Growing Pains at the Crossroads of the World: A Submarine Cable in the 1870's
written by Bernard S. Finn
National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Instutution, Washington, DC 20560


Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol.64, No.9, September 1976



On Friday, 13 July 1866, the Great Eastern, by far the largest ship afloat, left Valencia Ireland, with 2730 nautical miles of cable in her hold. Fourteen days later 1852 miles of this cable lay at the bottom of the ocean, the ship was at anchor in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, and the old and new worlds were in permanent telegraphic communication. The Great Eastern then turned back to the Atlantic where she successfully grappled for and raised the end of a cable abandoned there the previous year. A new section was spliced to the old, and on September 6 there were two intact lines between Valencia and Heart's Content.

To operate these cables at their western end a cable station was established at Heart's Content, a small, isolated fishing community on the eastern side of the bay. Five men came from England as employees of the Anglo-American Telegraph Co. to act as operators. They shared quarters with operators of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Co., which controlled the route that went by land (except for a short cable between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia) to New York. The initial tasks were quickly accomplished: instruments were set up, housing was constructed, and the basic routines wee established. In the pages that follow we are able to see what happened next, as new techniques were introduced and as the needs of the staff expanded. Through Heart's Content in the 1870's we discover some of the early growing pains of a new and triumphant industry.

By 1870, the number of cable operators had gradually grown to ten *including two supervisors) , working two on a cable around the clock (with both cables operating between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.). The received a paid vacation of three months every three years, with a bonus of 25 pounds to help pay of transportation back home to England. Wages for the newer members of the staff, those who had arrived in 1869, were 150 pounds per year. This was more than what was received at the other end, at Valentia, but it still was not a princely sum, and the bachelors complained that it was not enough to enable them to marry. prices were relatively high since most o provisions ere imported either from England or from larger settlements across the peninsula. The only community of any real size was St. John's, ninety difficult miles away. On the other hand, there were few extra temptations. The nearest bar was in New Perlican, three miles up the bay, and local diversion consisted mainly of hiking in he barren uplands behind the town or boating in Trinity Bay. I(n the winter even these pleasures were denied, though there was a billiards table in the bachelors' mess and a small library. Drinking was frowned upon; drunkenness, if it affected the job, was forbidden and was punished by dismissal on the third offense. Interaction with the small local fishing population was apparently very limited. The cable men were a privileged outside group receiving steady wages, housed in quarters built b the company, performing unworldly tasks with incomprehensible tools.2

From an objective point of view perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this situation is that the basic elements of it remained unchanged for a hundred years.

Heart's Content was not the only remote cable station. Both the attenuation (by resistance) and the smearing out (by capacitance) of the signal were proportional to the length of the cable. This meant that if at all possible long distances should be split into shorter lengths, with relay station inserted. Furthermore, cables should be kept away from areas where ships' anchor or fishermen's trawling gear might damage them and therefore remote locations were to be preferred. By the end of the 1870's , therefore, places previously little-known (except perhaps as coaling stations) became common names in cable vocabulary: St. Pierre (a French island tucked and St. Vincent Islands in the Atlantic, Jask in the Peruvian Gulf, Bahia (Pernambuco) in Brazil, Banjoewani on Java. And among the remote islands later added as key links in a world-wide communication network were Midway, Guam, Yap and Fannning in the Pacific, Cocos and Mautitius in the Indian Ocean, and St. Helena I the South Atlantic.

At each of these stations there was or would be a small hardy group of Expatriates, usually British, manning and repairing the sensitive instrumentation.

But Heart's Content was the most important of the remote stations, since it was ideally situated on the North Atlantic route. It was a training ground for many who would later serve all over the world. Because of a high volume of traffic it was the place where much new instrumentation was introduced.

In 1870, two cables were in operation. They consisted of stranded copper cores surrounded by gutta percha insulation, a serving of jute as a cushion, and iron wires to give the strength. Near shore these iron wires increased in size to help protect the fragile core from tidal currents and anchors and trawling gear. The basic design was not significantly different form that of the ill-fated 1858 cable, with the exception that in 1858 the outer wires were smaller and stranded, which made them more easily vulnerable to the corrosive action of sea water. The major differences occurred in the attention paid to details during he construction process. The copper was tested for impurities (in f1858 conductivity of various sections varied by as much as a factor of two), and repeated tests were made on the completed cable to check for insulation and electrical continuity. Equally important, the newer cable had been stored under water, protected form heat and the direct rays of the sun,, which had undoubtedly had a major role in the rapid deterioration of the ear4lier line. The new cables were also designed to have a lower specific gravity to reduce stresses during laying.

The 1858 cable m9ight be called a very expensive trial run. Clearly the promoters, Cyrus Field et al., had no notion that there might be any electrical difficulties, and their chief electrician, Wildman Whitehouse, was ill-trained to deal with the unusual. Hence the physical indignities to which the cable was put (especially lying in the sun on a wharf for the better part of a year). In addition, it was Whitehouse's plan to use ordinary telegraph receiving instruments on this nearly 2000-mile underwater line. And when ordinary voltages failed to operate them he used induction coils to force through tow and three thousand volt pulses. This undoubtedly sealed the cable's fate.

The situation was saved only by the timely development by William Thomson of a mirror galvanometer. In this instrument a very light mirror, with needle-like magnets glued to its back, was carefully suspended inside a coil. Even a slight twist of the mirror in response to signal pulses in the coil direction for a dot, the other for a dash. Thus it was possible to receive a few messages across the Atlantic during the summer of 1858.

Thomson's mirror galvanometer was the receiving instrument used exclusively in 1866. It was found to be most efficient if one man watched the dancing spot of light and read off the dots and dashes while a second man wrote them down. A good team could manage about eight words a minute.3 A very real advantage to such a system was that if there was an obvious error, or a lapse in attention, the man receiving could respond immediately at the end of the message and ask for corrections. A major disadvantage was that the instrument gave no record, and it was therefore impossible to go back later to check the accuracy of what had been received.

In 1869 a competing French transatlantic line was laid. Soon agreement was reached over rates and over handling each other's traffic in emergency situations. This proved especially valuable when both Heart's Content cables late in 1870 and could not be repaired until June of the following year. New cables were laid to Heart's Content in 1873 and 1874. The old ones were relegated to occasional use or stand-by status; they were officially considered out of service in 1877.

The decade of the 1870's, which is the period covered by this paper, was an exuberant and exciting period for cable telegraphy. In the 1850's early optimism had been dapmented by some spectacular and expensive failures-most notably the 1858 Atlantic attempt which worked marginally for slightly over a month, and the 1859-1860 cable down the Red Sea to India which never worked over its full length at all. But a second line to India, though the Persian Gulf, in 1864 was a solid success; and confidence was completely restored with the Atlantic crossings two years later- especially after the remarkable achievement of picking up the lost end of the 1865 cable. Stimulated by money that was freed when the British government purchased internal land lines, telegraph promoters embarked on a virtual orgy of cable laying. Approximately ninety thousand miles of cable were in use at the end of the decade (compared to thirteen at the beginning), linking all the inhabited continents together and to the larger island countries of Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Cuba; island groups in the West Indies, the East Indies, the Aegean were joined to each other and to the larger network; and countries for which it was impossible or difficult to employ land lines used cables to tie themselves more tightly together (Denmark, Norway, Brazil, Argentina, Japan).

On the shorter lines ordinary land-line techniques continued to be used with little modification. On the longer cables the key plus mirror galvanometer made up the sole transmission system. But the long cables were expensive, and least on some routes the traffic potential was high. Thus there was considerable incentive towards the development of new techniques which would increase the message-handling speed. Two were developed in the 1870's with lasting effect on the industry. Both were introduced immediately at Heart's Content, and it is there that we will examine them. They were the siphon recorder and duplex telegraphy.

After its origins, land-line telegraphy had developed in an atmosphere virtually devoid of theory. It was dominated by clever tinkerers and ingenious promoters. People of the same type-John and James Brett, Lionel and Francis Gisborne, Charles Britght, Cyrus Field, John Pender-treated the cables as mere extensions of what was familiar on land. In retrospect we can only be incredulous at the naivete with which, for instance, the first Atlantic cable was promoted, the uncritical gacility with which it was f9inanced and the almost reckless speed with which it was manufactured and laid. Unfortunately there were significant novel phenomena that had to be considered. As already mentioned, there was the right resistance, which made quality control. Of the copper essent6ial; the capacitance, which could be calculated in terms of the properties of the dielectric used around the copper core; and the relationships of these two to the shape of the signal. In addition there were problems associated with laying and picking up cable that weighed a ton or more per mile in air (and considerably less when submerged) in waters up to two miles deep, especially in terms of the strain that could be expected on the laying mechanism and on the cable itself. And, as it turned out, there was more than ordinary cleverness needed in the design of instrumentation,. Fortunately a young professor from Glasgow, William Thomson, had been selected by Scottish shareholders as a director of the company. For the next ten years he devoted a considerable portion of his time and energy to solving the above problems-observing them and solutions at first hand by participation on all of the Atlantic cable expeditions (one in 1857, two in 1858, one in 1865, and one in 1866), and conducting several field tests. He designed and patented a number of instruments, including the mirror galvanometer, which had already been mentioned and its successor, the siphon recorder, which became the principal receiver for long cables for half a century.

Thomson patented his siphon recorder in 1867 and improve it into practical for over the next few years. A moving coil suspended between the poles of either a permanent or electromagnet was attached by threads to a thin bent glass tube or siphon. One end of the siphon dipped in an ink pot, the other end was held horizontally opposite to, but not quite touching, a moving strip of paper. In the early instruments the in was electrified intermittently by a small electrostatic generator, causing small dots of ink to jump across the gap onto the paper tape. As the coil moved under the influence of the fluctuating current, the siphon shifted from sided to side in front of the paper leaving a trace of dots to mark the positive and negative pulses.

The first comment from Heart's Content on the recorder apparently was made in October, 1873. Between pleading for separate quarters for one of his men who was living with his pregnant wife in the bachelors' quarters, which was "hardly the place for her at such a time," and complaining about the cost of living in a town where the butcher came once a week in the summer and every other week in winter if he could, E. Weedon, the chief of station, set down his opinions on such modern improvements: "I have little faith in the recorder. Williams & Newitt, first class recorder clerks, assure me that our speed with VA [Valentia] is fully 50 percent over the speed of the recorder they worked in the East."

But he did not prevail, and one of the Thomson recorders was sent out for trial in the summer of 1874. In October, Weedon was not optimistic: "The instrument is undoubtedly a step in the right direction but it's a long way from being perfect." He admitted, however, that there still hadn't been a proper test due to a lack of the right kind of paper.

Or perhaps it was just because October was a bad month, cold and damp. There was much sickness among the children, and Weedon speculated that the refuse pits, which presently were located behind the houses on the uphill side, might be draining into the wells, which were dug in the basements. He decided to have water-tight casks placed near the back doors. Cinders, ashes and such should be placed in them during the day, "and other matter more obnoxious the last thing at night." He could get a man to cart it all away for 36 a year.

On December 2, he noted simply that the recorder was "working well." But a week later he reported "favorably of it in every way." The transmission speed for the mirror and the recorder were the same, but the man using the mirror had to ask for repetitions when he was uncertain. With the recorder this was unnecessary, since he had the message on a slip of paper. Weedon found, however, that one man on the recorder lost time in checking the message before responding. Therefore, he strongly recommended that two men be used - one to read and check the message, the other to respond immediately when the message was completed. With such an arrangement ten words a minute were easily achieved, versus eight with the mirror or with just one man on the recorder.

In February 1875, with plans well under way for a new office, Weedon was looking forward to using recorders exclusively. He wanted to know if he could get two more by September. When September came, the new office was still unfinished and there were no additional recorders. In January 1876, he reaffirmed his endorsement of recorders, noting that Valentia had its reservations (due in part, perhaps, to the higher humidity there, which interfered with the static charge).

Each year there was a celebration at Heart's Content to mark the landing of the first cable. It was not a very grand affair, Weedon reported. About a dozen friends joined them, the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes were displayed, kerosene lamps were hung about, and there was some piano music. However, 1876 may have been an exception (we have no report). Not assuredly, because of the American centennial, but it was the tenth anniversary of operations at Heart's Content, a new schoolhouse had been constructed with the help of company funds, and they were preparing to move into a new station building. The move took place on November 4, still with only one recorder.

The problem was apparently with Valentia. They did not like the instrument. Early in 1878 Weedon was pleading more strongly than ever, now estimating that the recorder was 30 percent or perhaps even 50 percent better than the mirror in terms of speed. Then he proudly announced that one of his men, Dickinson, had made a recorder; furthermore, it cost only a sixth as much as Thomson's. The management in London at least saw merit in persistence. Later that spring they awarded Weedon an unexpected raise and gave Dickinson a 25 bonus. And in June Dickinson completed his second recorder.

The momentum had been achieved, and by the end of the decade the battle had been won; recorders were fully accepted. Indeed, in 1880, when a new cable was laid, a siphon recorder was sent out to be used on it.

A second major innovation of the 1870's was duplexing. For several years a number of inventors hid attempted to devise means by which two messages (or more) could be sent over a land line at the same time. Two successful methods of duplexing were developed. In the one that was ultimately widely used on submarine cables, an "artificial line" (electrically equivalent to the real line) was placed in parallel with the line receiver connected between the two, and with other resistances leading to the key, battery and ground. The result was a Wheatstone bridge in which, if properly balanced, the outgoing current had a null effect on the local receiver.

In the second, "differential" system, the receiver contained two coils wound in opposite directions. The sending current was split so that half went through one coil into the line, the other half went through the other coil and then through an artificial line to ground. This is the system introduced by Joseph Stearns, when he arrived at Heart's Content in 1872 and attempted to set up a duplex circuit over the short cable to Sydney, Nova Scotia. When Weedon took over management of the line to New York in 1873 (as a result of the Anglo-American Company absorbing the New York, Newfoundland and London Enterprise), a new attempt was made to employ duplex over the short land-cable line through Sydney to Port Hastings, Nova Scotia. He achieved moderate success.

But in 1876 Weedon was far from satisfied and was openly skeptical of the method having any practical value.

Stearns came back two years later in 1878, to duplex a full Atlantic cable using a bridge arrangement. He was probably a welcome sight because, aside from the success with the siphon recorder, it had not been a particularly good year. The walls of the new station house were leaking, Weedon's physical condition was deteriorating so that he found it increasingly difficult to get around, and his attempts to raise money for a new church, which included solicitation letters to everyone he could think of, including Cyrus Field, had gone unanswered. The two men received "last warnings" about their drinking, and the one who explained that his wife had driven him to it received no sympathy. 'Ihere were also still loose ends from a personal tragedy of the previous year. Isolation was no protection from diseases like diphtheria which swept through the time to time, often with fatal results for one or more of the children. But in 1877 one of the original group of men, Unicume, had died. Always in poor health, he had been unable to obtain insurance, and his pension was insufficient for his wife and three children. Weedon, who often took a protective, even fatherly, view of his men, was executor of the small estate. He worried over his responsibilities, at the same time trying to get the company to assume some additional responsibilty in this hardship case.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that Weedon became caught up in the excitement of introducing a new technique which would double the capacity of the lines. He wrote:

"Mr. Stearns and myself have discussed Duplex a great deal since his arrival; I must confess that until I saw his system I felt quite skeptical about Duplex but having seer the way he gets his balance, and having produced a balance, how steady it keeps in moderately severe temperature I am quite sanguine of success. Mr. Stearns' visit of a few weeks here has learnt me more about Duplex than I have been able to pick up from books in the course of years; and you may rely upon it, the past few weeks’ experiences will not be lost upon me."

Weedon was now a strong advocate of duplex, especially after he made a slight change in the circuit. Stearns had placed an isolating condenser between the bridge and the battery; Weedon tried placing condensers at the terminals of the cable and of the artificial line, isolating them from the rest of the circuit. This was more in accord with ordinary practice, and Weedon claimed the results were much improved. But there were still problems. Thus he felt he had to take exception to the Directors' report, which indicated that duplex was fully operational at 90 percent regular speed in each direction. He emphatically stated it was still experimental, and the final speed was still undetermined. Unfortunately, Weedon’s design change had already been patented by Muirhead, Stearns' rival in this art, which may have been a reason for Stearns’ reluctance to accept it. Weedon accused Stearns of being stubborn, and it was well into 1879 before duplexing was operational, if still a bit erratic.

The problem probably lay in the artificial line, which was adopted by Stearns from a design by C.F. Varley. A series of resistors were connected in series, which connected between the junctions and ground. The greater the number of resistors and capacitors, the closer the approximation to the real thing. But this also meant more junctions and more possibilities for the effects of contact voltage within the artificial line. The solution to this problem was to keep a very even temperature and to be careful. Another solution was a totally different design for the artificial line. This was provided by Muirhead and Taylor in 1875. They designed artificial line elements where the resistor was also one plate of a capacitor. These elements became standard elements in artificial lines in the 1880's.

The introduction of these new techniques can thus be seen to follow a classic pattern of stubborn resistance to reluctant acceptance to even enthusiastic support. But it also brought increased pressures on this small community of exiles which are harder to document. Duplexing, plus more cables (the 1873 and 1874 cables effectively replaced the earlier two, but a new one would arrive in 1880), demanded more men, crowding the already inadequate housing facilities. The extra terminals and the artificial lines introduced space pressure in the new station building almost before it was completed. The men adjusted because they had to, and the system continued to work and to prosper.

In 1880, Weedon could look backward with a feeling of satisfaction and forward with some confidence. His own physical condition had improved so that he could - on nice days - walk the short distance between his house and the station. Mrs. Unicume was marrying one of the other operators. Flowers bloomed in the specially built window boxes in the new station. A new church was to be built with the help of company funds. And the average message rate was about 1500 per day in each direction, or almost ten times what it was a decade before.