Back Reflection: The First Submarine Cable in North America
1982 Prince Edward Island – New Brunswick, Canada
By Philip Pilgrim
August 2, 2021
In alignment with this issue’s topic of “Regional Systems”, here is an account of the first regional submarine system in North America:
Nearly 170 years ago, in November 1852, the first submarine cable was laid in North America. It spanned the Northumberland Strait between the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward and New Brunswick. Although its length was only 10 miles, it stood as a proof of concept and would become the first subsea step leading to the eventual 6,000km telegraphic connection between NYC to London only six years later.
This cable is close to my heart, and to my location on the planet, as it was laid only 158km away from where I live in Nova Scotia.
The research leading to this article began in 2014, when an interest in subsea history became a hobby. I guess after working so long in the subsea sector, it was time to “learn my roots”. Thanks to Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Books, and Google Newspapers, (BIG THANKS GOOGLE!) it became easier to gather more information about this cable. Discussions and sharing data with Bill Burns, of the great Atlantic-Cable.com website as well as meetings with many of the kind people now living near the landing sites, helped form a picture. A few trips walking the scenic beaches and using a metal detector, specially designed for iron, helped find many of the early cables that landed in this area. The metal detector did not find the 1852 cable, but I am nearly positive that I did find a section of it so please read on to learn more.
I’ll try to present this subject by dividing it into sections similar to those of a modern subsea-terrestrial project. This should hopefully make contrasting easy and show that very little has changed over time.
Frederic Newton Gisborne (1824-1892)
The genius, engineer, explorer, network builder, businessman, inventor, who led the endeavor was Frederic Newton Gisborne. An Englishman who, at age 18, with his uncle, traveled the world for three years. As a twist of fate, the journey included their attempt to grow Gutta Percha plants and starting a plantation in Tahiti. Gutta Percha’s latex sap was the newly discovered thermo-plastic material that would eventually become the insulation needed for subsea cables (when they were invented ~ 6 years later).
Gisborne relocated to Canada after the journey in 1845. In 1847, he was trained in telegraphy by Orrin Wood, Samuel Morse’s first pupil. Wood operated the very first telegraph line in North America in 1844. Wood was recruited to be the president of the Montreal Telegraph Company (MTC) in 1847, the same year that Gisborne joined and became their Chief Operator. By 1847, MTC had secured all the telegraph lines in Canada. These extended from the US border near Hamilton, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec. Gisborne led the effort to expand the lines further east to Halifax and the Atlantic Ocean.