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

1887 Porthcurno - Zante Cable

The 1887 article below describes the laying of a cable from Porthcurno, the Eastern Telegraph Company’s headquarters in Cornwall, to Zante, Greece, via Carcavelos (Lisbon), Gibraltar, and Malta. Gibraltar was an important station for the Eastern Telegraph Company. As well as being a British possession, Gibraltar’s geographical location made it a key relay point for many lines to Africa and into the Mediterraneand and beyond.

As a prelude to the report on the laying of the cable, site visitor David Osborn shares an unusual story of a relic of the cable.

—Bill Burns

David Osborn writes:

Since 1948/49 we have had fixed to our shed doors an Eastern Telegraph Company plaque, similar to one shown on the Atlantic Cable website on a presentation box of cable samples. I found this plaque in a quarry, took a fancy to it, polished it and fixed initially to my father’s it is on mine. The plaque is 15" long and 2" high.

Eastern Telegraph Company,Limited 1887.
Shore ends Types AA, A   Intermediate Types E, B   Deep Sea Types C, D
Contractors Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company London

There are several possibilities as to how the plaque got into the quarry, which was owned by my father.

The nearby Oundle School once generated its own electricity. Later, the local electricity board provided the electricity supply via a substation and the original power house was used for other purposes. The demolition rubbish was infilled to the quarry.

The USAF, from its bases at Alconbury and Molesworth, used the quarry as a dumping site for the clean-up after World War II.

My father was a lab technician in the physics department of the Oundle public school. Many parents associated with industry would present show-pieces to the school, typical of the cable sample cabinets. The physics dept was subject to change and modernisation, so perhaps the plaque was discarded from there at some point.

Bill Burns adds:

The full story of the plaque’s 125-year history will probably never be known, and the sample case it would have been attached to is presumably lost, but David’s account provides an interesting introduction to this 1887 article on the laying of the cable:

The New Cable Line Between Porthcurno And Zante
The Electrician, October 28, 1887, p.513

The Eastern Telegraph Company, which is always quietly and steadily advancing, have just completed a very important addition to their already extensive system by laying cables between Porthcurno, via Lisbon, Gibraltar and Malta, and Zante, the whole work having been carried out by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company.

The first section between Porthcurno and Lisbon was laid from the ss. “Scotia,” between the 11th and the 21st July. The total length is 891.83 n. miles, and consists of five different types of cable—viz., first, the heavy shore ends, 180lb. to n.m. sheathed with 10 No. 00 gal. iron wire; secondly, heavy intermediate, 10 No. 2 G.I.W.; thirdly, a lighter type, consisting of 10 No. 6; fourthly, a still lighter type, with 12 No. 13 homo. iron; and lastly, the deep sea type, of 9 No. 13 homo. iron. The two heaviest types are served with jute yarns and Clark’s compound, and all the others with Johnson and Phillips’s patent tapes and compound.

The line was laid from Porthcurno to Lisbon, and cut and buoyed about 15 miles from Lisbon and the shore ends laid out from shore to this point. The total length of deep sea was 665 miles. The greatest depth passed through was 2,700 fathoms, and the line passes well to the westward of existing cables. Through the careful selection of the route by the company’s general manager and their engineers, Messrs. Clark, Forde and Taylor, it is laid in a more uniform depth than the cables previously put down between England and Portugal.

The line from Lisbon to Gibraltar was commenced on the 22nd, and finished on the 27th of July. The total length is 337 n. miles, and consists of four types of cable similar to those of the last section described. The maximum depth passed over was about 1,000 fms., and the mean about 145 fms. The Gibraltar and Malta section was commenced on 27th of September from the ss. “Scotia,” and paid out to within about twenty miles of Malta, and the end buoyed. The “Scotia” then proceeded to Zante, and commenced on the 8th of October to lay in the direction of Malta, and buoyed the end about six miles from that place on the 10th October. The “Scotia” then went into Malta and laid out the shore ends, completing the Malta-Zante section on the 11th inst.

The “Scotia” next laid the shore end of the Gibraltar-Malta section, completing this section on the 12th inst [12 October 1887]. The reason for thus leaving the Gibraltar-Malta section buoyed for some days was on account of there being cholera at Malta, which would, had the ship entered Malta Harbour, have rendered her liable to quarantine detention at Zante. The length of the Gibraltar-Malta cable is nearly 1,126 n. miles, consisting of five types, four of which are similar to those described, and one type sheathed with 12 No. 9 G.I.W. The length of the Malta-Zante section is 374 n. miles. The core of this section is composed of 130lb. of copper and 130lb. of G.P. to the n. mile, and the types, as regards the sheathing, are similar to those described.

We have not given the lengths used of each particular type, but most of the heavy shore ends extend into about 20 fms., and the deep sea type commences in depths varying between 200 and 400 fms. The core of all sections between England and Malta consists of 200lbs. of copper and 180lbs. of gutta percha per knot, that of the cable between Malta and Zante consists of 130lbs. of copper and 130lbs. of G.P. The present practice is tending towards increasing the weight of copper relatively to that of the insulator, which gives higher speeds for a given cost of core. The insulation resistance of the various sections at the fifth minute after laying was as follows:—

  At Sea Temp.
Megs. per N. Mile.
Reduced to 75° F. and
Atmospheric Pressure.
Megs. per N. Mile.
Porthcurno and Lisbon 12,618   618  
Lisbon and Gibraltar 2,571   565  
Gibraltar and Malta 5,714    
Malta and Zante 6,893    

The whole work has been carried out with great promptitude and success, the last expedition having been only away five weeks and the first only three weeks. Mr. Lucas was in charge on the part of the Construction Company and Mr. Forde on the part of the firm of Clark, Forde and Taylor, engineers to the Eastern Telegraph Company. The company have thus ensured another line between England and Malta and on to Zante, and only touching at one foreign port, viz., Lisbon, and the line has been worked through admirably direct from Porthcurno to Gibraltar.

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Last revised: 19 September, 2018

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