telegraphy, itself, was not particularly new.  Development began during the early 1830’s and by the time the war began, the telegraph had spread throughout Britain and most of Western Europe.  During August 1854 the Times noted that “…Vienna and Ulm [on the Danube] have been placed in instantaneous and unbroken communication with London.” [1]  Intervening Russian-controlled territory, however, blocked a direct land route from Vienna westward to the Allied forces in the Crimea.  While terrestrial telegraphy had been maturing for twenty years, submarine telegraphy was still in its infancy.  The English Channel had only been successfully spanned in 1851 by 25 ½ nautical miles (nm) of underwater telegraph cable.  At the time England and France entered the war a 123 nm cable connecting England with Holland manifested the state-of-the-art in submarine telegraphy.  The Black Sea’s 300 nm separating Varna and the Crimea evidently represented such an inconceivable distance that its bridging with a cable did not enter discussions of improving communications flow between London and Lord Raglan in the Crimea.

In addition to wavering editorial support for the war, the Times decried delays in receiving news from the Crimea.  By the end of November 1854 their pique had escalated from routinely identifying the lateness of printed reporting to outright sarcasm.  The Times Editorial of 29 November began by noting “…twenty days have elapsed since we last received authentic accounts from our army in the Crimea” and continued by paraphrasing Napoleon, who had once said the reason he was able to beat the Austrians at Rivoli was that “…they did not know the value of five minutes,”  and characterized the evident English tolerance of communication delays: “If the Austrians did not value minutes, the English have been equally negligent of days and weeks.” [2]

The British government had of course recognized the need to improve communications.  Not much more than two weeks after the Allied landings in the Crimea, Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary, suggested to Lord Raglan that “…it might be desirable, with a view to ensure receipt by Her Majesty’s government of early and authentic intelligence, however brief, of the operations of the British Army in the Crimea…” to adjust the regular scheduled Crimean dispatch steam launches to stop at Varna while enroute Constantinople to deliver a “…summary of news as can be sent by the Electric Telegraph.” [3]   This plan had messages sent from Varna by courier or ‘Special Tartar’ to the British consul in Bucharest, Mr. Colquhoun, for forwarding to the nearest telegraph office on the Austrian frontier.  The Foreign Office estimated that this procedure would reduce the elapsed time between Lord Raglan and London to five or six days, but failed to advance any notion of extending the telegraph termination closer to Varna or, much less, across the Black Sea to the Crimea.

Lord Raglan’s coolness to the proposition is somewhat surprising.  Clarendon’s suggestion had been dated 9 October 1854 and was followed by another dispatch dated 9 November reporting to Raglan that the French government had agreed with the plan.  Raglan’s responding dispatch, dated 2 December, argues that the launch schedules “…should remain as they are excepting only that General Canrobert and myself should occasionally send telegraphic dispatches to Bucharest via Varna to be forwarded…” [4] via telegraph to London or Paris.  Raglan provides no particular reason for his apparently unsupportive stance.  It would not be improbable to speculate that that his reservations were partly founded upon an aversion to losing some of the independence enjoyed for centuries by commanders in the field.

Raglan’s response may have been somewhat cool; nevertheless, the British Consul in Varna’s correspondence file shows that at least from early November Lord Raglan did in fact forward some dispatches via Varna.  A dispatch dated 6 November from Raglan to Colonel Neale, the British Consul in Varna, for example, provides insight into the torturous path that messages followed on their way to London.  Raglan asked Neale “…to forward by the Tartar who will convey this to Mr. Consul General Colquhoun at Bucharest with a request that he would transmit it immediately to Kronstadt and thence by telegraph through Vienna to London.” [5]

In addition to the 300 nm of Black Sea separating Varna from Raglan’s headquarters on the plains above Balaclava, the overland link from Varna to Bucharest thence to Kronstadt also represented a significant impediment to prompt communication between London and the British army in the Crimea.  The Tartar courier between Varna and Bucharest alone consumed at best 60 hours. [6]   Continuing journalistic editorial pressure certainly sensitized the Foreign Office to the political costliness of these delays.

In early December a Mr. Frederick Cadogan proposed [7] to the Foreign Office that he formalize arrangements with French, Austrian, and Wallachian officials along the telegraphic route to Varna.  The proposal included the recently completed telegraph connectivity between Vienna and Bucharest.  The Foreign Office subsequently issued instructions [8] that additionally directed Cadogan to explore the Austrian government’s receptivity to further extending the link to Varna.  Notably, neither Cadogan’s proposal nor his instructions from the Foreign Office addressed any final linkage in the network that might connect the forces in the Crimea to London beyond using dispatch vessels across the Black Sea.

There was one other telegraph initiative maturing in December.  The Electric Telegraph Company had earlier offered their expertise to assist with the installation of a field telegraph in the Crimea.  The company’s chief engineer, Mr. Latimer Clark, designed a horse drawn wagon large enough to carry twelve miles of telegraph wire and equipped it with a plough so that the wire could be buried in the earth and consequently better protected from battle damage and sabotage. [9]   Two wagons, equipment operators, and twenty-five sappers under the command of Lieutenant Stopford, Royal Engineers, arrived in the Crimea on 7 December.  Unfortunately, the peninsula was in the grip of freezing weather and the wagons’ ploughs could not penetrate the frozen ground; installation would have to await the spring thaw.

By mid December 1854, then, many of the pieces needed to bring communications between the British field commander and his sovereign to the state-of-the-art were in place—from Raglan’s Headquarters to Balaclava by field telegraph and virtually instantaneously from Varna to London.  That still left two days aboard dispatch vessels crossing the Black Sea standing between Her Majesty’s Government in London and the Queen’s troops in the Crimea.  Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Lord Aberdeen’s government, under the ever increasing pressure that ultimately led to its collapse in January 1855, immediately agreed to the proposal submitted by R.S. Newall & Co. to lay a submarine telegraph cable between Varna and Balaclava.

Robert Stirling Newall

In the newly developing submarine cable industry, Newall was probably the most experienced.  His company had been involved, in one way or another, with virtually every cable placed in service.  Arguably, even the notion itself of a submarine telegraph can be attributed to Newall. [10]   A Scot in his early 40’s, he had been manufacturing wire rope since 1839.  After failure of the simple insulated wire manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company used in The Submarine Telegraph Company’s initial attempt in 1850 to connect England and France, Newall proposed a cable with the insulated conductor at the core of, essentially, a wire rope.  As an outgrowth of a legal dispute to preserve Newall’s patented technology, his company manufactured the cable that made the next attempt in 1851 a huge success.  Of the just over 1,000 miles of submarine cable in service prior to 1855, R.S. Newall and Co. manufactured all but 200 miles.

R.S. Newall and Co. had not only manufactured most of the in-service cables, they had also laid many themselves.  Consequently, their proposal probably represented the best engineering judgment available in the submarine cable industry.  Newall submitted his proposal to the War Department on 9 December 1854 and a copy was promptly sent to Raglan.  Its forwarding letter, War Department dispatch number 173 dated 12 December, cited the great need necessitating prompt acceptance:

The subject of a more direct and speedy method of carrying on my [Duke of Newcastle] communication with your lordship and of obtaining intelligence from the allied armies has long engaged my earnest attention and that of H. M. Govt …[therefore] I have deemed it my duty at once to accept these proposals. [11]

Newall received telegraphic acceptance of his proposal on 15 December [12] and proceeded to execute its provisions with alacrity.  Within a month he had chartered a ship and was ready to head for the Crimea.  The ship, a screw propelled steamer of 424 tons burden named Black Sea, had not even finished construction when chartered.  The entire cable length of 400 (statute) miles had been manufactured and loaded aboard along with associated telegraph operating equipment, carts and horses, plus a 60 man construction team, as the ship made final preparations for departing Sunderland on 16 January, 1855, for the Black Sea.

A clarifying note is warranted before proceeding further.  Sundry secondary sources, [13] both modern and even some contemporaneous to the events, variously list Black Sea, Elba, and Argus as the ship that laid the Varna-Balaclava telegraph cable.  A detailed review of relevant primary sources shows that in fact Argus laid the cable.  The following narrative will recount Argus’ interim substitution following Black Sea’s shipwreck and ultimately the final substitution of Elba after the Varna-Balaclava cable’s installation.

Heavy seas caused by a gale in the North Sea delayed Black Sea’s scheduled departure.  This was the first of several meteorological hurdles that Newall would face during the ensuing month.  Unfortunately, R.S. Newall and Co.’s records do not appear to have survived; otherwise, perhaps there would be greater insight into the scale of difficulties that Newall ultimately overcame to get his equipment finally on its way to the Crimea—in a different ship—with only little over a month’s delay in his original schedule.

Black Sea was able to finally leave Sunderland on 18 January.  But, by the next day while off Lowestoft, the winds and waves again increased, causing the ship’s master, Captain Gardner, to drastically reduce speed.  On the 20th misfortune continued; a steam line in the engine room ruptured filling the compartment with live steam.  Gardner continued to Harwich under sail, arriving later in the day. [14]   A detailed inspection of the ship revealed damage much worse than just a ruptured pipe; her main engines had shifted on their foundations during the storm and the hull had been damaged.  Repair was evidently finally judged to be impractical; the following year’s Lloyd’s Register of Shipping over-stamped the ship’s name with “wrecked.” [15]

The Times had reported several times on the progress of Newall’s Crimean project as he prepared Black Sea for deployment.  No such coverage exists for his later substitution of Argus.  Nevertheless, knowing that Argus indeed ultimately laid the cable to Balaclava, it is possible to back-track through Lloyd’s List and determine that at Deal on 25 February she: “arrived from the River & sailed for [the] Black Sea.” [16]   Now for a second time, Newall had reconfigured a ship into what could be regarded as the first ship specially modified to lay underwater cables: the first cable layer.  Each time it had taken only about a month until the ship was fully mobilized and ready to depart England.  With Black Sea, Newall probably had an opportunity to search for a suitable ship before submitting his cable proposal but with Argus there was no such luxury.  While Black Sea had been new, Argus, registered in London, had been in service for 15 years and was much smaller.  The Mercantile Navy List of 1857 lists her capacity at 158 tons.  The cable alone weighed 100 tons.  With associated carts, draft animals, working party and equipments, Argus was undoubtedly loaded to capacity.

The 400 miles of cable had taken five days of around the clock work to load aboard Black Sea [17] and now had to be unloaded in Harwich and then installed aboard Argus in London.  The loading process required careful attention to prevent kinks and bends that would otherwise foul the cable during the laying process and skillful lashing to prevent shifting during potential heavy seas.  Unloading would require the same care to prevent damage to the fragile cable.  Before loading aboard Argus, though, Newall needed time to modify the ship’s cargo hold with his innovative method to allow kink free cable payout.  He later patented [18] the device, commonly known as ‘cone and rings,’ and it quickly became the standard within the entire industry to ensure trouble free cable deployment.  It is not clear if Black Sea were so equipped; however, the modification is known [19] to have been made to Argus and so added yet another task to be accomplished before Argus could sail to the Black Sea.

The centerpiece of Newall’s plan, the cable, was not only the longest yet attempted, but also uniquely constructed; it even surprised Newall’s competitors when they discovered the secret of its rapid production.  Newall had based [20] its length upon a 300 (statute) mile distance from Varna to Balaclava with an additional 100 miles of buffer to account for unforeseen problems.  Thirty-five miles were wrapped with iron wires to protect the fragile core from the perils of ships’ anchors and abrasion in the shallow waters close to either end.  The remaining 365 miles were the surprise; they were unarmored—without protective iron wires.  The cable was simply a single no. 16 gauge copper wire covered to no. 1 gauge with the insulating gutta-percha material.  In other words, the majority of the cable was a frail extension cord-like wire with a diameter of about a third of an inch—thinner than a common, wooden lead pencil.  Such an unarmored ‘wire’ had not before been used successfully in any underwater cable installation.  Newall later said that “…had it not been for the urgent necessity of quicker means of communication with the Crimea we would never have undertaken [to lay a cable without armor of any kind].” [21]

Newall’s cable system employed the ‘Morse’ technique.  Named after the American inventor, Samuel Morse, the system was based upon the magnetization and demagnetization of electromagnets by alternate breaking and making of an electric circuit.  Here, too, Newall planned a modification he later patented. [22]   In partnership with Siemens & Halske of Berlin, Newall modified his apparatus to simultaneously transmit and receive messages—in hopes of doubling the system’s capacity.

After the operators, telegraphic apparatus, ship’s alterations, and cable all came together aboard Argus, there appeared a final meteorological hurdle for Newall—ice in the river Thames.  The Illustrated London News of 24 February 1855 described the conditions:  “Since the year 1814, when the Thames was frozen over for many miles below the bridges, so severe a winter as the present has not been known…all navigation is suspended from Greenwich to London-bridge.” [23]   A final challenge; and overcome, just like the others, allowing Lloyd’s List to report on 25 February that Argus arrived at Deal “From the River & sailed...”—in a certain sense, an understated tribute to the determination of a single, almost unknown individual: Robert Stirling Newall.

Joshua Taylor:
The Frozen Thames Taken from the Site of Siemens Factory
Oil on canvas, dated 1855
Image courtesy of John Barnard

The painting shows the view from Woowich across to the north bank
of the Thames, the S.W. Silver company's factory in the distance.
Newall's establishement was also in this area.

Argus sailed under the command of Martin Hammill, a 32-year-old from Liverpool, who had only held his master’s certificate (#4,791) for about four years.  The voyage to the Black Sea seems to have been uneventful.  Lloyd’s List tracked its progress: 27 February arrived at Plymouth, 8 March at Gibraltar, and 14 March at Malta.  Malta served as a major staging port for Allied ships bound for the war zone and she remained there for five days.

In addition to final provisioning in Malta, the last of the cable laying supervisory personnel undoubtedly joined the ship.  The Times of 15 January had named several individuals who planned to depart with the Black Sea: Captain Charles G. Robinson, Royal Navy, to act as Admiralty agent; Henry Woodhouse, Civil Engineer, and William Spencer both senior personnel with R.S. Newall and Co.  Presumably they sailed with Argus instead when she departed England.  Captain F. Du Cane, Royal Engineers, ultimately responsible for the telegraphic facilities at the Varna cable end, Charles Liddell, essentially Newall’s chief engineer, were both reported to join Black Sea in Malta [24] .  They all are known to have been aboard Argus during the cable lay, so, again, presumably they were all on board when the ship left Malta.  With the ship now prepared and the cable team fully manned, Argus sailed for Constantinople on 19 March.

While Newall had encountered and was overcoming the affects of weather and shipwreck, the French and English governments negotiated the convention to establish a terrestrial telegraphic link between Bucharest and Varna.  The French agreed to install and maintain the telegraph lines and the English agreed to finance one half of the endeavor.  Provisions included message handling, usage authorities, fees, and administration.  It was signed in London on 1 February, 1855, and ratifications were exchanged on 28 February.  Newall’s cable project had gained sufficient maturity and notice by this time that peripheral mention was included in the ratified convention.  The system was to terminate within a station house administered by the French in Varna; however, the convention specified that the Varna submarine telegraph station shall “…remain in the hands of the English.” [25]   The two stations were ultimately separated by about 300 yards and not electrically connected—messages bound for one to the other were exchanged by runners. 

Besides Newall’s own responsibilities specified in his cable proposal, he obligated the government with several important provisions.  They included: a naval officer to monitor R.S. Newall and Co.’s contractual compliance [Capt. Robinson, RN], a vessel to guide the cable laying ship, and “an officer or pilot having good experience of the passage from Balaclava to Varna [to meet] our vessel at Constantinople [and] remain for the operation of laying the cable.” [26]   The man and ship provided clearly exceeded Newall’s expectations and undoubtedly contributed as much, if not more, than any of the on-scene principals to the operation’s success.  That man was Captain, later Vice Admiral, T. A. B. Spratt, RN, commanding Her Majesty’s Steam vessel Spitfire.  Spratt had spent over 20 years conducting hydrographic surveys in the Mediterranean.  The Spitfire was a 147 foot long paddle (lightly) armed steamer and had also been dedicated to hydrographic surveying duties for the length of its commission.  Since the war’s beginning Spratt in Spitfire had conducted wartime survey operations in the vicinity of Varna, Constantinople, the Dardanelles, Balaclava, among other locations in the Black Sea.  He had perfect qualifications for determining an appropriate cable route and for assisting Argus in any manner needed.  Interestingly, his assignment had been specifically mandated by the Admiralty in a letter dated 18 December 1854, [27] just days after Newall’s proposal had been accepted and forwarded to Lord Raglan.

After several days coaling in Constantinople and obtaining requisite permissions from the Turkish Government, Argus departed on 29 March [28] in company with Spitfire bound for Varna.  They arrived the next day and were joined by HMS Terrible on the 31stTerrible was a 226 foot long paddlewheel frigate armed with 19 guns commanded by Capt. McCleverty, RN.  She had been detailed [29] to take Captain M. A. Biddulph, RA, (assigned to supervise the cable terminus in the Crimea) and to provide escort and assistance to Argus.  The small squadron was now fully assembled and almost ready to begin—once a specific route was decided upon.

The actual, measured straight-line or ‘crow-flight’ distance between Varna and Balaclava is 255 nm (294 statute miles).  On the navigational charts of the time (Admiralty chart 2214 dated 20 Sep. 1853) only about 65 nm of the crow-flight track had associated sounding data, the deepest recorded sounding being 130 fathoms (about the limit of then reliable sounding techniques).  Being deeper, the remainder of the track crossed an area devoid of any sounding information—in other words, depth unknown, but deeper than 130 fathoms.  On today’s charts the depth profile for that area drops fairly rapidly from 100 fathoms to between 500 to 750 fathoms.  This was obviously unknown to Spratt et al; just as they did not fully understand the effects of submergence pressure upon the performance of cable insulation.  Capt. Spratt later wrote: “Instead of laying it direct, as intended, at my suggestion it was laid entirely in shallow water, by making a long detour, so that uncertain risks of the direct deep route were avoided.” [30]   My careful reconstruction of the navigational information recorded in Spitfire’s log during the subsequent cable lay clearly shows that in fact the cable was laid wholly in water depths of 50 fathoms or less—contrary to the crow-flight path usually depicted in secondary sources.  Spratt’s argument had evidently persuaded Newall’s on-scene superintendents of its technical soundness. 

After deciding the general overall cable route, they further evaluated that the numerous ships anchoring in the Varna roadstead posed too great a risk to the cable and consequently chose desolate Cape Kaliakra, 30 nm northeast of Varna, for the western cable landfall.  Similarly, St. George’s Bay just north and west of the busy Balaclava harbor was selected for the eastern cable terminus.  With the plan now agreed upon by the Admiralty’s agent—Capt. Robinson, the ‘pilot’—Capt. Spratt, and Newall’s principal engineering superintendent—Charles Liddell, the expedition left Varna on 1 April for Cape Kaliakra.

Terrible took along a twenty-man detachment of Turkish soldiers.  They were to provide security while Newall’s workers constructed the cable’s shore-end facilities and were to remain afterwards as a permanent guard to prevent looting or sabotage.  The weather worsened while constructing the shore structure.  It remained unfavorable for cable-laying even after construction finished.  The weather finally improved sufficiently by the 7th and Capt. Spratt allowed the operation to proceed.  Argus and Spitfire weighed anchor a little after 1030—Argus deploying cable through a length of bent boiler tube rigged over her starboard quarter and Spitfire sounding hourly.  It had finally begun; a cable lay longer than any previously attempted, despite shipwreck and vagaries of weather.

Unfortunately the undoubted excitement lasted only several hours.  The ‘armada’ stopped four hours later at 1430 about 12 miles from Cape Kaliakra to allow Argus to shift from the heavy, armored cable to the lighter, unarmored cable.  Spitfire provided one of her small boats to assist.  After the splice was completed Argus resumed the lay and almost immediately electrical connectivity with the shore station ceased.  Although DuCane’s subsequent report attributes the cause to fouling between the cable and an anchor from Spitfire’s small boat, Spitfire’s log records: “Hawser suddenly carried away, supposed to have hooked Electric cable with anchor—lost anchor…” [31]   Whatever the cause, it was not until 2300 that evening that the cable was finally recovered and secured, although not aboard Argus, but aboard Spitfire.  It took until the 9th to get the cable end back aboard Argus and ready again to continue laying cable—but, with a by now certainly familiar refrain, the weather was no longer favorable and the operation was once again, on ‘hold.’  However, this would be the last hold—at 1130 on the 10th Argus resumed laying cable, Spitfire was again underway and stopping every hour to obtain a sounding and Terrible was ‘escorting.’

By all accounts the remainder of the cable lay was completely uneventful.  The three ships steamed at a leisurely pace of between 3 and 5 knots as Argus successfully deployed mile after mile of the thin, light cable.  Spitfire’s mates could find nothing more interesting to record in the ship’s log than ‘speaking’ to Argus and Terrible several times and noting changes in the sounding regime from hourly to every other hour and back in addition to routine ship’s navigation details.  The ships followed the longer ‘shallow’ prearranged route and arrived in St. George’s Bay, near Balaclava Harbor, during the 0600 hour on 13 April.

The fact that they arrived on a ‘Friday the 13th’ had no ill effect.  Argus anchored in 10 fathoms of water, a cable length from the shoreline, and by 0830 the telegraph cable had been landed.  Its ultimate destination was the monastery atop the steep cliffs overlooking St. George’s Bay.  It was done.  Capt. Robinson and Mr. Liddell left Argus for Spitfire as Spitfire steamed toward Balaclava at noon.  Argus, too, left for Balaclava after receiving 1½ tons of water from TerribleTerrible then proceeded north to Kamiesch Bay and anchored in the vicinity of HMS Royal Albert.  By 1330 St. George’s Bay was again deserted with only a slender cable snaking its way up the rocky cliffs as a witness to the historic event that had occurred earlier that morning.

Capt. DuCane’s report states: “274 miles (statute) of gutta percha bound wire, and 29 of iron bound wire were run out between Cape Kaliakra and Monastery [more correctly, St. George’s] Bay, making a total of 303 statute miles of wire.” [32]   While the crow-flight distance from Cape Kaliaka to St. George’s Bay is 262 miles, my reconstructed shallow-route distance measures 288 miles.  The difference between the amount deployed and the actual deployment route, 15 statute miles, indicates the amount of ‘slack’ in the laid cable.  This calculation matches very well with William Woodhouse’s recorded testimony before the Joint Committee appointed to inquire into the construction of submarine telegraph cables: “(Chairman) What was the per-centage [sic] of slack? (Woodhouse) I believe it was ten miles; I am speaking from memory.” [33]   Woodhouse’s testimony consequently provides an independent validation of the reconstructed track.

The Black Sea had been electrically bridged, but there still remained the 30 mile gap between Cape Kaliakra and Varna.  This was to have been closed by above ground poles and wires.  Du Cane reported without very much elaboration that the plan had “…been abandoned, owing to the length of time and many difficulties which would attend such a route.” [34]   Instead, Argus returned to Cape Kaliakra and laid a cable to the immediate vicinity of Varna.  She completed the short cable lay on the 19th.  Colonel Neale reported that Argus arrived on the 20th and that “Mr. Lidell has now come around to Varna for the purpose of making the necessary arrangements for continuing the line by hand to Varna…and it is confidently hoped that the line will be open the whole distance between Varna and the British Headquarters in the Crimea in the course of two days.” [35]

Colonel Neale’s confidence was not misplaced.  The Times carried a report from Constantinople dated 30 April that began: “The electric telegraph is now at work from Sebastopol to London.”  The article included further detail about the historic event:

For five days [now] the telegraph has been at work…For some time the submarine wire did not act successfully, but on the 25th the obstacle was removed, and during the two succeeding days messages in cipher were received at Varna, and transmitted to Paris and London, the whole operation taking about five hours.  When the line is perfectly constructed the process will still be more expeditious. [36]

Newall’s great cable remained in uninterrupted service until early December, 1855.  Its failure evidently resulted from sabotage of some sort.  Newall later testified before the Joint Committee that he “…found on examining the cable at Balaclava, that the outside wires had been cut through by a sharp instrument…but we repaired it immediately.” [37]

Newall later laid additional underwater telegraph cables to complement the Varna-Balaclava cable.  He quickly replaced ‘little’ Argus with Elba.  At 448 tons burden Elba more closely approximated his originally chosen Black Sea (424 tons) than had Argus at 158 tons.  Lloyd’s List notes Elba leaving Malta under the command of Captain Hammill (having evidently transferred from Argus) on 27 August, 1855, bound for Balaclava.  Upon arrival, Elba laid a cable connecting Varna with Constantinople.  Before war’s end, cables would also connect Balaclava with Europatia and would span the Bosporus.  Nevertheless, the Varna-Balaclava cable remained the most critical linkage in the wartime communications network.

Across the Atlantic, Scientific American immediately and justifiably praised the pure technical achievement inherent in Newall’s accomplishment.  Datelined 19 May 1855 it stated: “This is an important triumph of modern engineering enterprise and skill which deserves our admiration.”  The article further defined its admiration with a prophetic warning to American engineering enterprise: “Look out, American telegraphic engineers, that John Bull does not steal away our good name by the construction of the first Atlantic ocean telegraph line.” [38]   The cable’s impact on the war itself, though, is not quite so clear.  On the one hand, VADM Sir Edmund Lyons was quoted as saying that “…in his opinion the telegraph cable lessened the duration of the war by two or three months by affording the means of rapid communications with the Crimea.” [39]   On the other hand, Lyon’s view was not universally shared by other senior field commanders.

Without a staff tradition or structure to deal with the myriad of minutia demanded by the disparate bureaucracies in London, Raglan’s successor, General Simpson, reportedly spent up to 14 hours per day personally responding to the flood of telegraphic requests for information.  He is said to have exclaimed: “the telegraph has upset everything!” [40]   The telegraph similarly upset General Canrobert, commanding the French forces, but for a somewhat different reason.  His sovereign, Emperor Napoleon III, felt compelled to telegraph troop employment instructions directly to Canrobert.  In fact, one of Napoleon’s first messages caused Canrobert to recall French forces from the Kertch expedition—after the attacking forces had already sailed toward their objective.  Undoubtedly, Canrobert’s resulting embarrassment contributed to his resigning command of all French troops just two weeks later.

Despite these mixed results, command and control of military forces in the field had been forever changed.  For good or ill, field commanders could no longer operate under the same degree of independence enjoyed by all previous commanders since the beginning of warfare.  With a certain sense of irony, this paradigm shift had been effected neither by a military commander nor a sovereign, but rather an unremembered engineer and entrepreneur with uncompromising determination.


[1] Money-Market and City Intelligence, Times (London), 31 August 1854, p. 8, col. C.

[2] Editorials/Leaders, Times (London), 29 November 1854, p. 6, col. C and D.

[3] War Office Dispatch No. 113 to Lord Raglan, 9 Oct. 1854, TNA, WO1/385.

[4] Lord Raglan to War Office Dispatch 114, 2 Dec. 1854, TNA, WO1/370.

[5] Lord Raglan to Neale, 6 Nov. 1854, TNA, FO 195/438.

[6] Cadogan to Hammond for Clarendon, 2 Jan. 1855, TNA, FO 97/414.

[7] Meeting Memorandum by Clarendon, 4 Dec. 1854, TNA, FO 97/414.

[8] Clarendon to Cadogan, 9 Dec. 1854, TNA, FO 97/414.

[9] Major-General R. F. H. Nalder, The Royal Corps of Signals: A History of its Antecedents and Development (circa 1800-1955) (London: The Royal Signals Institution, 1958), p. 12.

[10] R.S. Newall, Facts and Observations Relating to the Invention of the Submarine Cable and to the Manufacture of the First Cable Between Dover and Calais in 1851 (London: E. & F. N. Spon, 1882)

[11] War Department dispatch 173 to Lord Raglan, 12 Dec. 1854, TNA, WO1/385.

[12] The Submarine Telegraph from Balaclava to Varna, Times (London), 15 January 1855, p. 5,

[13] For example, Dr. Yakup Bektas states in his article “The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Construction of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880” published in the October 2000 issue of the journal of the Society for the History of Technology (Vol. 41, No. 4) that “The steamer Black Sea arrived in the Crimea in early February 1855….” And laid the cable.  Willoughby Smith in his book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy (London: J. S. Virtue & CO., 1891) inaccurately cites Elba as the ship that proceeded to the Crimea to lay the cable.

[14] Some disagreement exists concerning the arrival date.  The (London) Times of 25 Jan. 1855 reports that Black Sea arrived in Harwich on the preceding Sunday (23 January).  However, the 22 January 1855 Lloyd’s List reports the Black Sea’s arrival as 20 January.

[15] Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1856 (London: Lloyd’s, 1856), Supplement, under alphabetic ‘B’ listings.

[16] Lloyd’s List, 26 February 1855.

[17] The Submarine Telegraph from Balaclava to Varna, Times (London), 15 January 1855, p. 5.

[18] Apparatus for Laying down Submarine Electric Telegraph Wires, (UK) Patent no. 1091, 1855.

[19] “Report of the Joint Committee appointed by Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company to inquire into the Construction of Submarine Telegraph Cables,” TNA, POST 83/92, p. 39.

[20] [R.S. Newall & Co.] Proposal and terms for laying down an Electric Telegraph between Varna & Balaclava, (UK) National Maritime Museum, Spratt papers, SPR/5/1, p. 1.

[21] Report of the Joint Committee, op. cit., p. 254.

[22] Electric Telegraphs, (UK) Patent no. 2308, 1854.

[23] “The Frost, the Weather and the Park,” Illustrated London News, 24 February 1855, p. 189.

[24] Times, op. cit., 15 Jan 1855.

[25] “Regulations for the use of the Crimean Telegraph,” TNA, FO97/414.

[26] Newall & Co. proposal, op. cit., p. 2.

[27] The Secretary to the Admiralty to Vice-Admiral Dundas (No. 868), 18 Dec. 1854, TNA, ADM 2/1702.

[28] Captain Du Cane, R. E., to the Inspector-General of Fortifications dated 20 Apr. 1855: Addenda no. 1 to “Report to the Minister for War on the Telegraphic Communications from Constantinople through Vienna to England and generally on the Submarine Telegraph Service in the East,” TNA, WO33/3A, p. 1.

[29] Entry dated 29 March 1855, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Journal, TNA, ADM 50/264.

[30] Captain T. A. B. Spratt, R. N., “On the Proper Depths for Electric Cables as at Present Constructed,” The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle 30 (1862), p. 1.

[31] HMS Spitfire log for 7 April, 1855, TNA, ADM 53/4861.

[32] Du Cane report, op. cit., p. 2.

[33] Report of the Joint Committee, op. cit., p. 39.

[34] Du Cane report, op. cit., p. 2.

[35] Neale to Stratford, 20 Apr. 1855, TNA, FO 195/496.

[36] “Turkey,” Times (London), 12 May 1855.

[37] Report of the Joint Committee, op. cit., p. 254.

[38] Scientific American, 19 May 1855, p. 285.

[39] Report of the Joint Committee, op. cit., p.254.

[40] Major-General R. F. H. Nalder, The Royal Corps of Signals: A History of its Antecedents and Development London: Royal Signals Institution, 1958), p. 11

Last revised: 19 January, 2022

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