Victorian London - Communications - Telegraph - description and history

The Capabilities of the Electric Telegraph

    We understand the electric telegraph will shortly be applied to several domestic purposes. The experiment will first be tried at one of the large houses at the Albert Gate, Hyde Park. A servant will be stationed in one of the garrets, and another servant will be placed in the cellar, and a communication will be sent through the telegraph for the latter to bring up a bottle of wine. Should this be found to answer, wires will then be hung from floor to floor, and an anxious mother in the back parlour will be able to learn in a second what is going on in the nursery without any of the trouble of going up there. By this method, seven flights of stairs- will be cleared in one Sentence ; and the house, once brought down from its extreme height, may have a chance of finding a tenant.
    The only difficulty in families working the telegraph, will be procuring servants who know the electric alphabet, but this will soon be got over, now that the schoolmaster is so much more "at home" than he used to be. It is expected that in large establishments, where several servants are kept, a saving of fifty per cent, will be effected maids-of-all-work alone, whilst it stands to reason a stair-carpet will last twice as long under the new régime of messages being carefully delivered by the electric telegraph.
    Several eating-houses, too, intend working an electric telegraph, so as to bring the cuisine on a greater level with the dining-room. The clamorous speaking-pipe, in that case, will be dispensed with, and the inconvenience of hearing every other minute "One Mock," or "Two Greens" bawled out whilst you are ruminating over a piece of green fat, or are in the depths of a leading article, will no longer be felt by the tympanum of those gentlemen who prefer silence to noise.
    By this method, also, gentlemen at taverns, where there is singing in the evening, will be enabled to hear a song right through without any of those interruptions in the middle of it of "Two Rabbits," or "Chop well done," which are proverbial for destroying the sentiment, and mutilating the melody, of the finest bacchanalian songs.
    Lastly, the lonely condition of the tollmen on Waterloo Bridge - who are at present in a very depressed state, owing to the opening of Hungerford Bridge - might be humanely bettered, if an electric telegraph were established along the lamp-posts on either parapet of the bridge. They might then know what it was to hear the voice of their fellow-man, and be cheered in their solitude by exchanging with one another those speculative remarks about the weather, which, in minds constituted for society, make up one half of the amenities of life.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1845

... nerve-like wires that carry our wishes from one Corner of the land to the other with the same marvellous instantaneousness as our muscles act in obedience to our will.

Henry Mayhew, Letter 1 of Labour and the Poor, 
Morning Chronicle, Friday October 19, 1849

This fact at length led some one to think that the current of electricity along the wires would give at one end similar signs to those made at the other. Then dials, something like the face of a clock, but having letters instead of figures, and a hand like a compass needle, were fitted to the ends of the wires; and on trial it was found that whatever movement was made with one needle the electric current made the other needle at the other end of the wire perform. Thus the great telegraph system originated. And now, like the fine threads of the beautiful spider's web, the active wires of the telegraph spread out above our houses, alongside our railways, across the country, and last, but not least, under the rolling waves of the sea. Some of these machines do not require any one to be constantly watching them and writing the messages; for, when a message comes by them, they will print it in capital letters, or in long and short strokes, or in wriggled lines upon paper, each of which lines has a distinct meaning.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)




THE submarine cable and the land telegraph have together equipped the earth with a complete and highly developed nervous system, sensitive to the slightest shock or jar. Fifty years ago the world's nerves were in a very primitive stage of development. Electricity, however, his annihilated space in its relation to time, and bound the nations of the earth together in a way which was inconceivable before the first submarine cable was laid. Last month we had two illustrations which strikingly indicated the transformation which the electric cable has brought about in our everyday life. The scene of the Spanish-American War is several thousand miles distant from our shores, but day by day we have followed its course with almost as full a knowledge of the events of the previous twenty-four hours as if we had been on the spot. The world-wide sorrow which found expression on the death of Mr. Gladstone was one of the most impressive events of modern times. But it was a tribute to the power of electricity no less than to the personality of the dead statesman.


Fifty years ago nations were divided by the sea. Today a network of cables girdles the earth and links country to country. Mr. Charles Bright, in his book on "Submarine Telegraphs Their History, Construction, and Working." (Crosby Lockwood, £3), describes in detail this romantic phase of modern industrial development. Mr. Bright's volume is somewhat ponderous with its 744 pages, but it contains much interesting information., The first cable was laid between Dover and Calais in 1850. This soon broke down, but it conclusively proved the possibility of telegraphing under the sea. Since that date nearly 170,000 nautical miles of cable have been laid. This total is made up of something like 1500 separate lines, or sections of lines, varying in length from a quarter of a mile to over 2,700 nautical miles. Their united length would girdle the earth eight times and reach nearly two-thirds of the way to the moon. The cables already laid represent a capital of about £50,000,000. Ninety per cent. of these great nerves of the world has been provided by private enterprise. The Governments only control about 18,000 nautical miles of cable. They, however, retain a reserve of 100,000 nautical miles of electric cable, for the greater part stored in tanks, ready for immediate use. The land lines cover some 662,000 miles, constructed at a cost of about £62,000,000; 120,000 nautical miles of the whole existing cables has been manufactured and laid by a single English firm, the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company.


The first Atlantic cable was successfully laid in 1858, and on August 5th the first message was sent across the Atlantic. The line only worked for about twenty days, but in that time 732 messages were sent. The British Government countermanded the sailing of two regiments from Canada, and by doing so effected a saving of about £50,000; No further attempt was made to span the Atlantic till 1865-66. The first attempt proved unsuccessful, and the cable had to be abandoned in mid-ocean. The following year it was grappled for in a depth of 2,500 fathoms, and with great trouble recovered. The search for the lost cable possessed all the essential elements of romance which lend so much fascination to the quests of the knights of olden time. The following is the plain matter-of-fact passage in which Mr. Bright describes the difficulties to be overcome:-

    It now remained to find the end of the cable lost on August 2nd, 1865, situated about 604 miles from Newfoundland, to pick it up, splice on the cable remaining on board, and finish the work so unfortunately interrupted the year before. The difficulties to be overcome can be readily imagined, the cable lying 2,000 fathoms deep, without mark of any kind to indicate its position. The buoys put down after the accident had long since disappeared, either their moorings having dragged during various gales of wind, or the wire ropes which held them having chafed through, owing to incessant rise and fall at the bottom. The position of the lost end had to be determined by astronomical observations, which necessitates clear weather, and can-then only give approximate results, unless frequently repeated, on account of the variable ocean currents, which sometimes flow at the rate of three knots - i.e. three nautical miles per hour. Moreover, for grappling and raising the cable to the bows, the sea must be tolerably smooth, and in that part where the work lay a succession of fine days is rare, even in the month of August.

Day after day and night after night in a little wooden cabin on the Irish shore electricians anxiously waited for a message from the middle of- the ocean. Hope was almost exhausted when-

Suddenly, on a Sunday morning (September 2nd) at a quarter to six, while the tiny ray of light from the reflecting instrument was being watched, the operator observed it moving to and fro upon the scale. A few minutes later the unsteady flickering was changed to coherency; the long speechless cable began to talk, and the welcome assurance arrive: "Canning to Glass, Valentia. I have much pleasure in speaking to you through the 1865 cable. Just going to make splice."

    To-day fifteen cables join the Old World to the New. Three of these are dead, nine are in perfect condition for duplex working, and the remaining three are working fairly well with occasional repairs.

1866 - £1 A WORD.  1897 - 1s. A WORD.

    Mr. Charles Bright tells an interesting anecdote of the first Atlantic cable, illustrating the degree of perfection which had been attained even at that early date:-

    Mr. Latimer Clark had the conductor of the two lines joined together at the Newfoundland end, thus forming an unbroken length of 3700 miles in circuit. He then placed some pure sulphuric acid in a silver thimble with a fragment of zinc weighing a grain or two. By this primitive agency he succeeded in conveying signals twice through the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean in little more than a second of time after making contact. The deflections were not of a dubious character, but full and strong, the spot of light traversing freely over a space of twelve inches Or more, from which it was manifest that an even smaller battery would suffice to produce somewhat similar effects.

Mr. Bright estimates that, roughly speaking, about six million messages pass over the entire network of the world's cables in a year, or about 15,000 for each day of twenty-four hours. As business has increased and competition grown keener the rates have fallen. Mr. Bright says:-

In the early pioneer days of ocean telegraphy the Atlantic Telegraph Company started with a minimum tariff of £20 for twenty words, and £1 for each additional word. This was first reduced to £10 for twenty words, and was further altered later on to £5 for ten words. After this it stood for a long time at a minimum of 30s. for ten words of five letters each. Subsequently in 1867 the Anglo-American Company tried a word-rate of £1 for the 1865 and 1866 Atlantic cables; but it was not until 1872 that a regular word-rate system of 4s. per word was instituted. At the present day the rate stands at 1s. a word with all the Atlantic companies.

It is impossible for any one possessing imagination to read the book and believe that we live in an unromantic age.

The Review of Reviews, Vol.17, 1898

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