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

1861 Malta-Alexandria Cable

Cross-section of deep-sea cable showing the 7-conductor core and 18 armouring wires

by Bill Glover

In 1859 Glass, Elliot and Company received an order from the British Government to manufacture and lay a cable from Falmouth, England to Gibraltar. The government then changed the route to Rangoon - Singapore and finally to Malta - Alexandria, Egypt.

The vessel chartered to lay the cable was the Queen Victoria. This charter was shortlived as the ship was wrecked in the English Channel. The cable was recovered and two more vessels, the Rangoon and Malacca, were chartered to carry out the task.

The Malacca started laying from Malta to Tripoli and Benghazi with Rangoon commencing from Alexandria towards Benghazi. Both ships were involved in laying the cable into Benghazi.

A plate accompanying the cable sample has the following inscription:

Length 1535 Miles. Laid November, 1861.
This is the longest Telegraph Cable now working.

In 1868 the cable was taken over by the Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company.

Deep-sea section of the cable

A: copper conductor; B: gutta-percha insulation;
C: tarred yarn; D: iron wire armouring

Diagram showing deep-sea and shore-end cables
from Spon's Dictionary of Engineering, 1874

Malta & Alexandria No. 2 Shore End 1861
Glass Elliott & Co. Contractors
Shore-end cable images courtesy of Bell Canada Historical Collection

Steve Roberts, author of the Distant Writing website on the history of British telegraphy, sends this report of the cable laying, first published in The Year-Book of Facts in Science and Art 1862, edited by John Timbs and published by Lockwood & Company, London.

Malta and Alexandria Telegraph

Malta and Alexandria cable has been successfully laid. This is the second instance in which Her Majesty’s Government have ventured to expend public money upon undertakings of the kind.

The first case was the temporary line laid for war purposes from Varna to the Crimea, and although its existence was short it did good service, and tended in a great measure to shorten the duration of the war, and thereby saved the country much treasure and many valuable lives.

This cable was originally designed and intended to be laid from Falmouth to Gibraltar. It was subsequently determined to lay the cable from Rangoon to Singapore, and the whole length was made with that end in view, and some of it was actually shipped for that destination. It was supplied by the Gutta Percha Company.

The first portion of this cable left England on board the steamship Malacca last May, and on the 28th of that month the laying of it was commenced at Malta. The direct distance from Malta to Alexandria is about 850 nautical miles; but as it was considered desirable to lay this as a coast line, it was taken direct from Malta to Tripoli, and thence round the coast to Benghazi and Alexandria, a distance of about 1,300 miles. It was also very desirable to divide this long length of cable into three sections, and therefore Tripoli and Benghazi were chosen as the most suitable localities for stations; in fact, they are almost the only places along the coast where they could be established.

The first portion of the line laid was the section from Malta to Tripoli, at which place the cable was landed about 8 p.m. of May 29th, paying out about 230 miles of cable in 43 hours, equal to a rate of 5¾ miles per hour. Two days were spent at Tripoli, making the land connexions and giving time to the engineers and electricians to satisfy themselves that the cable was good and in thorough working order. The Malacca brought from England 518 miles or knots of cable; 230 were expended, leaving 288 yet to be laid; but to reach the next station, Benghazi, required upwards of 500 miles of cable. It was therefore only possible in this trip to lay a portion of the section. About 1 o’clock a.m., after the prearranged signal was made from the Malacca, the lights of the Medina and Scourge were seen steadily to draw ahead and take up their respective positions, by which time the Malacca’s anchor was up and a second fair start made. On both occasions it happened that operations were commenced at night, but so perfect was the machinery, and so well trained were the hands employed in the execution of the work, that not the slightest inconvenience occurred.

Before 8 o’clock on June 3rd, the end of this portion of the cable was attached to a buoy, the cable and buoy were dropped, and bearings and observations taken. The time occupied in laying this portion was 55 hours, giving a similar average per hour as that between Malta and Tripoli. Thus, during 98 hours occupied in paying out, 518 miles of cable were successfully laid at the bottom of the sea.

About the 1st of July the Rangoon, a sister ship of the Malacca, and built purposely for this cable, arrived at Alexandria with Mr Forde, the Government engineer, and his staff, and Mr Canning, the engineer of the contractors, with his assistants. The Medina, Scourge, and Mohawk had previously arrived. The weather was then a little unsettled, and it was not until the 5th of July that the sea was sufficiently smooth to admit of the landing of the shore end. This was accomplished in the New Port, and about eight in the evening the end was introduced into the cable-house by Mr Colquhoun, Her Majesty’s Consul-General in Egypt.

On the 11th of July the Rangoon performed her duty by discharging the last of her cargo, the end of which was carefully sealed and dropped in a well-known position. The Rangoon and Malacca subsequently made second trips, carrying the remaining portion of the cable. On the 15th of September the former left Malta, and proceeded to the buoyed end of the Alexandria cable, and completed that section to Benghazi on the 23rd. The Malacca joined the expedition at Benghazi, and proceeded on the 25th to the buoyed end of the Tripoli cable, and this section was completed to Benghazi on the afternoon of the 28th of September, the end being landed the same evening under a royal salute of 21 guns, to do honour to the completing of a great undertaking.

It is an interesting fact to know that this line, owing to its peculiar construction and more than usual perfect workmanship, tests far better than any other previously laid cable, and the amount of battery power used in the transmission of messages has been reduced to a minimum; for instance, the Malta and Tripoli section, 230 miles long, is worked practically with only three cells, and that at the rate of 25 or 30 words a minute; in fact, as fast as a clerk can send signals. No line previously laid had ever before had the course so well sounded and surveyed. This is a most important item in securing success, especially if repair should ever become necessary, and there is no doubt it has been laid with less strain and has received fairer play in every way than any other. The tests from the commencement of the line to the finish were of the most delicate and searching kind that science and previous experience pointed out; and, above all things, this cable was not only constantly kept submerged during the process of manufacture, but was actually carried out under water, so that if faults did occur they were sure to be detected before passing into the sea. Once the ships were started, they were never stopped on account of defects in the cable.

Samuel Canning and Henry Clifford were engineers for the contractor on this cable, with C.V. de Sauty as electrician and Wildman Whitehouse as consultant. Henry Clifford painted two watercolours of the Mediterranean scenery while on the September voyage.

Last revised: 24 December, 2019

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