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

CS Magneta
by Bill Glover


Built in 1884 by Napier and Sons, Glasgow

Length 237.4 ft Breadth 32.1 ft Depth 16.6 ft Gross tonnage 1236

Built as a repair ship for the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company. Sister ship to Electra (1), Recorder (1) and Mirror (1). Fitted with four tanks, capable of holding 250 nm of deep sea cable. No 1; 14 ft x 8 ft., No 2; 25 ft. x 12 ft., these were forward of the engine room. No 3; 8 ft. 6 in x 7 ft., No 4; 8 ft. x 7 ft., these were aft of the engine room.

Johnson and Phillips supplied a double combined paying out-picking up machine, and also fitted three bow sheaves and one stern sheave all 3 ft. 6 in. in diameter. Grapnels ropes etc were stored in a hold forward of the No 1 tank.

Magneta left Gravesend on her maiden voyage on 8 March 1885, bound for Singapore, but was lost at sea and never reached Gibraltar, her first port of call.

The launch and loss of the Magneta were covered in detail in The Electrician in 1884 and 1885.

The Electrician, 20 December 1884


An interesting launch was made on Saturday, the 20th December, of a new cable steamer, named the “Magneta,” from the building yard of Messrs. Robert Napier and Sons, Govan, Glasgow, the property of the Eastern Extension, Australasia, and China Telegraph Company (Limited), of 66, Old Broad-street, London.

This vessel is entirely built of steel, under special survey at Lloyd’s, 100 A1, the boilers and machinery being certified by the Board of Trade.

We shall publish with our first issue in January plans of this fine vessel, with a full description of her cable tanks, cable machinery, and other recent improvements.

The speed of this vessel is estimated at thirteen knots, on a very small consumption of fuel, her engines being of the most improved style.

The vessel is sub-divided into cellular watertight compartments under cable tanks, engines, and round tunnel, all independently connected by a complete system for pumping up and pumping out these tanks while at work laying cable.

The cable tanks are likewise connected to the engine room donkey pumps and with steam-driven Downton pumps for discharging water in tanks overboard, and for other purposes. The vessel has condensing appliances for distilling 5,000 gallons of water daily, which, should the vessel be required at any time for trooping purposes, would be a desirable feature.

The cable tanks are four in number, being built on the top of the water ballast tanks.

The vessel has three watertight compartments forward, besides the ordinary bulkheads, so that in the event of one compartment being punctured the vessel would still be safe.

The engines are 100 horse-power, compound boilers, being built wholly of steel by the same eminent firm.

The windlass, steam winches, steering gear, and sounding gear are of the newest design, by first-class manufacturers.

The cable machinery consists of a compound duplex machine with rolled steel frames, with steel cranks, helical wheels, so arranged that picking-up and paying-out can be going on at the same time. This gear is manufactured by Messrs. Johnson and Phillips, of Victoria Works, Charlton, Kent.

The vessel is lit up with upwards of one hundred 20 candlepower incandescent lamps, dynamo engines, and four dynamos and search lamps by the same firm. The “Magneta” will make her trial trip about the 1st of February next, and will afterwards proceed to the Thames to take in cable for Singapore, her destined headquarters.

The vessel is built to the design of Joseph Birnie, of 3, Fenchurch-avenue, London, and we trust will form a creditable addition to the company’s fleet. We purpose publishing also the plans of another cable steamer, of somewhat different construction, now almost ready for launching, built by the same firm for the Eastern Telegraph Company, Limited.

The Electrician, 3 January 1885

In a note in a previous issue the launch of a new cable ship was recorded. We commence in this issue to give various details of the ship—details which, so far as we know, have never before been published. Ships have before now been specially built for cable work, but we do not hesitate to say that never before in the history of submarine telegraphy has so complete a specification been prepared for the building and fitting of cable ships as those prepared for the “Magneta” and a somewhat similar vessel the “Electra.” The “Magneta” has been built and engined by Messrs. Napier, of Glasgow, to the order of the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company, from the design of Mr. Joseph Birnie. The ship, as soon as ready, will be sent to the Singapore station, and is therefore fitted for work in a tropical climate.

It is hardly necessary to dwell at length upon the engravings which are given in this issue, inasmuch as they almost explain themselves. Before entering upon the description of the vessel we must congratulate the cable world, and the shareholders of the Eastern Extension Company in particular, upon the acquisition of so fine an addition to their fleet. We have often said that submarine telegraphy is of modern growth. It is the work of men who are still among us—working as earnestly, as laboriously as in the days of yore, encircling the world in a network of wire, laying hold of scientific discoveries and fashioning them into weapons to wield for the benefit of civilisation. Their experience has been called upon in the production of these ships, with the result of obtaining an almost perfect equipment for the work.

The “Magneta” has the following dimensions:—

Length between perpendiculars:  930' 0"
Beam: 32' 0"
Depths of hold, top of floors to top of main deck beam: 16' 9"
Depth, top of floors to top of awning deck: 24' 0"
Tonnage (B.M.): about 1,096 tons.

The ship is intended to steam 11 knots while working on a consumption of 14 tons of coal per day, and carries coal for 16 days’ steaming. She is of steel, the plates being rolled by the West Cumberland Steel and Iron Company. The position of the water ballast tanks will be seen from the drawings, as will that of the cable tanks, of which there are four. The tanks are similarly built, though not all the same size. It will be sufficient to describe one, say No. 2 tank, which is about 25ft. x 12ft., built on top of forward ballast tank. The top of water ballast tank is ½in. The plating is of steel of good quality, sides of tank 3/8in. in one length, plated vertically, with double-riveted external butt strips 9in. x 7/16in., with vertical joints planed, and all riveting perfectly flush inside. This tank is fitted with a cone, flush-plated, tapering from 6ft. to 3ft., with plate top. The bottom angles on top of water ballast tank are 3½in. x 2½in. x ½in. The top angles are double, 3in. x 3in. x 7/16in. inside and outside of tank to receive the feet of pillars from girders under deck to top of tank. The inside angles have eye-bolts about 8ft. apart for life lines, and recessed foot pockets for ascending and descending. The after-tanks, Nos. 3 and 4, have bottoms ½in., sides 3/8in., and strips 7/16in., angles like No. 2.

The main deck is plated with steel fore and aft, according to Lloyd’s rules, covered by a 3in. x 6in. teak deck, in long lengths, fastened with galvanised bolts and nuts, and finished in the usual manner.

The fresh water tanks are in the fore hold, and the vessel carries two of Starnes and Sons’ cylinder condensers, capable of condensing 5,000 gallons per day. The improved steam steering gear of Davis and Co. is adopted. The fore and main masts are of steel, with wooden telescopic topmasts. A continuous line of railings is carried round the ship, the entire length of which is also fitted with awning stanchions of galvanised iron 8ft. apart, with galvanised plates on rails and sockets on waterway. The awning has support centrally on pillars of galvanised iron, with ridge lines of galvanised wire and boxes of yellow pine. This is not a luxury, but, with side curtains, a necessity in tropical climes. The ship carries six boats, two lifeboats, two cutters, captain’s gig, and a dingy, fitted and hung . in the most approved manner.

The ship is lighted partially by electricity, a special engine and dynamos being placed therefor upon a platform in the engine room. Incandescent lamps are fitted in the saloon, saloon cabins, steward’s pantry, in the cabins of the officers, electricians, and engineers, in the chart, engine, dynamo, and testing rooms, in the cable tanks and along awning deck, while a powerful search light with reflector is on the bridge. The electric light, as well as the cable apparatus, has been supplied by Messrs. Johnson and Phillips, of Charlton, while all the electrical apparatus (of which more hereafter) is by Messrs. Elliott Brothers, of the Strand. The vessel is being fitted by Messrs. M’Whirter, Roberts and Co., with their system of exhaust ventilation by steam, as fitted to several other telegraph ships, by which means 1,000 cubic feet of air per minute is extracted by each ventilator.

Of course a well-fitted workshop is one of the first necessities on board a cable ship, and that of the “Magneta” will be found very perfect. The testing room is on awning deck in line with the wheel house, and is built of teak, and care has been taken in construction to avoid as much as possible vibration from the steam steering gear, which would disturb the instruments. A steam winch is fitted on the main deck, and a steam sounding machine, fitted complete with sounding wire and leads by Messrs. Johnson and Phillips, is as near the taffrail as convenient. As we hope to illustrate the engines among other details of the vessel, we shall only now say they are 200 horse-power, of the compound surface condensing type, with inverted cylinders and direct acting. The boilers are of the cylindrical multitubular type, two in number, built entirely of the West Cumberland Steel and Iron Company’s brand, with three furnaces to each. The furnaces are Fox’s patent corrugated, the parts exposed to fire being of Lowmoor iron the shell of steel. In addition there is a donkey boiler of the cylindrical multitubular type; tubes, 2½in. in diameter. Both main and donkey boilers are fitted with Galley’s patent bars.

From these few details, it will be seen that the most modern improvements in every direction have been utilised in order to make the ship in every shape and form most competent for the work she has to do.

The cable gear is of the most modern design, and consists of bow guards and triple sheaves, davits, crosspiece and three tackles, stopper hooks and glummer blocks, dynamometers for both picking up and paying out over bows, to register very light and very heavy strains, with all lead wheels. Then we have a double combined picking up and paying out machine, with engines of special design, with holding back gear for paying out, and draw off gear for picking up. To insure rigidity and avoid pillars in between decks, fore and aft foundation plates are riveted to steel main deck with web plates, double angles top and bottom, with foundation plate and chocks fitted overhead between deck beams in way of holding down bolts.

The saloon is of wainscot oak, inlaid, French polished, with circular panels, gilded capitals, and edges of overhead mouldings gilded. All doors have handsome finger-plates. The hand­rails are of polished maple, with electro-plated brackets in saloon and corridor. The overhead of saloon is done in flatted white, picked with gold on edges of mouldings. The saloon, captain’s, chief electrician’s, chief engineer’s, and assistant electrician’s cabins are connected to steward’s cabin by means of electricity. Saloon, pantry, closets, and baths have scuppers, all carefully trapped, leading down bilges into waste tank.

Midship Section

It is necessary to say a few words about our illustrations. It may be thought unfortunate that the midship section could not be given on a somewhat larger scale, as the information it contains is both unique and important; still we think that with a little care the whole of the information can be deciphered. The details in the sheer plan, the lower deck, main deck and shade deck plans are on a somewhat larger scale, and ought to be quite clear. With regard to the picture on page 156 [shown at top of this page], our engraver has done his best from the drawings to give a fair representation of the vessel.

The cable department and the electrical department will be dealt with, more fully, and illustrated, in a future article.

“The Magneta”

The Electrician, 18 April 1885


Since the loss of the “La Plata” the telegraph world has not had to deplore a catastrophe such as that which has now to be recorded, for it is useless to imagine that we can any longer have hopes of the safety of the missing steamer the. “Magneta.” During the week reports received from the captain of the “Palmyra” have stated that one of the boats belonging to the “Magneta” was seen 200 miles off Finisterre, and that there was no evidence of the boat having been occupied. The oars did not appear to have been used; a part of the mast was lying across the gunwale, and about 18 inches of top plank knocked in; otherwise the boat seemed to be in good condition, and appeared to have been properly lowered. There seems to be no doubt that the unfortunate vessel went down with all hands. The disaster may have arisen from one of several causes. It may have been directly due to the results of a storm. There is one point, however, generally overlooked in the loss of steamers. We do not wish to hint in the slightest possible manner that such an accident occurred in this case; but with every precaution taken machinery does sometimes go wrong, and no doubt many missing ships have been sent to the bottom through the bursting of their boilers. An accident of this kind, more especially if occurring in the midst of a storm, would almost necessarily be fatal. A full description of the ship appeared in our issue of 3rd January, from which it will be seen that the details of the construction had all been carefully considered, and, so far as can be seen, no effort had been spared to make the vessel thoroughly seaworthy and efficient in every respect. It is not, however, the loss of the vessel we so much deplore as the loss of its crew, including as we do in this one general term the whole of the fifty-four souls on board. It will not be possible for us to refer to all of these, but we may mention the names of a few who seemed destined in the heyday of their youth to do good work in the service of the cable companies; their loss is felt, and their experience cannot be replaced.


Captain Merrall was for some years in the service of the Telegraph Construction Company, and joined the Eastern Telegraph steamer “Chiltern” as second officer in 1880. In 1882—recommended by Sir James Anderson—hewas appointed by the Eastern Extension Company first officer on board their repairing ship “Sherard Osborn.” In September last Captain Merrall returned to England on leave of absence, and in January of the present year was instructed to proceed to Glasgow, and was appointed to the command of the “Magneta” then building on the Clyde. The vessel left the Clyde under his command on the 6th, and arrived in the Thames, after a somewhat stormy passage, on the 9th of February. The test of the ship during this passage was sufficient, in the opinion of the captain, to prove its suitability for the work before it. Captain Merrall had scarcely reached the prime of life, and during the five years he has been connected with the Eastern and Eastern Extension Companies gained the goodwill of all with whom he was brought in contact. By his untimely death the companies have lost a valuable officer and a skilled navigator.


Mr. James Miller, the chief electrician on board the “Magneta,” joined the Eastern Extension Company in August, 1877, as telegraphist. In April, 1878, he was promoted to be assistant electrician, and in 1880 was given charge of the electrical department on board the company’s hulk, “Southern Ocean.” In July, 1883, he was appointed electrician on board the ss. “Agnes.” In April of last year Mr. Miller left Singapore for England on leave of absence, and during his stay in this country he rendered great service to the company in suggesting and superintending the fitting up of the electrical department of the “Magneta.” We had the pleasure of seeing him several times just before the commencement of his ill-fated voyage, and he spoke in glowing terms of doing good service with the vessel. Young and enthusiastic, and an exceptionally good electrician, the company and his friends have experienced a loss which will be long remembered.


Mr. T.E. Watson, chief engineer, joined the Eastern Extension Company in July, 1881, having only a few months previously had a narrow escape from drowning through the wreck of the “Braemar Castle,” off Penang. He has held the appointment of chief engineer on board the ss. “Agnes” since the above date. Mr. Watson left the East last summer for England. In January of the present year he was appointed chief engineer on board the “Magneta.” Mr. Watson was a very trustworthy officer, and as an engineer possessed great ability.


Mr. Seaward was returning to the East on board this unfortunate vessel, having been in the service of the Eastern Extension Company since 1870. For some few years Mr. Seaward was junior clerk at Madras, and in 1878 was appointed to a first class clerkship at Batavia; four years later he was transferred to Cape St. James as acting superintendent, which appointment was confirmed in 1883. Mr. Seaward was a very active man, and although firm he was kind to those under him, and made many friends who will be grieved to hear of his loss.


Mr. Cox-Smith was a junior officer in the Company’s Saigon Station, and joined the Eastern Extension Company’s service in June, 1880. He came home on leave in August last, and was on his way back to his station. As an operator he possessed great ability, and was interested in the higher branches of electrical science. He was a great favourite among the staff in the East.


This gentleman was for some years in the service of the Eastern Company, and joined the Eastern Extension Company in October, 1875, when he was appointed to the charge of the Nelson Station, where he has ably officiated in the capacity of superintendent since that date. Mr. Shapley was well known in the Australasian colonies, where he had made a large circle of friends.

Besides the gentlemen already mentioned, there were on board two young friends of Sir James Anderson, Messrs. Toynbee, who were going out to join their brother in an undertaking in the Straits. Mr. W.H. Webster, a personal friend of Mr. Lynes, the assistant-secretary of the Eastern Extension Company, was going to Malta, for the benefit of his health. This gentleman was well known and much respected at the Audit Office, Euston, where he has held an appointment since 1866. Messrs. Hughes and Jones, in the engineering department, were proceeding, the former to Perim for the Eastern Company, the latter to Tonquin to superintend the erection of the Company’s quarters there.

A later news report (source unknown) provided this information:

The Magneta Steamer

Lloyd's agent at Ferrol, under date of April 21st, reports that a few days previously a fishing boat of Mugardos brought into that port a lifeboat so much damaged as to be worthless, bearing the name, as far as could be deciphered, "Magneta, London," which was found about 12 miles north of Cape Ortegal, also that the official pilot of Ferrol reported that various corpses had been washed up in the Bay of Cobas (formed by Cape Ortegal), but in such a state of decomposition as to prevent identification.

The Magneta, steamer, belonging to the Eastern Extension (Australasian and China) Telegraph Company, sailed from London for Singapore on the 5th March, and was to have called at Malta, but has not yet been reported to have reached that place.

From an undated article, source unknown:

The Missing Steamer Magneta
Complete List of those on Board

The Directors of the Eastern Telegraph Extension Company have reluctantly been compelled to come to the conclusion that the steamer Magneta has been lost in the Bay of Biscay.  The following is a complete list of those who were on board, and the addresses, so far as known to the company of Messrs Donaldson, the shipping agents, are also given:–

Captain H E Merrall, London
J M Miller, electrician;
Thomas W Mill, first officer
Richard A Belford, second officer, London
H A Trant, third officer
T E Watson, chief engineer
John White, second engineer, Glasgow
H Gibbs, third engineer
John H Smith, fourth engineer
Edward Norcott, blacksmith, London
Alexander Macfarlane, storekeeper
Andrew Brady, donkeyman, London
Charles James, fireman, London
Joseph Type, fireman, London
Charles Collins, fireman
Robert Dennis, fireman
W G Mills, fireman
John E Wright, chief steward, 17 Yorkhill Street, Dumbarton Rd, Glasgow
S Stevens, second steward, London
Clement Lucas, third steward, London
Alfred Gray, the captain’s steward, Cheshire
George Hooker, engineers’ steward
G Palmer, officers’ boy
T S Mitchell, second cook and baker, London
G M’Queen, scullion, London
John Neill, chief cook
R Carrell, AB
John Jones, AB
M Ryan, AB
M Driscoll, fireman
J Carpenter, fireman
T Evans, fireman
Geo. Fleming, carpenter
Edward Pearce, boatswain, London
Alfred L Price, lamp-trimmer, London
James Bass, quartermaster, London
H Donkin, do
H Atwood do, London
W Henderson, AB, London
James Wilson do
H Bramley, do
Cornelius Burgess, do
A Blohm, do, London
C Roesender, do
Conrad Eeil AB
M’Kinnell, do
H Seward, the Company’s Superintendent, Cape St James, Saigon, Cochin, China who was away from his station on leave of absence
J Samuel Sharpley, the Company’s Superintendent at Nelson, New Zealand, who was returning to his steamer from leave of absence
E C Cocksmith, telegraphist, Cape St James, Saigon
W H Webster, a member of the Audit Office, Euston Station, London who was going to Malta for the benefit of his health
Two Messrs Toynbee friends of Sir James Anderson, who were proceeding to Malacca
Mr Hughes, mechanic, (Fettercairn) who was going to Perim, for the Eastern Telegraph Company
Mr Jones, mechanic, who was bound for Tonquin

Dundee Advertiser

There is now little doubt that the steamer Magneta, belonging to the Eastern Telegraph Company, which left London on the 8th March for Malta with a large staff of telegraph officials on board, went down in the Bay of Biscay.  The Cunard steamer Palmyra reported on her arrival at Genoa that when in the Bay of Biscay, 200 miles north of Finisterre, on the 24th March, she passed a lifeboat belonging to the Magneta.  The boat was in fairly good condition, and contained masts and oars, but no sails.


Thanks to Helen Powlesland for providing and transcribing these two news reports. Helen is seeking further information on "Mr Hughes, mechanic, (Fettercairn)", one of those lost on the Magneta, which may be emailed c/o the Atlantic Cable website.

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