Communicating Underwater

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

Concerns of Empire

In 1857 a major mutiny broke out in British-controlled India. News of the rebellion and a request for extra troops raced across India by telegraph. From India the message moved slowly by ship to Egypt, crossed Egypt by land, and then inched across the Mediterranean to Italy, where it sped along a wire to London. Forty days after the mutiny broke out, the vital message reached London. Before the telegraph it would have taken about three months. Thus the telegraph, it was said, saved India for Britain in the worst rebellion the empire had experienced since the American Revolution.

The empire’s near-death experience pushed a panicked Britain into supporting and subsidizing a cable under the Red Sea to cut communication time to India. Cables to America were a purely private affair, since there were no strategic reasons for the British government to get involved—but when it came to preserving its geographic dominance, the British spent heavily and not always wisely.

Gutta Percha Company factory

Machines cover cable wire with gutta percha at the Gutta Percha Company's factory in London.

After a diversion during which Siemens supplied land telegraphy equipment to the Russians and the British in the Crimean War, he focused his efforts on cable telegraphy in the British market. Siemens supervised the electrical and instrumental side of the 1859 Red Sea British cable-laying effort. The cable quickly failed: the thin armoring rusted, and worms ate their way through the insulation. All in all, this failure cost the British government £36,000 per year for the next 50 years.

Despite this expensive failure Britain soon developed a preference for undersea cables to connect its far-flung colonies rather than relying on aboveground telegraphs running through foreign countries. The gutta percha covered “red routes,” (named after the red color used on maps to define British colonies and dominions); avoided untrained telegraph clerks with little knowledge of the English language relaying progressively more garbled messages; and began and ended in areas under British control, thus foiling attempts at espionage.

In contrast, when the first (failed) transatlantic cable was completed, President Buchanan declared his hope that the cable might “prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship . . . and an instrument designed by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, liberty, and law throughout the world.” Though American businessmen were probably more interested in knowing the price of grain in Europe, Buchanan was not alone in his hopes. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the mastermind behind the Suez Canal, wrote that such 19th-century technologies as the railway and submarine telegraphy all had the same purpose: “to bring peoples closer together and thereby to bring about an era in which men, by knowing one another, will finally stop fighting.” Sir John Pender, politician and owner of multiple telegraph companies, insisted that “telegraphs know no politics.”

Behind such lofty ideals lay the belief that quicker communications would also diffuse trouble; after all, Africa and India and Europe were only a few virtual hours away from each other. Likewise, Washington, London, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin could quickly respond to potential trouble near their borders or from within their colonies.

Yet Pender worked closely with successive British governments to promote the empire’s cable interests. Telegraphy, particularly submarine telegraphy, soon became a source of growing tensions between European powers toward the end of the 19th century. 

At the heart of the trouble lay British domination of the making and the laying of cables. Britain’s control over gutta-percha supplies and its significant head start in cable-making and cable-laying technology created insurmountable barriers for other countries. Talented men, like the German Siemens, had to work for British companies. And most of the world’s important traffic moved along British cables.

The British branch of government that dealt with foreign affairs was soon overwhelmed by a deluge of messages. Previously civil servants might take a month to respond to dispatches from Africa, but cables upped the tempo. Stressed bureaucrats rushed to respond to ever-increasing piles of messages often without time enough to read them in order or even to familiarize themselves with necessary background information.

The 1858 telegraphic messages of Queen Victoria and President Buchanan.

The 1858 telegraphic messages of Queen Victoria and President Buchanan.

Cables also gave more power to the men on location, since they sent updates to London and controlled the flow of information. Occasionally London bureaucrats and politicians were surprised to learn by cable that Britain had suddenly acquired new territories. For example, in 1883 New Guinea was annexed by those on the scene in Australia: the British government was informed only after the event.

As western powers scrambled for colonies and riches in Asia and Africa, they collided with each other, creating tensions that could not be resolved back in Europe. Britain’s role at the center of the world’s information network only exacerbated ill will. Knowledge of political, commercial, or military importance to France or Germany landed first on British soil. News of the defeat of the French in battle against the Chinese in 1885 was sent to the French government via British cables and reached the British ambassador in Paris before the news was heard by the French government. Those annoyed by British control accused British telegraphy companies of giving priority to telegrams heading to Britain and holding up those destined for other countries. Finally, the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 rammed home the message that Britain would use its control over undersea cables to censor and even block German and French communications in Africa when necessary. This “bond of perpetual peace and friendship” broke under political tension. The result was a race by other European powers to develop their own cable systems.

The 1898 Spanish-American War brought communication  conflicts into the open when the United States attempted to cut all cables leading into and out of Cuba. Lacking charts of cable positions and the specialized ships and equipment needed to raise and cut cables, the military failed to break Cuban contact with Spain.

Knowing how to repair cables also meant knowing how to cut them, and, even by 1914 and the outbreak of World War I,  Britain still proved the most skilled. Within a few hours of Britain declaring war, the cable ship Telconia lifted and cut all the cables that connected Germany to the rest of the world. Verne’s internationalist hopes for the cables, of “goodwill towards men,” had failed as utterly as the first Atlantic cables.