Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

1864 Oran - Cartagena Cable
In 1864 the French Government made a further attempt to lay a cable between France and Algeria, the European mainland terminal being in Spain. The cable was made by Siemens and Halske of England using a construction different from previous cables; this was also the company's first cable-laying expedition as an independent cable company.

The cable was made with a conductor consisting of 3 copper strands [1], a first insulation layer of caoutchouc [2], followed by a gutta percha layer [3], two layers of hemp cord saturated with tar and laid crosswise to each other [4, 5], and an outer sheath of flexible copper strips [6] resembling fish scales. Phosphor copper was used for resistance to corrosion by sea water. The total diameter of the cable was 13mm (0.5"). The shore ends of the cable used standard iron wire armouring instead of the copper.

In a further break from normal practice, the cable was not stowed in horizontal coils in the hold, but was paid out from a reel mounted vertically. A failure in the paying out mechanism caused the cable to break during the first attempt at laying it. A second attempt was made, but the cable broke again, and after the failure of the third attempt in September 1864 the cable was abandoned.

Part of the cable was recovered and laid between Bona, Algeria, and Marsala, Sicily, in 1866.

Information above from Haigh and from Nouveau Traité de Télégraphe Electrique (1867)

In several of its issues in 1864 the Telegraphic Journal printed portions of the official report on the International Exhibition of 1862, at which a number of submarine cable manufacturers had exhibited. This section of the report is on the Siemens cable above:


Siemens, Halske & Co., M. (United Kingdom, 2,959), exhibit specimens of a submarine cable intended chiefly for use in deep water, and described by them as follows:–

“The insulator is covered with a double layer of hemp-strings of the strongest material, saturated in Stockholm tar, laid on spirally and under considerable tension, the twist of the two layers running in opposite directions. It is finally covered by a flexible brass or copper sheathing composed of bands of sheet copper or brass, put on spirally under the influence of great pressure, and with each succeeding turn overlapping the preceding. The covering thus produced resembles the scales of a fish, affording perfect protection without being deficient in flexibility.”

Messrs. Siemens further say that the phosphoretted copper or brass used will not corrode in sea water, but remain in perfect condition for a great number of years, and that the tensile strength and low specific gravity of the cable will, together with its durability, allow the cable to be lifted in very great depths, and after the expiration of many years. Messrs. Siemens have certainly produced a light strong cable, not liable to kink, easily handled, and affording fair lateral protection. It stretches less than one-half per cent. with half its breaking strain, and a cable only ⅜in. diameter will not break with less than fifteen cwt. The cable could therefore be easily and safely submerged. It is, however, doubtful whether Messrs. Siemens’ opinion as to the durability of the sheathing can be justified. It is found very difficult to obtain any two specimens of copper or brass, of similar electrical properties; and any equality of composition between the various bands of metal used, which cause galvanic action to be set up, resulting in the rapid decay of some parts at least of the thin metal protection. The hemp, if left unprotected by metal, would rapidly decay or be eaten by animals, and the cable in this state would be in the very same conditions as have proved so fatal to cables covered with light iron wires.

Experience may prove that these fears are unfounded, and Messrs. Siemens state that they have for some months past kept samples made with strips of various coppers in sulphuric acid and water without producing any destructive galvanic action. Most engineers probably agree in wishing that this novel form of cable should be tried, although they may not be prepared to accept the responsibility of recommending its adoption.

This form of cable seems well adapted for various uses on land—as for military lines, electric target wires, mines, &c. The cost of the covering is about the same as that of a light iron wire sheathing, but the new form is much lighter and more easily handled.

The Telegraphic Journal also published reports on the laying and ultimate failure of the cable during 1864:

9 January 1864:


The French telegraph screw steamer, Le Dix Decembre, which had been lying for some time opposite the factory of Messrs. Siemens, Halske, & Co., the well known telegraph contractors, left the Thames on the 16th ult. [December 1863] for its destination, having on board 130 knots of submarine cable, destined to connect the Spanish town, Carthagena, with Oran in the north west of France. Considerable amount of interest is felt amongst telegraphic engineers and others with respect to this renewed effort to lay a deep sea cable, and more especially as the cable is of an entirely novel construction, and the means adopted for paying out the cable are dissimilar to those hitherto adopted. The cable is wound upon a cylinder built within the vessel, and which will be caused to revolve, in the paying out of the cable, by steam power, which also regulates the speed of the vessel. The greatest depth at which the cable will be laid is 2,600 fathoms.

The outer covering consists of a double layer of hemp strings of the strongest material, saturated in Stockholm tar, laid on spirally, and under considerable tension, the twists of the two layers running in opposite directions.

It is then finally covered by a flexible copper or brass sheathing, composed of bands of sheet copper or brass, put on spirally under the influence of great pressure, and with each succeeding turn overlapping the preceding. The covering thus produced resembles the scales of a fish, affording perfect protection without wanting in pliability.

The phosphuretted copper or brass applied for the purpose will not corrode in sea water, but remain in perfect condition for a great number of years.

The tensile strength and low specific gravity of the cable, and the impossibility of the metal sheathing uncoiling, or kinking, will remove all difficulties and risks connected with the laying of iron-covered cables of the description hitherto exclusively adopted, and also will be the means of enabling the cable to be lifted in very great depths, and after the expiration of many years.

The lightness of these cables make them well adapted for many over-ground purposes whore electric wires are required—easy to be handled and transported, and of considerable strength—as for military lines, electric target wires, leading wires for mines, &c. They may with safety be laid on common ground, as even the crossing of carriages will not injure their insulation. They may be made in sizes not exceeding three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and at moderate prices, not exceeding those of similar iron-covered cables.

30 January 1864:

The Cossack, 20, Captain W.R. Holland, received orders on the 21st inst. to hold herself in readiness to sail for Tripoli and Benghasi. She is to convey Mr. Saunders, electrician to Messrs. Glass, Elliot, & Co., to these places, for the purpose of examining into the state of the Malta and Alexandria telegraph cable, which has stopped working since the 13th inst. Mr. Saundcrs was expected from Marseilles on the night of the 22nd inst. A steamer especially fitted for such employment has been ordered from England to the Mediterranean to repair the cable. It has been rumoured, also, during the week, that the Oran and Carthagena cable had met with an accident; we have made enquiries of the contractors, who assured us that they have not received any information confirmatory of the statement.

6 February 1864:


To the Editor of the Telegraphic Journal

Sir,—I beg through your valuable journal to be allowed to warn Mr. Siemens against the inevitable consequences of making a great fly-wheel by putting the cable on a drum in a ship. Not only does this scheme utterly fail to meet the dangers inseparable from the motion of a ship on the sea, but it is a true fly-wheel, which a cylinder supported in water is not. The diameter, when full and empty (of cable), is subject to much greater variation, and the benefits gained by the use of a large and long cylinder in this direction are totally lost. Let no one, therefore, say, that if this attempt fails any conclusion can be fairly drawn that the floating cylinder will also be found useless.
J.H. Selwyn, Capt. R.N.

[Editor's note: In 1857 Jasper Selwyn had proposed a floating cylinder as a means for paying out submarine cables, and he continued to promote it for many years thereafter. The Telegraphic Journal published a comprensive report on Selwyn's arrangement in its issue of 3 September 1864, and there appeared to be considerable support for trying it. There is no record, however, that this ever happened, and the success of the Great Eastern in laying the Atlantic cable in 1866 pointed the way to the era of purpose-built cable ships which as well as laying cables could also pick them up for repair.]

13 February 1864:


To the Editor of the Telegraphic Journal.

Sir,—As the information contained in our letter of the 5th inst. may convey some false impression in the minds of your readers, we beg herewith to hand the following, since received from Mr. C. W. Siemens.

“The cable parted at a splice made at onr manufactory during the shipment, and the hemp at this particular place on investigation was found discoloured and damaged by some chemical agency, as acid, which by some unhappy accident must have had access to the place while making the joint. In all other parts of the cable the hemp is as good and unchanged condition as ever.”
We are, &c.,
Per Siemens, Halske, & Co., Lloeflcr
3, Great George St., Westminster, S.W.,
10th February, 1864.

13 February 1864:


The Oran And Carthagena Cable.—By the Bombay mail, which arrived at Southampton on the 11th inst., intelligence has been received that the French steamers Eclaireur and Dix Decembre, from Oran, arrived at Carthagcna on the 29th, having succeeded in laying down, for the second time, a submarine cable which is to connect both parts. [We hope the information will prove correct.—Ed. T.J.]

13 February 1864:


The accident to the above cable, as announced in our last number, has cast a gloom over the spirit of enterprise so far as it is directed to the development of deep sea telegraphy, and which is to some extent aggravated by the fact that the great commercial interests of the country are smarting under the inconvenience and loss experienced by the protracted silence of the Malta and Alexandria cable.

The French telegraph screw steamer, Le Dix Decembre, left the Thames, on the 16th December, with 130 knots of cable on board, destined to connect the Spanish town, Carthagena, with Oran, in the north-west of France. With the exception of a few days’ delay, in consequence of unpropitious weather, the vessel arrived safely at its destination, and on the 28th of January the operation of laying the cable was commenced; and it appears, from the report of Mr. Siemens, that the operation progressed to his entire satisfaction and the other engineers on board for about one third of the way, when the cable suddenly broke in a place where the hempen strands appeared to have been unduly weakened by some chemical agency; the depth, at the time, being about 2,700 metres.

We have already, in a previous number, referred to this cable as being of novel construction; its outer covering, which formed its strength, consists of a double layer of hemp strings, or lines (of the strongest materials, saturated, we believe, with Stockholm tar), laid spirally under considerable tension, the twist of the two layers running in opposite directions, and it was finally covered by a flexible copper or brass sheathing composed of bands of sheet copper or brass, put on spirally under the influence of great pressure, and with each succeeding turn overlapping the preceding, resembling, to some extent, the scales of a fish. The conductor was enveloped, as usual, in several coatings of gutta-percha and Chatterton's compound.

The novelty of construction, and of the means adopted for paying out the cable had, for some time, given rise to much speculative discussion among telegraph engineers, and others interested in the progress of deep-sea telegraphy, as to the amount of success which might be expected in an attempt, to submerge a cable in great depths, under conditions of avowed novelty and by no means devoid of ingenuity. If the cause of failure is correctly ascertained to have resulted from some chemical agency impairing the strength of the hempen cords, while in the course of transit, the adaptability of the cable for the purpose it was intended, or of the machinery employed on the occasion, cannot justly be doubted, as some 40 knots of the cable were successfully submerged in great depths; and so convinced were the French and Spanish engineers on board of the superior merits of the cable, and of the machinery, that they recommended the same for future adoption.

It is not our wish, or inclination, to aggravate or embitter, by any observations of our own, the pain or the disappointment already experienced by those more immediately concerned, but rather to unite, with an enlightened and considerate community, in an expression of sympathy for those whose reverses are after all, we trust, but steps which ultimately will lead to success and triumph.

We would here impress upon the minds of our readers the fact, that the practicability of deep sea telegraphy is not in the least affected by the late accident. We believe, as firmly as ever, “that a well-insulated cable properly protected, of suitable specific gravity, made with care, and tested under water throughout its progress with the best known apparatus, and paid into the ocean with the must improved machinery, possesses every prospect of not only being successful in the first instance, but may reasonably be relied on to continue in an efficient state for the transmission of signals.”

In order, however, to remove the doubts which possess the public mind, we trust that the portion of the Oran and Carthagena cable, in which the deterioration had taken place in the tensile strength of the hemp, will be subjected to the severest tests, so as to ascertain the true cause thereof, and, if possible, to arrange some means of determining the uniformity of strength before the cable is coiled for submersion, as it is strongly suspected that other cables have had their “weak points,” only to be discovered, when too late, in the operation of paying out into the ocean.

As we were on the point of concluding our observations intelligence reached us that the cause of failure was at a splice made at the contractors’ factory during the shipment, and that the hemp at that particular place was, on investigation, found discoloured and damaged by some chemical agency, as acid, which, by some unlucky accident, must have had access to the place while the joint was being made. In all other parts of the, cable the hemp is represented as being in as good and unchanged condition as ever.

4 June 1864:

Oran And Carthagena Cable.—We had, a few weeks ago, to announce to our readers a mishap in the effort to submerge the above cable. A sufficient length has now been manufactured at the works of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, Wharf-road, City-road, and East Greenwich, to replace the portion which was lost in the first attempt to submerge it. The depth of water between Oran and Carthagcna is, on an average, 2,400 fathoms.

8 October 1864:


To the Editor of the Telegraphic Journal

Sir,—You would oblige me, and very likely satisfy a great number of your readers, by giving news of the Oran and Carthagena cable. The news received in Paris from Algeria prove by their date that they come by post, and not by telegraph; so there is no doubt that the cable has been broken; but no official information of the accident has been already given. Very likely the English newspapers will first give notice of the failure, because the French Government having some interest engaged in the question, the French will only speak of it after the Moniteur.—Yours sincerely, Un Abbone.
Paris, 1st October, 1864.

[We should have been exceedingly glad if we were able to furnish our esteemed correspondent with the information he requires about the Oran and Carthagena cable; but unfortunately we also on this side of the Channel are kept in oblivion with respect to the vicissitudes of submarine telegraphic lines. Government officials and contractors have combined together to set at naught the right of the public to be informed of the state of its property. We shall, however, endeavour to ascertain the present state of the cable in question.—Ed. T.J.]

15 October 1864:

The Oran And Carthagena Cable.—The Sentinelle Toulonnaise announces that “the submarine telegraph cable which was laid successfully between Oran and Carthagena, remained perfect only four hours, having become broken at a point supposed to be but a few miles distant from the Spanish coast. We are assured by several gentlemen well acquainted with the shores of the Mediterranean, that it will be impossible to manufacture a telegraphic cable sufficiently strong to resist the destructive influence of the reefs and submarine currents.”

Last revised: 20 October, 2011

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: