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150 years ago this summer, on 6 June 1870, the final section of the first submarine cable from England to India, known as the Red Sea Line, was landed at Porth Curnow cove in Cornwall. In continuous use as a cable landing site ever since, this is also the home of the PK Porthcurno Museum of Global Communications, pkporthcurno.com, which is celebrating the anniversary of the inauguration of this cable with a number of special events in 2020.

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The genesis of the project was in December 1866, when shortly after its successful completion of two Atlantic cables in September that year, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company (Telcon) had proposed to the Secretary of State for India, “That the telegraph line from Susa to Suez shall be continued from Suez to Bombay (Mumbai) by a submarine cable from Suez, or other point in the Red Sea to Aden, from Aden to Kooria Mooria, and thence, in a direct line, to Bombay.”

THE RED SEA LINE - The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 1: John Pender in 1870

The British Government was not inclined to fund this proposal, but in 1868, John Pender (1816-96), who had been largely instrumental in organizing Telcon to lay the Atlantic cables and was at that time its Chairman, resigned from Telcon in favour of his close friend Sir Daniel Gooch (1816-89) and began to form a number of companies to manage various parts of the route to India. He retained his large stock holdings in Telcon, which then undertook to manufacture and lay the lines for the new companies upon terms which gave them a large portion of the pecuniary responsibility.

This was the beginning of Pender’s cable empire, which by 1902 had grown into the Eastern & Associated Telegraph Companies (EATC). From the start, he diversified his financial risk by having each new cable project funded and managed by a different limited liability company, which he later combined into various groupings; these all came together eventually under the umbrella of the EATC. For the cable to India, the route was split into three parts: The Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company (founded 18 May 1868) would link Italy, Malta and Egypt; the British-Indian Submarine Telegraph Company (October 1869) would connect Bombay to Aden and then Suez; and the Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company (16 June 1869) would complete the line to England. The complete route is shown in Figure 2.

Paying out for the Malta – Alexandria cable, manufactured by Telcon, began on 26 September 1868 from Malta by Scanderia, which carried a total of 890 nautical miles (nm) of cable. Chiltern carried an additional 55 nm of cable and completed the laying into Alexandria on October 3rd. The cable consisted of seven copper wires insulated by three layers of gutta percha and finished with a layer of hemp as bedding for 18 armoring wires. The overall length of the installed system was 943 nm.

The main section of the route, from Bombay to Aden and on to Suez, was the longest and most complex part of the project, and required the services of the Great Eastern, which had laid the 1865 and 1866 Atlantic cables as well as the first French Atlantic cable, completed in August 1869. To complete this section she was supported by four other ships. We have a detailed description of this part of the project, as J.C Parkinson sailed on Great Eastern and kept a journal of the expedition which was published in 1870 in book form as “The Ocean Telegraph to India.”

The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 2: Map showing the full route from Porthcurno to Bombay

On 6 November 1869 Great Eastern left England’s Portland Harbor destined for Bombay, carrying 2,375 nautical miles of cable. Her companion ships, the Hibernia, Chiltern, and Hawk, held a further 1,225nm, making a total of 3,600 nautical, or about 4,140 statute miles. Great Eastern alone had on board 5,512 tons of cable, 3,824 tons of fuel, 6499 tons of coal, and apparatus and appliances, making up a freight of 21,000 tons in weight, and including the ship, a total value of about £2 million. The route to India was via Madeira, St Vincent, Cape Town, Assumption Island, and past the Seychelles to Bombay, where the ships of the expedition arrived on 26 January 1870 after a voyage of almost three months. It is reported that the ship burned an average of 200 tons of coal per day, having taken on an additional 3,000 tons at Cape Town.

Map showing the full route from Porthcurno to Bombay
Figure 3: Scanderia laying the Malta-Alexandria cable

On her previous cable expedition, the ship had been painted white to reduce the heat reaching the cable stowed in her three tanks, and this had the effect of lowering the below-deck temperature by eight degrees Fahrenheit. The whitewash was renewed by her commander, Captain Robert Halpin (1836-94), shortly before their arrival at Bombay.

As had often been the case, many people wanted to visit the great ship, and Captain Halpin announced in the local press specific days on which sight-seers would be admitted by tickets purchased for a small fee, the revenues to be divided among the ship’s company on the Great Eastern’s return to England as a small bonus.

While at Bombay a further 8,000 tons of coal were taken on board, and Parkinson spent almost three pages describing the ill effects of loading this vast amount of fuel, of which the following is just a sample:

“It was remarked by all of us, when the Great Eastern arrived at Bombay, that she had never looked better, nor smarter, nor cleaner since our respective acquaintanceship with her commenced; and what is she now — a floating coal-hole. The rather obtrusive whiteness of her sides has given way to a dirty hue like the face of a miller who has been up a chimney.”

Map showing the full route from Porthcurno to Bombay
Figure 4: Great Eastern painted white, leaving Portland Harbor with the British Indian cable

He also complained about the sulphurous fumes generated by the combination of silica and mineral pitch which coated the outside of the cable to discourage the teredo navalis (or “shipworm”) from boring through the hemp covering and gutta percha insulation and compromising the insulation integrity of the cable. The spiral-wound “teredo tape” of thin brass would not be invented for another ten years.

Shore end cable diagram and cross-section Shore end cable diagram and cross-section
Shore end cable diagram and cross-section

On 7 February 1870 Chiltern laid the shore end at Bombay with the aid of a local Government steam-tug towing a barge, which carried 2.5 miles of heavy double armor cable from the ship as close to the landing point as possible in the shallows. From there it was dragged ashore by barge-men waistdeep in water and installed in a trench leading up to the cable house, then tested back to the ship and proved good. Parkinson provides this description of Chiltern’s machinery:

“The cable had been passed through all the huge staples that direct its course from the fore-tank to the wheel at the stern; it had been passed under a wheel here, over a wheel there, which straightened and confined it, lest it should go out too rapidly; it had been passed three times round the drum, which controls the paying out, while a man stood ready at the wheel, a few rapid turns of which bring the gear to a complete standstill should mishap threaten or arise. In the fore-tank were eight men, guiding each coil of the cable carefully, and seeing that no tangle arose down below; and men, a few feet apart, were stationed on deck between the tank and the stern, to watch every foot of the cable as it passed, and to give the alarm should anything go wrong. By means of the pneumatic compasses with which both the Chiltern and Great Eastern are fitted up, instructions as to the steering of the ship, and to the engine-room, can be conveyed instantaneously from the bridge. Moreover, the person superintending the paying out can, whenever it is necessary, communicate directly with the engine-room by the same means, when the engines are stopped and reversed long before the message could be conveyed in the ordinary manner.”

On 14 February Great Eastern finished coaling, and prepared to splice on to the shore end:

“It was determined to effect the splice on the Chiltern, which was lying by the shore-end buoy, some 200 yards astern; and the delicate operation was proceeded with at once. After the heavy shore end was picked up from the buoy, and a portion of the cable on the Great Eastern passed over her stern and on to the Chiltern’s deck, the laying each line open, the fusing the two slender copper cores, the melting and smoothing down by hand the layers of gutta-percha, the application of Chatterton’s compound, and the final closing up and re-twisting of the thick protective coil, occupied some hours, and it was a quarter past four P.M. before Mr London pronounced the splice complete. The chief of the Telegraph Construction Company’s electrical staff on board the Great Eastern, Mr Laws, sent messages through the entire line and to the shore long before this, and within a few minutes of the two copper wires being fused.”

Just after five in the afternoon, accompanied by Chiltern, Great Eastern left Bombay, and after paying out a further ten miles of shore end cable, laid the transition to the intermediate cable type E. This was followed 96 nm later by the transition to intermediate cable type B, and subsequently the deep-sea section. The line to Aden would need 2,375 nm of cable, with an average slack of 10%. As was usual, the electrical staff on board ship were in regular contact with the station staff in Bombay, conducting tests to make sure the cable was functioning perfectly as it was being laid.

THE RED SEA LINE - The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 6: Landing the Aden shore end cable

The changeover from one cable tank to the next (which today is standard practice) was at that time a cause for anxiety:

“It will be readily understood that the line coming from the tank, and which was nearly all expended, had tto be paid out, and the bight connecting it with the other tank passed through the ring and so to the wheels without a moment’s delay. Although the ship’s speed is slackened, and her engines stopped, the cable would by its own weight continue to run on into the sea if the “stoppers” were not put on and its impetuosity checked. These stoppers consist of stout hempen ropes, which have been unlaid and plaited, as well as tailed in and tapered down to a fine point at each end by hand, so as to give the maximum of holding power while insuring a soft surface, and avoiding all risk to the cable. These plaited stoppers are at the appointed time wrapped round the passing coil by men standing on each side of the “lead” or cable-pathway, and close to the final wheel at the ship’s stern. The fastenings of these hempen stays are so arranged that they can be tightened or made loose by a turn of the hand. The brakes are put on as well; but it would be hazardous to apply mechanical checks only, and it is by hand that the final orders are carried out. The speed of the cable’s fall into the sea is thus checked with the greatest nicety, or permitted to have full play, as the word is given by Captain Halpin, who is crouched under the paying-out gear, and on watch at the tank’s mouth. Within the tank the cable has reduced itself steadily, and with three turns left the ship’s engines are reversed, and her way stopped. The canvas coverings in which the bight or loop from the fore-tank has been swathed have been removed some time before, as well as all other obstructions. The bight is then passed through the framework, so that both sides of it are in the ring. This is the supreme moment, and as the bight passes gently from hand to hand, each man on the telescopic frame doing his part to prevent the two portions of it touching, it is impossible to avoid speculating upon what would happen if a single link in the complex chain of cause and effect were to fail. Suppose one of the brakes were to give way, or the men at the stoppers to misunderstand an order, or the ship’s engines to be given play too soon, or the bight to slip from one of its guardians, and to overlap itself, a twist, a tangled kink, injury to the cable, destroyed insulation, and, at the best, delay for cutting-out and re-splicing, would all follow. As it is, it pursues its course gently into the long trough, and the cable from the fore-tank is being paid out without the delay of an instant. The stoppers and brakes are applied again a few minutes afterwards, but for an ordinary bit of work. The “knife” of the large drum which keeps the cable in its place is partly worn by friction, and an opportunity is given to renew it, the ship being again stopped and the paying-out checked. In twenty minutes, and after two or three trials, the new “knife” — which is not the least like what its name suggests, being a heavy piece of metal like a section of the outer ring of a locomotive’s wheel—which is fastened to the side of the drum, for the double purpose of protecting the latter, and of preventing the ascending cable from overlapping, is pronounced complete, and the paying-out is going on as regularly as ever”

It should be noted that because of the difficulty of switching payout from one tank to another, the Great Eastern emptied each tank completely. Today tank transfers occur more often, in order to spread the reduction in weight more evenly, reducing the stresses on the hull and better maintaining the ship’s stability. Once the first of Great Eastern’s first tank was emptied the spare cable was uncovered and the tank was flooded with water. Again, this would never happen today, as the amount of ‘free surface’ arising from a flooded cable tank, would be considered extremely dangerous!

On 27 February Great Eastern rendezvoused with Chiltern off Aden, where the deep-sea cable end was spliced to the heavier inshore section ready for the shore end landing, then buoyed off. Because of rough weather the landing had to be delayed, and overnight the cable broke loose from its buoys and fell to the bottom of the ocean. After about seven hours of grappling on the 28th, the cable was finally recovered, but again had to be buoyed as it was too late in the evening for the landing operation to commence. On 1 March the cable was tested all the way back to Bombay and found to be electrically perfect, and on the 2nd the shore end operation was completed, finally connecting the Aden station to Bombay, and messages of congratulation were sent through the cable.

It was then time for Chiltern to lay the outbound shore end ready for the run to Suez, but this did not start out well. While Chiltern was paying out the shore end, the turn of cable paying out from the tank caught under two turns of the lower flake, “and in an instant the three were twisted together in an inextricable knot.” This tangle, known as ‘a riding turn’, tore away the bell mouth and part of the wooden framework leading to the cable trough, and the test room reported loss of continuity at the same time. After cutting out the damage and re-splicing the cable, the electricians found that while the cable on board ship had good continuity, there was a total loss of insulation to the shore. While they were trying to determine the cause, a boat from shore brought a message that, “At five minutes past eight A.M. (Greenwich), the cable suddenly disappeared through aperture, and has not been seen since.” [Note: The ship’s logs were maintained in GMT throughout the voyage] Before the Chiltern could be brought to a halt, the massive increase in tension caused by the cable jam had resulted in the end of the cable being dragged out of the cable house. A boatload of men was sent on shore, whereby digging three feet deep into the sand and towards the sea they discovered the missing end sixty feet from the cable house.

THE RED SEA LINE - The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 7: The Suez-Bombay cable route showing date and position of the cableships

Fortunately, it had not yet been attached to the fixtures and instruments and there was no damage, so the men sealed the end and re-buried it in the sand, ready for the gap to be filled with a spliced-on section of cable later.

Chiltern completed the lay of the shore end then buoyed the cable about nine miles offshore, and the ships of the cable fleet regrouped ready for Great Eastern to begin laying the first part of the main run to Suez. This commenced three days later, on 6 March. This section used a special cable designed for the shallow waters of the Red Sea in that region, which Parkinson described as “less like a cable than so much flexible bar-iron. It is slightly less in diameter than the deep-sea line, but is closed in with galvanized wires, over which is a single covering of jute-yarn, and a coating of Clark’s compound. Its weight is 3¾ tons to the mile, while that of the Bombay main cable was but 1¾ tons.”

This was the end of Great Eastern’s work, and the cable staff, together with Captain Halpin, who was in overall command of the expedition, transferred to Hibernia, which would lay the 600 miles of standard deep-sea cable, stored in her two cable tanks, while Great Eastern set out for Aden to load coal for the long voyage back to England via the Cape of Good Hope.

Landing Cable at Porth Curnow Bay
Figure 8: Landing Cable at Porth Curnow Bay

Life on board Hibernia was not quite the same as on Great Eastern:

“The Hibernia is crowded. Every cabin is occupied; her still fine saloon has been curtailed to make way for a cable-tank; her bathroom is filled with ice, a useful commodity for lowering the temperature of cables while joints are made, and a supply of which was manufactured in the Great Eastern, and sent to the Hibernia on the morning we joined her; and at night every available sofa in the saloon is filled with weary electricians and engineers, sleeping soundly during their four hours’ turn of rest.”

After Hibernia had laid the 600 nm, Chiltern would take over and lay another 250 nm, and the two ships would then rendezvous with Hawk and William Cory, which were bringing more cable out from England via the recently opened Suez Canal. Parkinson had some philosophical thoughts about cable ships:

“Sunday, 13th March. — A cable-ship, on active duty, is an infallible, if not a very minute, self-acting register of its own work. … The drums and wheels rotate, as they have done ever since the start; the bell marking the revolutions of the drum performs its tinkling work unceasingly; the words “mile mark,” or “splice,” are called out at intervals by those on watch; the apparently endless iron rope continues to drop into the sea; the dynamometer registers every change in straining power — all without variation. It is only when you look down into the tank and see the cable hands twenty feet off, and at the bottom of a deep dry well, instead of having to stoop to prevent striking their heads against the deck, or on looking from your cabin-window, that the vastness of the alteration in the condition of the ship comes home.”

On 13 March the staff transferred to Chiltern, ready for the last leg of this part of the expedition. The next day they received this message over the cable from Aden: “Line opened to-day to the public from Aden to Bombay.” When Chiltern’s cable ran out the end was buoyed, Chiltern remained on station, and the staff transferred to Hibernia to sail for Suez and meet the other two ships, so that the cable could be laid from there back to Chiltern. However, at 110 miles from Suez they encountered William Cory already laying cable, accompanied by Hawk. The Hawk had laid the Suez shore end and, not knowing where Chiltern and Hibernia were, they had decided that the Cory should splice onto the shore end and commencing laying her cable. Under the circumstances, it was decided to cut and buoy Cory’s cable and have Cory sail to meet Chiltern, accompanied by Hibernia, and proceed with the lay from there back to the buoy.

On 17 March the two ships reached Chiltern, and on the morning of 18 March Captain Halpin and some of the cable staff transferred from Hibernia to William Cory to prepare to make the splice. In squally weather, William Cory recovered the Aden cable end and began to haul it in, but the squall worsened, and as the ship pitched the cable parted. It took another day for the bad weather to abate, and it was not until the evening of 20 March that the cable was grappled and recovered.

After a successful test to Aden that night, the splice was made the following morning and the three ships set out for Suez, with William Cory laying the cable. On the afternoon of 22 March, after the cable from Aden was spliced to the section already laid from Suez, although not without some difficulty due to strong winds and currents, the lay was complete. Parkinson concludes his account as follows:

“I may add that the cable was opened to the public at six A.M., on the morning of the 26th of March, or four days after the final splice in the Gulf of Suez, and that many messages had passed through ‘from each end’ — namely, from London and from Bombay, when I called at the Alexandria Telegraph Office at ten A.M. the same day.”

With this major section of the cable to India completed, it remained only for the somewhat misnamed Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company to lay the final cable from Malta to Porth Curnow via Gibraltar and Carcavelos (near Lisbon, Portugal). Telcon was again awarded the contract for manufacture and laying; however, to meet the promised timescales they sub-contracted much of the cable manufacture to W.T. Henley, while carrying out the laying themselves. This started at Malta on 14 May 1870 with cableships Hawk, Edinburgh and Scanderia laying the 1,150 nm cable to Gibraltar. Scanderia and Investigator then laid the 366 nm cable from Gibraltar to Carcavelos, Portugal, and the last section, Carcavelos to Porthcurno, Cornwall, 824 nm long, was laid by Hibernia, starting from Carcavelos on 2 June 1870 and arriving at Porthcurno six days later. On 6 June, Investigator laid the shore ends of what was the first cable into what is now Porthcurno. The final splice was completed by Hibernia on 8 June.

The service to India went into commercial operation on 23 June. Between the forming of the Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Co and the opening of this telegraph service, just over two years had passed. This was an incredible achievement even by modern-day standards, and it was largely accomplished through the effort, skill and business acumen of John Pender.


The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 9: John Pender’s Telegraphic Soirée
The 1870 Cable From England To India
Figure 10: Eastern Telegraph Company system map, 1901

That evening, to celebrate his remarkable success, John Pender hosted a soirée at 18 Arlington Street to mark the inauguration of the first London to India telegraph service. The guest of honor was His Royal Highness Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, whose presence had been arranged by Pender’s wife Emma. The entertainment included demonstrations of modern telegraphy by Cromwell Fleetwood Varley, in which the guests were invited to have messages telegraphed to Bombay, Calcutta (Kolkata) and New York, receiving replies in less than fifteen minutes. As a talking point, the grapnel that had been used to recover the 1865 Atlantic cable was suspended from a balcony above the guests. The guest list included over one hundred dignitaries and the entire event was captured in a 68-page souvenir booklet. It was also covered a week later in the Illustrated London News, whose article included a detailed engraving of the gathering, which was held in Pender’s main reception room.

Following this triumph, Pender continued to expand his network, with its main station remaining at Porthcurno, which also became the training center for cable engineers and operators. Pender died in 1896, and just five years later, in 1901, his many companies were finally consolidated into the EATC, with the extensive network shown in Figure 10.

In 1928 the EATC merged with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and other related entities to form Imperial & International Communications Ltd, and in 1934 this became Cable & Wireless. Four generations of the Pender family ran the company until 1965, even after it was nationalized by the Labor Government in 1946. Porthcurno continued to be one of the world’s largest cable stations, an important communications hub and training center, until the closure of the station in 1970 and the engineering college in 1983. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, PK Porthcurno is now a world-class communications museum and archive.


Bill BurnsBILL BURNS is an English electronics engineer who worked for the BBC in London after graduation before moving to New York in 1971. There he spent a number of years in the high-end audio industry, during which time he wrote many audio, video, and computer equipment reviews, along with magazine articles on subjects as diverse as electronic music instruments and the history of computing. His research for these articles led to a general interest in early technology, and in the 1980s he began collecting instruments and artifacts from the fields of electricity and communications.

In 1994 a chance find of a section of the 1857 Atlantic cable inspired a special interest in undersea cable history, and soon after he set up the first version of the Atlantic Cable website <https://atlantic-cable.com>, which now has over a thousand pages on all aspect of undersea communications from 1850 until the present.

Bill’s interest in cable history has taken him to all of the surviving telegraph cable stations around the world, and to archives and museums in North America and Europe. He has presented papers on subsea cable history at a number of conferences, and in 2008 he instigated and helped organize the 150th Anniversary Celebration for the 1858 Atlantic cable at the New-York Historical Society. Most recently, in 2016 he was involved with the celebrations in London, Ireland and Newfoundland to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1866 Atlantic cable.


Stewart AshSTEWART ASH Since graduating in 1970, Stewart Ash has spent his entire career in the submarine cable industry. He joined STC Submarine Systems as a development engineer, working on coaxial transmission equipment and submarine repeater design. He then transferred onto field engineering, installing coaxial submarine cable systems around the world, attaining the role of Shipboard Installation Manager. In 1986, he set up a new installation division to install fiber optic submarine systems. In 1993, he joined Cable & Wireless Marine, as a business development manager and then move to an account director role responsible for, among others the parent company, C&W. When Cable & Wireless Marine became Global Marine Systems Ltd in 1999, he became General Manager of the engineering division, responsible for system testing, jointing technology and ROV operation. As part of this role he was chairman of the UJ Consortium. He left Global Marine in 2005 to become an independent consultant, assisting system purchasers and owners in all aspects of system procurement, operations, maintenance and repair.

Stewart’s interest in the history of submarine cables began in 2000, when he project managed a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the submarine cable industry. As part of this project he co-authored and edited From Elektron to ‘e’ Commerce. Since then he has written and lectured extensively on the history of the submarine cable industry. From March 2009 to November 2015 he wrote Back Reflection articles for SubTel Forum. In 2013 he was invited to contribute the opening chapter to Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy, which covered the early development of the submarine cable industry. To support the campaign to save Enderby House—a Grade II listed building—from demolition, in 2015 he wrote two books about the history of the Telcon site at Enderby Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula in London. The first was The Story of Subsea Telecommunications and its Association with Enderby House, and the second was The Eponymous Enderby’s of Greenwich. His biography of Sir John Pender GCMG. The Cable King was published by Amazon in April 2018.

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