1857 Cable

1857 Cable Page

1857 Cable

Description of the cable from The Atlantic Telegraph by W H Russell, 1865

2,500 nautical miles (4,640km) of central core was made for the Atlantic Telegraph by the Gutta Percha Company at its factory at 18 Wharf Road, Islington in North London

The central conducting wire was strand made up of seven wires of purest copper, of gauge known in the trade as No. 22. The strand itself was almost a sixteenth of and inch (1.6mm) in diameter, and was formed of one straightly drawn wire, with six others twisted around it: this was accomplished by the by the central wire being dragged from a drum through a hole in a horizontal table, while the table itself revolved rapidly, under the impulsion of steam, carrying near its circumference six reels or drums each armed with copper wire. Every drum revolved on its own horizontal axis, and so delivers the wire as it turned. This twisted form of conducting wire was first adopted for the rope laid across the Gulf of St Lawrence in 1856, and was employed with a view to the reduction to the lowest possible chance of continuity being destroyed in the circuit. It seemed improbable in the highest degree that a fracture could be accidentally produced at precisely the same spot in more than one of the wires of the twisted strand. All the seven wires might be broken at different parts of the strand, even some hundreds of times, and yet its capacity for the transmission of the electrical current not destroyed, or reduced in any inconvenient degree. The copper used in the formation of these wires was assayed from time to time during the manufacture to assure absolute homogeneity and purity. The strand itself, when subjected to strain stretched 20 per cent of its length without giving way, and indeed without having its conducting power much modified of impaired.

The copper strand of the cable was rolled up on drums as it was completed, and was then taken from the drums to receive a coating of three separate layers of refined gutta percha; these brought its diameter up to about three-eights of an inch (9.5mm). The coating of gutta percha was made unusually thick, for the sake of diminishing the influence of induction, and in order that the insulation might be rendered as perfect as possible. The latter object was also furthered by the several layers of the insulating material being laid on in succession; so that if there was accidentally a flaw in the one coat, the imperfection was sure to be removed when the next deposit was added. To prove the efficacy of the proceeding, a great number of holes were made near together in the first coating of a fragment of the wire, and the second coating was then applied in the usual way. The insulation of the strand was found to be perfect under these circumstances and continues so even when the core was subjected to hydraulic pressure, amounting to five tons on the square inch (69 megapascals). He gutta percha which was employed for the coating of the coating of the conductor strand, was prepared with the utmost possible care. Lumps of crude substance were first rasped down by revolving toothed cylinders, placed within a hollow case, the whole piece of apparatus somewhat resembling the agricultural turnip machine in its mode of action. The raspings were then passed between rollers, macerated in in hot water and well churned. They were next washed in cold water, and driven at a boiling water temperature, by hydraulic power, through wire-gauze sieves, attached to the bottom of wide vertical pipes. The gutta percha came out from the sieves in plastic masses of exceeding purity and fineness, and those masses were then then squeezed and kneaded for hours by screws, revolving in hollow cylinders, called masticators; this was done to get the water, and to render the substance of the gutta percha sound and homogeneous everywhere. At each turn of the screw, the plastic mass protruded itself through an opening left for feeding in the upper part of the masticator, and was then drawn back as the screw rolled on. When the mechanical texture of the refined mas perfected by masticating and kneading, it was placed in horizontal cylinders, heated by steam, and squeezed through them by screw pistons, driven down by machinery very slowly, and with relentless force. The gutta percha emerged, under this pressure, through a die, which received the termination of both cylinders, and which at the same time had the strand of copper wire moving along through the centre. The strands were drawn by revolving drum between the cylinders, and through the dies. They entered the entered the die naked bright copper wire, and issued from it thick, dull-looking cords, a complete coating of gutta percha have been attached to them as they traversed the dies. Then a series of three lengths of the strand received the second coating together. Third coating communicated to a solitary strand. The strand and its triple coating of gutta percha were together designated ‘the core’.

The copper strand was formed and coated with gutta percha in two-mile (3.2km) lengths. Each of these lengths, when completed was immersed in water, and then carefully tested to prove that the continuity and insulation were both perfect. The continuity was ascertained by passing a voltaic current of low power the strand from a battery fo a single pair of plates, and causing it to record a signal after issuing from the wire. A different and very remarkable was adopted to determine the amount of insulation. One pole of a voltaic battery, consisting of 500 pairs of plates, was connected with the earth: the other pole was united with to a wire which coiled around a needle of a very sensitive horizontal galvanometer, and then ran on to the insulated strand of the core, the end of which was turned up in the air, and left without any conducting communication. If the insulation was perfect, the earth would form one pole of the battery, and the end of the insulated strand the other pole, and the be quite open and uninterrupted; consequently no current would pass, and the needle of the galvanometer would not be deflected in the slightest degree. If on the other hand there was any imperfection, or permeability in the sheath of gutta percha, a portion of the electricity would force its way from the strand through the faulty places and surrounding water to earth, a current would be set up, and the needle of the galvanometer deflected; the deflection being proportion to the current which passed, and therefore its degree would become a measure of the amount of imperfection.

When separate lengths of gutta percha covered core were to be joined together, the gutta percha core was scraped away for a short distance from the ends, and these wires were made to overlap. A piece of copper wire was the attached by firm brazing and inch or two (25.4 or 50.8cm) beyond the joint on one side, tightly bound round until it reached to the same extent on the other side, and there was firmly brazed again. A second binding was then rolled over the first in the same fashion and extended a little way beyond it, and finally several layers of gutta percha were carefully laid over, and all round the joint by the agency of hot irons. If the core on each side of the joint was dragged opposite ways until the joint yielded, the outer vestment of wire unrolled spirally as the ends were pulled asunder, and so the conducting continuity of the strand was maintained although the mechanical continuity of the strand itself was broken.

The two-mile coils of completed and proved core were would on large drums with projecting flanges on each side, the rims of which were shod with iron tires, so that they could be rolled about as broad wheels, and made to perform their own locomotive offices as far as possible. When the core was in position on these channelled3.22 drum, the circumference of the drum was closed in carefully by a sheet of gutta percha, which this constituted its core-filled channel a sort of cylindrical box or packing case. In this snug nest each completed coil of core was wheeled and dragged away to be transferred to the manufactory at, either at Birkenhead or Greenwich.’

The Atlantic Telegraph Company let two contracts, each to armour 1,250 nautical miles (2,318km) of cable core, to two separate companies, R S Newall & Co in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, and Glass, Elliot & Co at Enderby Wharf:

Cable Core

Drums of Cable Core

The core filled drums having been arrived at the factory of the Cable, the drums were mounted on axels, and kept ready so that on extremity of the length of core might be attached to the Cable as it was spun out, when the drum previously in used had been exhausted. During the unrolling of the core from the drum, it was wound tightly round with a serving of hemp, saturated with a composition made chiefly of pitch and tar, the winding being effected by revolving bobbins as the core was drawn along. This hemp serving constituted a bed for the external coat of metallic wires, and prevented the insulating sheath of gutta percha from being injured by pressure during the final stage of construction. Reach new length of core was attached to the Cable by precisely the same operation as that used at the gutta percha works in joining 2 miles (3.22km) for testing; shortly b4efore an old drum was exhausted; its remainder was rapidly pulled off and placed in a jointer’s hands. So that it might be made continuous with the core on a new drum, before outgoing Cable began to draw on it.

When the core was covered in with its great coat of hemp and tar, and carefully gauged to ascertain the equality of the dimensions everywhere, it was ready to be turned into the complete Cable. The final operation was affected as the core was drawn up though the centre of a horizontal revolving wheel or table. The table turned with great rapidity, and carried near its circumference eighteen bobbins or drums. Each of these drums was filled with a strand of bright charcoal iron wire, and had two motions, one around the horizontal axis and one round an upright pivot, inserted into the revolving table, so that it delivered its stand always towards the centre of the table as it was carried swiftly round by the revolution. The iron strand was of the same diameter as that which was used for the copper core. There was also seven wires in each strand, exactly like those of the copper strand. Eighteen iron strands were firmly twisted round the central core as the ‘closing machine’ whirled. The core, acted on by the rollers of the machine, rose through the middle of the table, and went up to the ceiling. The iron strands danced around it, as it went up, in a filmy-looking spectre-like cone, which narrowed and grew more matter-of-fact and distinct as it ascended, until it glittered in a compact metallic twist, tightly embracing the core. The eighteen strands of seven-thread wire were used for this metallic envelop in place of eighteen simple wires of the same size as the strand, because by this means greater flexibility and strength were obtained for weight of material employed.

Each strand machine worked day and night, and in the twenty-four hours spun ninety-eight miles (157.7km) of wire into 14 miles (22.5km) of strand. There were several strand machines at work in the factories, and these every twenty-four hours made 2,085 miles (3,366.5km) of wire into 294 miles (473km) of strand. As much as thirty miles (48.2km) of Cable was made in a single day. The entire length of wire, copper and iron employed in the manufacture amounted to 332.500 miles (535,107km), enough to girdle the earth thirteen times.

As the closed Cable was completed, it was drawn out from the wall of the factory, and passed through a cistern containing pitch and tar, and was then coiled in broad pits in the outer yard (each layer of the coil having been again brushed over with pitch and tar), and there remained until embarked on the board the vessel which conveyed it to its final home. At both Greenwich and Birkenhead works, four Cables, each three hundred miles (483km) long, were simultaneously in process of construction. These were finally united together into a continuous, as the cable was stowed away in the vessel that carried it to sea.’

Cable Yard

Cable Yard at Glass, Elliot & Co

The cable was finally loaded onto HMS Agamemnon. Because of the vessel’s draft and the rise and fall of the tide, the ship was moored some 100 yards (91.44m) off the factory wall, just inshore of the main river flow, and the cable was transferred on pulleys over a series of catenaries suspended from barges.


HMS Agamemnon Loading Cable at Enderby Wharf 1857

The History of Submarine Telegraph Cable Manufacture on the Greenwich Peninsula.

The recorded history of this part of the Greenwich Peninsula can be traced back to the year 918 to learn more (Early History Page). The manufacture of submarine cable dates to October 1851, when W Küper & Co armoured 5 nautical miles (9.3km) of cable, part of the 25 nautical miles (46.4km) laid between Dover and Calais. It was the first commercially successful submarine telegraph cable and provided telegraph service between London and Paris. The formation of W Küper & Co began on 8 March 1841, through the granting of a patent for untwisted iron rope to Johann Baptiste Wilhelm Heimann, a merchant based in Ludgate Hill, London. The patent related to improvements in the manufacture of wire ropes and cables.

In 1842, Heimann and Johann George Wilhelm Küper (1813-71) formed a partnership to make wire rope in London. They set up their factory on the Grand Surrey Canal in Camberwell, but in 1848 the business went bankrupt. One of the company’s major customers, the mining engineer George Elliot (1814-93), was appointed as the company’s administrator, and over the next two years he reduced the outstanding debt.

Elliot was at that time the leading owner of coal mines in the British Isles, and so had a keen interest in the supply of high quality wire rope. The company was re-registered as W Küper & Co, claiming itself ‘The original patentees of untwisted iron rope’. The business quickly grew, finding significant new markets for its wire ropes in mines and as standing rigging on ships, including several major contracts with Britain’s Royal Navy.

Offices were opened at 115 Leadenhall Street in Central London. The Camberwell site was expanded, and a new factory was opened on property leased from Morden College at what is now Morden Wharf, on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from Enderby Wharf. The leasing of Morden Wharf is believed to have occurred early in 1851, although records are unclear.

In late 1850, the armouring of the 1851 English Channel cable had been entrusted to Wilkins and Wetherly, a wire rope manufacturer based in Wapping High Street, London, some distance from the River Thames. However, an injunction against Wilkins and Weatherly was obtained by Scotsman Robert Stirling Newall (1812-89), due to infringement of his 1840 patent, and this caused the works to be closed. R S Newall & Co, then based in Gateshead, had tendered for the work but had failed to receive a response from the cable purchasers, the Anglo-French Telegraph Company. Newall was able to take over the project, modify the machinery in the Wapping factory, and bring in his own labour force from Gateshead. The majority of the cable was made on the Wilkins and Wetherly site, but to complete the project a small amount of cable was later purchased from W Küper & Co, this was made it on the Morden Wharf site in October 1851. That year George Elliot had become the sole proprietor of W Küper & Co, having paid off the creditors, bought out the original company directors, and promoted Richard Atwood Glass (1820-73) to be the company’s chief accountant.

Richard Atwood Glass was educated at King’s College, London; he had then become a trained accountant and had played a significant role in the recovery of W Küper & Co. In 1852, he suggested to Elliot that there could be a significant business opportunity in protecting submarine cable with iron wire armouring. Elliot agreed, and W Küper & Co secured a number of such contracts, including a Sweden to Denmark cable and the initial unsuccessful Mediterranean cables for the Brett Brothers.

In 1854, Elliot took Glass into partnership and Glass, Elliot & Co was formed, absorbing the W Küper business. In that year, the Gutta Percha Company supplied W Küper & Co with 700 nautical miles (1,300 kilometres) of insulated core. The market continued to grow rapidly, and when Glass, Elliot & Co was awarded the contract for armouring the Atlantic Telegraph the Morden Wharf factory was too small to accommodate the volume of cable involved. To deliver this contract Glass, Elliot made an agreement to share the purchase of the derelict Enderby Hemp & Rope Works (Hemp & Rope Works Page) with a rival submarine cable manufacturer, William Thomas Henley (1814-82). The partnership did not last long, and Henley soon moved his manufacturing facilities to North Woolwich, leaving Glass, Elliot in sole control of the Enderby site. The Morden Wharf factory was retained until some time begore 1896, when all production had been consolidated on the Enderby Wharf site.

The 1857 and 1858 attempts ended in failure and so the project stalled. It was Glass who recognised that in order for the Atlantic Telegraph to be a success it needed a single company to be responsible for all aspects of the project. He did not have the influence to bring this about, but Manchester cotton merchant John Pender (1816-96) was able to do it. He achieved this by putting up a personal guarantee of £250k (equivalent of £14m today) to persuading the directors of the Gutta Percha Co and Glass, Elliot & Co to merge. The new company was registered as the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co and was incorporated in 1864 with John Pender as its first chairman. This company would be known as ‘Telcon’ and it manufactured cables for the Atlantic route in 1865 and again in 1866, when the cable was finally successful. Telcon went on to dominate the market for the supply of submarine telegraph cable for almost 100 years.

Global Expansion

From the Enderby Wharf site Telcon manufactured and laid cables around the world. The Atlantic cables to Canada and the USA were extended into the Caribbean Islands. India was connected to the UK, via Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Aden in 1870. By 1872, the network had been extended to Australia and China, via Singapore and Hong Kong and then across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1876. Cables to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina were laid and in service by 1878, then a land line, from Bueno Aires to Valparaiso built in 1892 connect the UK with cables up the west coast of South America to Lima in Peru. There were cables down the east and west coasts of Africa to the Cape Colonies (now South Africa) going into service in 1879 and 1889 respectively. The east coast cable was extended from Zanzibar to Mauritius and the Seychelles when Zanzibar became a British Protectorate in 1892.

Enderby Wharf 1884

Enderby Wharf 1886

(Courtesy of Jane Claire Wall)

During the 1880s, although some new routes were opened up the majority of cable was manufacture to duplicate, then triplicate major routes to provide network resilience. Almost all of these cables were made for cable operating companies under the control of John Pender, who had stood down as Chairman of Telecon in 1868 but still retained a large stock holding in the company.

Telcon’s dominance continued into the twentieth century, when in 1901 the company was awarded the supply contract for the first transpacific telegraph cable system. The system linked Australia with Canada via Fiji and included the longest ever single span telegraph system of 3,458nm (6,416km) between Bamfield on Vancouver Island, Canada, and Fanning Island, now part of Kiribati. All the cable was made in Greenwich and the system went into service in 1902. Through the completion of this massive project, Telcon could claim, as Puck did in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that its cable had ‘put a girdle round about the earth’. In 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway had completed, connecting east and west coasts. Telegraphy lines ran alongside the track and this gave the British total control of a telegraph network across the Atlantic and Pacific to Australasia and from there back over the original route to the UK. Although Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the terrestrial telegraph from Alexandria to Suez was state owned, it was effectively a British Protectorate, so the UK did control a telegraph network that girdled the earth. However, the bridging of the Pacific marked the zenith of submarine telegraphy.

Industry Decline

By the end of 1901, a young Italian-Irish engineer, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), had proved that it was possible to send telegraph messages across the Atlantic wirelessly. However, cable manufacture remained important during the first decade of the twentieth century, as early experiments with radio telegraph proved to be unreliable. With the start of the First World War, submarine cable manufacture at Greenwich was largely switched to making ‘trench cable’ for connecting military field telegraphs and telephones.

Marconi went back to the drawing board to improve the reliability and security of his radio telegraphy. As a result of his success, in 1919, Marconi was granted an operating licence and commercial radio (wireless) telegraphy became a viable commercial competitor to cables. Short-wave radio could send telegraph signals at three times the speed of telegraph cables, using a fifth of the power and at a twentieth of the cost. The only benefit that cables could offer was security, which remained essential for business, government and military traffic. The glory days for submarine telegraph cables were over.

It was know that cable capacitance limited the rate at which telegraph signals couls be transmitted. The problem was obcercome by a technique, known as “loading”, which involved the inclusion in the cable construction of an alloy tape with special magnetic properties. In 1924 Telcon supplied the Western Union Telegraph Company, the predominant US telegraph operator, with a transatlantic cable between New York and Horta in the Azores capable of a transmission rate of 1,500 words a minute. Further developments involving the use of Mumetal, developed in Greenwich, in the form of a wire more easily incorporated in the cable and giving better performance, increased the capacity to 3,000 words a minute by 1928.

Throughout the 19th century the manufacture of submarine telegraph cable was an entirely British preserve and virtually all of the companies that made the cable were based on the River Thames. Because of its size and the support of John Pender’s Eastern Telegraph companies, Telcon dominated the market and one by one it vanquished most of its competitors. R S Newall & Co in Birkenhead left the industry in 1870, followed by W T Henley’s at North Woolwich in 1900. Hooper’s Telegraph & India Rubber Works, based in Millwall Docks, left the industry in 1910, and the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Co in Silvertown went out of business in 1922. The only other manufacturer remaining in England was Telcon’s long-standing competitor, Siemens Brothers, with its factory downriver on the south bank of the Thames at Woolwich. The only foreign competition was a French company, La Société Industrielle des Téléphones, with its factory in Calais, which began cable production in 1891. This company would become part of Alcatel in 1970.

By the mid-1920s, competition from Marconi’s radio telegraphy and telephony networks depressed the submarine cable supply market. Telcon had diversified into other products, as had Siemens Brothers, so in 1935 they agreed to merge their submarine cable divisions and form a new joint venture company, Submarine Cables Limited (SCL). It was agreed that the Greenwich site of Telcon, rather the Siemens factory at Woolwich, would become the manufacturing base and headquarters of SCL which became the sole British supplier of submarine telegraph cables. SCL continued to manufacture submarine telegraph cables until the mid 1950s, when the industry moved from the Telegraph Era to the Telephone Era.

SCL 1946

The Submarine Cables Factory in 1946

For information about cable from the Telephone Era. (1970 Cable Page)

For information about cable from the Optical Era. (Optical Fibre Cable Page)

A more detailed history of cable manufacturing on the Enderby Wharf site go to:


For more information about the exploits of John Pender you may be interest his biography called ‘The Cable King’, published in April 2018 and available through Amazon: