Back Reflection: The Explosive Beginning of Submarine Telecoms

By Phillip Pilgrim
December 3, 2021

I’ll begin by giving a so-called “shout-out” to our friends at Submarine Telecoms Forum and SubCom as some of the following early submarine cable communication events happened on their doorsteps. Hopefully, these obscure events will be brought back into the spotlight and given appropriate respect for their contribution to our industry.

The 1850 English Channel Submarine Cable was not the first.

Most laypeople, I included, consider the August 28th, 1850 cable across the English Channel to be the first submarine cable.  It is captured in numerous paintings and drawings of the stout steam tug , Goliath, with a large spool of cable on board, happily chugging across the channel.  It is also captured in folklore; the unarmoured cable (a single copper strand with a rubbery gutta percha exterior) was fictionally pulled up the next day by French fisherman who thought he discovered a marvelous new seaweed with gold interior. However, history shows that the first cables were developed much earlier for more destructive purposes.

The Early 1800’s & The Science of Electricity

To add further colour to these early days, one should realize that the first submarine telegraph cables followed immediately on the heels of significant scientific milestones in electricity and electromagnetism. The scientists pioneering applications of electricity witnessed their telegraph peers exploit their discoveries, and often these same scientists assisted and contributed.

Let’s look at the basic components needed in the 1830’s to get the telegraph ball rolling:

  1. A low resistance copper wire for carrying a signal
  2. An energy source for signaling
  3. A means to insulate the copper wire from its watery environment
  4. Copper, gold, and silver had been formed into wires for millennia, so this was readily available in the early 1800’s.
  5. Leading up to the invention of the telegraph, nearly all experiments with electricity involved so-called static electricity. This energy was created from the friction of rubbing materials together and the energy was not able to be stored easily by humans (thunderclouds and kites excluded). It was not until the experiments of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta in the late 1790’s that lead to Volta’s chemical battery in 1800. This convenient device could store energy for long periods of time and the energy could be released in short bursts from a terminal to send a signal along a telegraph wire.
  6. Early experiments with electrical signaling and water in the 1830’s revealed that coating wires with tar-soaked cloth enabled  the “electric fluid” to travel along the wire and not “leak” into the surrounding water. Gutta percha, a natural plant latex was later introduced to England in 1842 and then exploited as a wire insulator in 1845.

It was Samuel Morse who is credited as the first to originate the telegraph in the “new world” in  1832 however, others were working on the same challenge on the continent, and in Britain.

To continue reading the rest of this article, please read it in Issue 121 of the SubTel Forum Magazine on page 68 or on our archive site here.