History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Submarine Telegraph Company
THE SUBMARINE TELEGRAPH COMPANY
Brothers Jacob Brett and John Watkins Brett formed the English Channel Submarine Telegraph Company after obtaining landing rights from the French and British authorities allowing them to lay a submarine cable between the two countries. The French concession was conditional on telegraphic communication being established by 1 September 1850.
In 1851, when the Bretts were preparing to make their second (and successful) attempt at the Channel cable, the name was shortened to the Submarine Telegraph Company.
The 1850 “cable” was supplied by the Gutta Percha Company and consisted of a single wire with gutta percha insulation, the company’s normal product (see below for details of the cable manufacture). No armouring was used.
The cable was wound on a drum mounted on the deck of the paddle steamer Goliath, sometimes referred to as Goliah. After loading, Goliath made her way to Dover where laying would commence.
The following five images are from the Illustrated London News, 7 September 1850.
On the morning of Wednesday 28 August 1850 the shore end of the cable was joined to that on board. Escorted by HMS Widgeon, Goliath then headed for the French coast and Cap Gris-Nez. Because of the lightness of the cable, lead weights of between 10 and 30lbs were attached approximately every 100 yards to make it sink. The ship had to stop each time this was done.
Cap Gris-Nez was reached on the evening of the same day and immediately attempts were made to establish contact with England. When the cable was tested again the following morning the ciruit was dead; tests established that the fault lay close to the French coast.
Some newspaper reports of the cause of the fault implicated a French fisherman, who was said to have hauled the cable in with his catch, then cut the cable to free his lines. However, on reviewing accounts published by various newspapers over the next two weeks, which provided additional (and sometimes different) details as time passed and further information arrived from France, it is by no means certain that any fishermen were at fault, although at least one of them had recovered a length of the cable after it was broken by wave action.
While describing the laying of the 1851 Channel cable, the Illustrated London News in its issue of 27 September that year (p.397) had this note on George Fenwick’s new cable armouring machine:
This has sometimes been cited as the origin of the “French fisherman” story, but it is clearly only repeating one of the surmises on the cause of the fault which had been published the previous year.
Over the next fifteen years, stories of “a French fisherman” causing the break in the cable were perhaps enhanced in the telling among the cable fraternity, and an amusing detail about the fisherman believing he had found seaweed with gold at its centre was added somewhere along the way.
However, there is no evidence that the seaweed version of the story had ever been published prior to its appearance in William H. Russell’s December 1865 book, “The Atlantic Telegraph.” The book begins with a short history of cable laying, in which the author describes the failure of the 1850 cable as follows:
This is the earliest written description so far discovered [as of October 2021] that anyone believed the recovered cable to be seaweed with a gold centre, but Russell provides no details of the source of this story, nor can any record be found of its origin. Just a few days after the book’s publication, the Derby Mercury quoted this "anecdote" in a review of the book in the paper's issue of 3 January 1866.
So was William Russell himself the originator of the seaweed story?
As noted earlier, newspaper stories in September 1850 did mention that one or more French fishermen retrieved a length of the cable and took it to Boulogne, but none of them contain anything to support this amusing anecdote. Extracts from those contemporary newspaper reports of the failure of the 1850 cable are quoted below, with sources and dates:
The Times published an account of the laying of the cable in its issue of Saturday 31 August 1850, then on page 7 of the issue of Thursday 5 September is a letter to the editor conveying what appears to be the first news of the breaking of the line. The letter, from two of the Directors of the Submarine Telegraph Company, is dated 4 September at Dover and reads in full:
A separate story in the same column (extract below) enlarged on the information in the letter, blaming the failure on wave action causing breakage of the unarmoured cable a short distance off the beach at Cape Grisnez. Neither the letter nor this story has any mention of any fishermen.
In its issue of 7 September the Illustrated London News published a detailed article on the laying of the cable, from which some of the images on this page are taken, but had only the same information of the breaking of the cable as that published in The Times, reproduced above.
Subsequent issues of the ILN had no further reports on the cause of the fault, but as the investigation into the failure of the cable continued, other newspapers provided more details of what the company was discovering about the causes and location of the fault(s).
The Times, in its issue of 16 September, had this report, datelined “Dover, Sept 15,” describing the location of the failure, including the first mention of the recovery of a section of the cable by a fisherman:
The story continued with a note about proposed legal protection of submarine cables:
This is the first mention of the need for international regulations to protect cables against accidental or deliberate damage by ships, although it was not until 1884 that a formal treaty was agreed upon.
Six days later, as an addendum to its story on the failure of the cable, the Manchester Courier in its issue of 21 September also published a letter sent by a “private correspondent” in France, which describes separate lengths of stray cable recovered by two French fishermen and suggests that they were responsible for the breaks:
Also on 21 September, the Westmoreland Gazette quoted a story published in a French newspaper, the Boulogne Gazette, which confirmed the statement in the Manchester Courier that a French fisherman had retrieved a length of the cable that had damaged his nets:
Referring to the failure of the 1850 cable in a talk he presented at the Royal Institution on 20 March 1857, John Watkins Brett said only:
A search of newspaper archives from 1850 until 1865 finds no mention at all of a fisherman finding gold in what he thought was seaweed, so the story in the short paragraph from William Russell’s 1865 book quoted earlier must surely be apocryphal.
Russell, a journalist since the 1840s, was the war correspondent of The Times, and had been commissioned by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company to write a book on the 1865 Atlantic cable expedition. Is it possible that, knowing nothing about the history of the cable industry, Russell asked members of the tight-knit cable fraternity for stories he could use in the book, and someone played a little prank on him?
The release of Russell’s book in December 1865 was just the start of 155 years (so far) of periodic re-tellings of the hitherto unpublished seaweed story in various forms and mediums: talks, reviews, magazine articles, and later books.
Only a few days after the publication of the book, the Derby Mercury quoted what it called Russell’s “anecdote” verbatim in a review of the book in its issue of 3 January 1866, and this was just the first of many repetitions.
In October 1866, not quite a year after Russell’s book appeared, a Mr. M. Dorman delivered a lecture on “The Atlantic Telegraph” in the Lecture Hall of the Religious and Useful Knowledge Society in Nottingham. Among other amusing anecdotes he told was this one on the 1850 cable:
Some other 19th century examples:
In 1879, Andrew Jamieson, a Scottish engineer who was then the Eastern Telegraph Company’s Electrician, delivered a series of lectures on magnetism, electricity and the history of submarine telegraphy to staff at the Malta Station. These were transcribed over several issues of The Electrician, and he perhaps revealed the insiders’ joke, as when talking about the failure of the 1850 cable he said:
There were also mentions of the French fisherman by a number of writers who would be expected to know the subject. In 1884, F.C. Webb, a cable engineer on board Goliath when the 1850 line was laid, published his memoirs in a series of articles in the trade paper The Electrician. He too relied on Russell, but made no mention of seaweed or gold:
Three years later, in February 1887,Charlton J. Wollaston, Engineer to the Submarine Telegraph Company for the 1850 cable, wrote a letter to the Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review which included this note:
Even these two engineers, writing 34 and 37 years after the event, did not tell the same story. While neither of them mentioned the gold seaweed, both writers contradicted the company’s own initial statement on the cause of the break, which reported that the cable had been “cut asunder among the rocks at Cape Grisnez.” Wollaston himself, in his letter to The Times of 4 September 1850 (see above) had said that the fault was caused by “an injury sustained by the wire on some sunken rocks off Cape Grisnez.”
Jacob Brett’s obituary was published in The Electrician, 15 January 1897; the writer makes this rather unkind statement about the French fishermen, but does not mention the “gold” legend:
In 1898, Charles Bright (1863-1937) published his 744-page book “Submarine Telegraphs: Their History, Construction, and Working,” which still today remains the most comprehensive history of the first fifty years of the industry. In describing the early days of submarine cables he revived the old story about the failure of the 1850 cable, quoting from Russell’s 1865 work and embellishing the details somewhat further. Bright wrote:
Little did he know that this story would persist into the 21st century!
On 28 August 1900, the 50th anniversary to the day of the laying of the 1850 cable, The Times published a long article titled “Jubilee of Submarine Telegraphy.” The source was given as only “From a correspondent,” but this was quite possibly Charles Bright, as the mention of “gold at its centre” is a verbatim quote from his book:
If the author of this article was not Bright himself, it was certainly someone using his 1898 book as a source.
On 17 April 1907, Charles Bright gave a lecture in London at the Royal United Service Institution, in which he told the seaweed story with slightly different wording. The March 1908 issue of the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution reproduces a 29-page illustrated version of the lecture, titled “Submarine Telegraphy,” from which this extract is taken:
This story was picked up in other publications at the time, such as The Electrical Magazine in 1907, and it was told again by Bright in the April 1922 issue of the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers as “Early Submarine Telegraphy.” As before, this description (although with the variation “pith of gold”) can be traced back to William Russell. via Bright’s own 1898 book.
In 1913 perhaps the most elaborate version of the story ever told appeared in the "Junior Section" of the March issue of Popular Electricity. The text appears to have been largely copied from R.M. Ballantyne’s 1883 work of fiction mentioned above, but told as fact, and is reproduced here in full:
On 28 August 1950 an exhibition opened at the Science Museum to commemorate “One Hundred Years of Submarine Telegraph Cables.” In the handbook of the exhibition, G.R.M. Garratt wrote yet another variation of the French fisherman story:
While Garratt quotes The Times report of 31 August 1850 for the description of the laying of the cable, he gives no source for the above paragraph, although the books by Russell and Bright are listed in his bibliography.
The day after the opening of the exhibition, The Times once again published an anniversary article. This appears to be based on Garratt’s version of the story, as neither of them mention a gold centre:
In his 1982 book “The History of Electric Wires and Cables,” even the respected cable historian Robert M. Black included an elaborate version of the fisherman myth:
The odd phrase “neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring” has its origin in 16th century England, and was documented by John Heywood in 1546. It is always used in the negative to denote something difficult to identify or classify.
In 1999, the story received a passing mention in Jeff Hecht’s comprehensive book on fiber optics, “City of Light.” He describes the 1850 cable and notes that “It didn't work well because it was poorly insulated, and a fisherman soon cut it.”
By August 2000, the 150th anniversary of the 1850 cable, The Times had evidently lost interest in the story, publishing instead, in its issue of 14 November 2000, a short piece on the 149th anniversary of the opening for traffic of the successful 1851 Channel cable.
The 1850 Dover-Calais cable was the first ever laid in international waters, but because of the haste of its manufacture it had no armouring and was thus susceptible to damage from any number of causes. The unsuspecting French fishermen were surely not to blame for fouling it with their trawls or anchors, and it is also quite possible, as we see from the contemporary reports, that the cable was already broken when the fishermen hooked it.
Comparing published accounts of the breakage of the cable, from William Russell in 1865 to Gerald Garratt in 1950, no two of them even agree on the actual details of the event. Further, I have found no published or documented evidence that any French fisherman believed he had discovered seaweed with gold in the centre.
Unfortunately, since the anecdote’s first appearance in 1865, many subsequent authors, right up to the present day, appear to have taken it as fact without undertaking any further research. Some of these derivative and unsubstantiated stories are quoted on this page, and the myth continues to appear in many books, articles and websites on the history of communications. The most recent appearance I have found is in Russell W. Burns’ 2004 book “Communications: An International History of the Formative Years,” which quotes Bright (1898) verbatim, without further comment.
If any reader can provide a verifiable citation of the publication of the seaweed story prior to 1865, I would be very interested to see it. Contact details are at the bottom of this page.
Although this first attempt was not a commercial success, it proved the feasibility of such an undertaking, so in the following year a new attempt was made, this time with a lot more planning. The Brett brothers engaged the services of a railway engineer, Thomas R. Crampton, to design and supervise the laying of the cable.
The 1851 cable consisted of a core of four strands of copper wire insulated with a double layer of gutta percha and surrounded by a covering of tarred hemp. This in turn was enclosed in spun yarn, and ten galvanised iron wires were wound in a spiral around this. The armouring wires were supplied by Richard Johnson Brothers of Manchester, later Richard Johnson & Nephew.
The overall diameter of the cable was 1¼ inches and the weight was between 7 and 8 tons per mile, giving a total of about 200 tons. The cost, including laying, was £15,000. Crampton put up half of the total cost.
Loading the cable aboard HMS Blazer, described as a government steamer, began around 6 am on 22 September 1851 and was completed a day later, the cable having to be hauled aboard by hand.
Laying commenced on the 25 September, HMS Blazer being towed by two tugs because her boiler, engine, funnel and masts had been removed to accommodate the cable. Her escort was HMS Fearless. Reluctant as the first cable had been to reach the sea bed, this one could not reach it quickly enough, due partly to its weight, but mainly to the lack of an efficient braking system on board Blazer.
On arriving a few miles off the French coast it was found that there was insufficient cable to complete the laying operation. Temporary measures were made until another piece of cable arrived from England aboard the tug Red Rover. The cable was finally completed and operated for many years with little trouble and only minor repairs.
Goliath and HMS Widgeon are shown on the Rwanda 1fr 1977 stamp (see Goliath). The design of the stamp is based on an engraving first published in The Illustrated London News dated 7 September 1850 and reproduced in many books on telegraphy since.
The assets of the Submarine Telegraph Company were taken over by the General Post Office in 1890.
Note: The 1851 cable manufacture was the subject of legal action by R.S. Newall, whose patent on the armouring machinery was infringed by Crampton’s original choice of supplier. Newall wrote up his view of the early cable history in a pamphlet published in 1882.
MANUFACTURING THE 1850 CROSS CHANNEL CABLE
The order placed with the Gutta Percha Company for the first Cross Channel cable specified the following: Twenty five nautical miles of No. 14 Birmingham Wire Gauge copper wire covered with great care in gutta percha to half an inch diameter.
Thomas Bolton & Sons of Birmingham supplied the wire to the Gutta Percha Company in short lengths averaging 100 yards. This didn’t present a problem as the gutta percha extruding machine could just manage to cover about 100 yards of wire at a time. Any short wires were jointed by placing a sleeve over the two ends and soldering them with hard solder and then filing the joint down to something like the diameter of the wire.
Once the lengths of wire had been sheathed in gutta percha two inches of the gutta percha was removed from each end. Two lengths of wire were cleaned and then jointed by overlapping the bare ends and twisting them together and applying soft solder. A piece of soft gutta percha was placed around the joint and held in place by a wooden mould until it hardened. This increased the diameter of the cable to two inches tapering down to the normal diameter about four to five inches on either side. The joint was described as looking like a fat cigar.
A number of coils were produced from these short lengths and these were left outside until the Brett brothers asked for them to be sent to Dover. Prior to loading the insulation was tested by depositing the coil in the Thames by means of a crane. The electrician connected a galvanometer to the ends which remained on the wharfside and would then call out either "Right" which meant it had passed or "Chalk" which meant marking the coil with chalk for retesting. At Dover the coils were jointed in much the same way as at the factory and the finished cable was loaded onto the drum on the deck of Goliath ready for laying.
100TH ANNIVERSARY EXHIBITION
To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the laying of the first submarine cable, the Science Museum in London mounted a special exhibition titled One Hundred Years of Submarine Cables, and published a 60-page book by G.R.M. Garratt on the history and future of the cable.
Cable & Wireless, which through its subsidiary companies traced its history back to the early days of submarine cables, also produced a souvenir telegram to mark the event. The reverse of the form gave a brief overview of the company’s operations at the time.
See also these articles on the 1850 Dover-Calais cable
Last revised: 9 July, 2023