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Cable Ships at Work

The history of cable ships begins with the laying of the first successful cable between England and France in the middle of the last century. Despite tremendous opposition and heavy misfortune, the laying of the Atlantic cable began a new era in world communications.


A POST OFFICE CABLE SHIP, the Monarch, successor to the famous Monarch of 1883, is a twin-screw vessel of 1,150 tons gross, built at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1916. The Monarch berths off the Post Office Cable Depot at Woolwich, on the River Thames. She has a length of 222 ft 8-in, a beam of 32 ft 2-in and a moulded depth of 22 feet.

THE first commercially successful submarine telegraph cable to be laid was that between England and France. The cable left the English coast close to the South Foreland (Kent) lighthouse and reached France near Cape Sangatte, south of Calais. This cable was laid in 1850-51, and during the following ten years submarine cables were laid in many of the narrow seas, joining England with Ireland, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Italy and Corsica and Corsica and Africa were also linked together by submarine cable.

These successes astounded the sceptics, for, in common with most other innovations, the submarine telegraph was widely regarded as a foolish dream, and engineers and promoters were frequently hailed as charlatans and hood-winkers of the public.

Many had been fired with the magnificent idea of joining Europe with America by telegraph, and numbers of projects had been suggested, but that stubborn, reactionary sentiment which found expression in accusations of dishonesty or in cheap sneers at the pioneers held things up for several years.

Eventually three men, Mr. Brett (who had put a cable across the English Channel), Sir Charles Bright and Cyrus Field, a retired American merchant, banded themselves together and floated the first Atlantic Telegraph Company. After financial difficulties and vicissitudes of one sort or another, work was started, and in 1857 HMS Agamemnon and the U.S. frigate Niagara began to lay the great cable, going westward from Ballycarberry Strand, Ireland, towards Newfoundland.

In those days it was almost impossible to pick up a cable once it had been laid, and therefore every effort was concentrated on preventing the cable from breaking as it was being paid out over the stern of the Niagara. But paying-out gear was crude, and on the fourth day out a sudden cry of horror rang out on the frigate’s deck and was echoed throughout all the accompanying ships. During a rather violent pitch of the ship’s stern the cable had snapped and the torn end had vanished instantly and irreclaimably into the depths.

To-day that incident would have entailed merely an annoying delay. In 1857 it was a disaster, and a sorrowful company of men returned to England, deeply chagrined at their failure and with the knowledge that £100,000 had been spent in vain.

However, the indomitable spirit of the sponsors of the Atlantic cable beat down all difficulties. More money was raised, and in 1858 another attempt was made. By this time paying-out gear had been improved. Professor Thomson had invented a sensitive means of receiving messages through the cable, and Sir Charles Bright’s idea of splicing the cable in mid-Atlantic and then sending two ships towards the shores of Ireland and Newfoundland respectively was agreed to. While making for the rendezvous in mid-Atlantic the Agamemnon encountered one of the worst storms ever recorded in that area. Despite the terrific buffeting she had received, the Agamemnon kept the rendezvous, the splice was made and the ships parted company. But ill-luck still dogged this enterprise. Scarcely had three miles of cable been laid before it broke. The ships met again, made a new splice, and set out once more. Four times they had to do this because of breaks, and on the fifth occasion were no more fortunate. When 112 miles separated the two ships the cable again broke, and though they had sufficient cable to try yet once more, the Niagara failed to return to the rendezvous through some mistake in reading orders, and eventually she and the Agamemnon returned despondently to port.

Even this failure did not crush the spirits of the sponsors of the cable. Their optimism was infectious and gradually they instilled courage into their financial backers once more. Thus on July 17, 1868, the ships, which had come to be known as the “Wire Squadron”, made another attempt. This time they were successful. England was joined by cable with America and, after Queen Victoria and the President of the United States had exchanged messages of congratulation, news and commercial information began to flash between the two countries, opening up a new era in international communications.

Now comes one of the saddest chapters in the whole history of these early enterprises. The cable was gradually destroyed by electricity. The chief electrician, Mr. Whitehouse, was of the opinion that currents of a high potential were necessary for signalling, and because of this belief the cable had been worked at a potential of 2,000 volts. This slowly destroyed the insulation, and as the messages became weaker and weaker the strength of the current was increased.

The Second Atlantic Cable

The increase of current only hastened the end, and on October 20, 1878, the cable, laid after the overcoming of such vast difficulties and problems, became silent for ever.

It is now known that this cable might easily have been working to-day, for a message can be sent across the Atlantic and back with a potential of only 2 volts. However, the damage was done, and there was nothing to do but to begin the work all over again.

It is at this point that one of the most famous ships in the world comes into the history of the Atlantic cable. This ship is the Great Eastern, already described in the chapter beginning on page 841. However great a failure this ship was in other walks of life, she was a great success as a cable-laying ship, for she was so large that enough cable to cross the Atlantic could be stored in her. On July 23, 1865, the Great Eastern left the Thames with a total deadweight of 21,000 tons, and sailed for Valentia, Ireland. The shore end was laid and then the Great Eastern turned her bows westward. All went well for 1,186 miles, and then something went wrong with the paying-out gear. Before the ship could be stopped terrific tension had been put on the cable and it broke, the end going down in about 2,000 fathoms.

Two-thirds of the crossing had been made, and the thought of having to give up was heart-breaking. But after two unsuccessful attempts to raise the cable by grappling had failed, the Great Eastern had to return sorrowfully to England.

She had, however, proved herself an ideal vessel for cable-laying, and on June 30, 1866, she again set out. This time nothing but good fortune attended the enterprise.

The whole of the cable between Ireland and Newfoundland was completed, and as soon as the ends had been connected with the existing lines, London and New York were once more in telegraphic communication. The Great Eastern later laid cables from England to France and to Scandinavia, and in 1870 she laid the famous Suez-Aden-Bombay cable.

HE SHEAVES AND PAYING-OUT GEAR AT THE BOWS of a cable ship, the Dominia

THE SHEAVES AND PAYING-OUT GEAR AT THE BOWS of a cable ship, the Dominia (illustrated below). Similar sheaves are fitted at the stern, but the usual practice in tideways is to pay out cable over the bows because the ship then answers her helm better.

The first ship to be permanently fitted out for the purpose of cable-laying was the Monarch, which also had the honour to be the first ship to grapple for a lost cable and successfully carry out a repair. She was a wooden paddle steamer of 500 tons, already twenty-three years old when pressed into the cable service in 1853. The first vessel from which any submarine cable was laid was the Goliath, a tug which put down the cable between England and France in 1850-51.

When the Post Office took over the cables of the United Kingdom in 1870 the Monarch was transferred from her owners, the Electric Company, but did not do much work as she broke down shortly after the change. In 1883 a new Monarch was built, and she was in her time one of the finest cable ships, or telegraph ships, as the Post Office prefers to call them. She was destroyed

during the war of 1914-18, being either blown up by a mine or torpedoed close to the British shore.

There is, however, still a Monarch in the service of the Post Office. She is a twin-screw vessel of 1,150 tons gross and berths at the Post Office Cable Depot at Woolwich. She was built in 1916. Her chief work comprises the maintenance of all Post Office cables leaving British shores, especially in the English Channel, where the telegraph and telephone cables with France carry a heavy load of traffic. The Post Office also has a smaller vessel, the Alert, of 941 tons gross, for carrying out repairs.

The first of all ships to be laid down on the slips especially for cable work was the Hooper, which was built on the Tyne in 1870 for Hooper’s Telegraph Works, Ltd. When she entered the Port of London in 1872 she was the largest steamer which had ever been in the Thames with the exception of the Great Eastern. The Hooper had a total carrying capacity of 8,000 tons, being able to store about 2,500 nautical miles of cable, and she could remain at sea for four months without refuelling.

In 1873 followed another remarkable cable ship, the Faraday, designed by Sir William Siemens. She was a double-ended vessel with hand and steam steering gear at either end. She had two funnels placed abreast instead of fore and aft, thus enabling the cable to have a clear run along the centre of the ship to the sheaves. A new Faraday was built in 1923.

The honour of laying one of the longest cables in the world, the first great cable between Vancouver and Fanning Island (one of the Line Islands in the Pacific), fell to the Colonia, belonging to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. This ship, built in 1902, was of 8,017 tons. She laid many cables during her career, and in 1914-15 laid a cable between Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, and Alexandrovsk, Russia, to create a line of communication with the bases in Northern Russia.

The world’s largest cable ship, before her sale in 1936, was the Dominia. She was built in 1926, and is of 9,273 tons gross, with an overall length of 509 feet. She has twin screws and burns oil. She had four cable tanks. She was built for the purpose of duplicating the Vancouver-Fanning Island cable and carried from London 3,627 miles of cable, weighing 8,594 tons. Later she carried the great load of 9,547 tons of cable, 2,144 miles in length, for work on behalf of the Italian Cable Company, and the All-American Cable Company. In 1936 she was sold to become a whaling depot ship.

Considering the loads they carry, cable ships have at all times been singularly free from trouble, apart from the incidents of war and isolated tragedies such as the sinking of the cable ship La Plata. Laden with cable for South America, she foundered off Ushant in a severe gale in November 1874. She went down stern first with a loud explosion, and only one boat, with fifteen survivors, succeeded in getting away.

IA CABLE STORAGE TANK in a cable shipt fell to the lot of a cable ship to be lost during that terrible catastrophe of 1902, the eruption of Mont Pelee in the Leeward Islands. Eighteen ships were sunk off Martinique, among them the cable ship Grappler, which had been busily engaged in restoring telegraphic communication after the first eruption. The Grappler was the first vessel to catch fire during this disaster and she was soon seen to turn over and disappear. Ships engaged on cable work are regarded more or less as “out of control”. To warn ships away from the cable-laying vessels and to prevent collisions or damage to the cable, they have to carry signals similar to the “out of control” signals. By day the signal is two red globes with a white diamond in the centre, by night two red lights with a white light in the centre. These must be visible all round the horizon by day and for a distance of at least two miles by night.

A CABLE STORAGE TANK in a cable ship. These tanks are circular chambers in which the cable is carefully coiled. The tanks are kept flooded to prevent the gutta-percha covering of the cable from cracking. The illustration shows one of the tanks in the Faraday, a twin-screw vessel of 5,533 tons gross, built in 1923.

On occasion damage is done to submarine cables by submarine earthquake or volcanic eruption. The damage which a movement of the earth’s crust can do to a cable is enormous, for not only will the cable be severed but also many miles of it may be buried under tons of primeval ooze and cannot be reached by grapnels.

The science of seismometry has done good service to cable-owning companies by giving them information as to the localities most likely to be visited by earthquake. In earlier days sudden breakages of the cable were inexplicable and sometimes gave rise to extraordinary and sensational explanations. For instance, in 1888 three cables connecting Australia with the rest of the world broke simultaneously, and the sudden silence of these means of communication was put down to some hostile act, heralding an outbreak of war. Australia, therefore, called out her military and naval reserves. The silence of the cables was later found to

be due to a great earthquake which had occurred in the depths of the Indian Ocean.

In 1891 the Lisbon-Madeira section of the Brazilian Telegraph Company’s system broke in 1,500 fathoms not far from Madeira. On the same day an immense “tidal wave” was observed. It was concluded at the time that the wave and the break were in some way connected. To-day seismometry can tell us that such a wave was not caused by the tide, but was thrown up either by earthquake or volcano, the action of which also destroyed the cable.

Serious Underwater Upheaval

One of the most serious submarine earthquakes known was that which took place as recently as 1921 in the North Atlantic at a point near the American coast where many transatlantic cables converge. The interruption in traffic was serious, and the cable companies called up every available cable ship to go out and make good the damage.

The Dominia, the Faraday and four or five other vessels left England and gathered in a radius of about 300 square miles. They found the work exceedingly arduous. Gales and hurricanes, with mountainous seas, were experienced, and for days it was impossible to let down grapnels, the ships being hardly able to keep their mark buoys in sight. The Dominia, for instance, put down a mark buoy in 2,840 fathoms and grappled for thirty-five days without finding the cable she sought. Gales and snow blizzards continued, but at last the repairs were carried out.

Many miles of cable had to be abandoned, having been buried under tons of ooze, and the cables found were difficult to bring to the surface because of the depth to which they had been buried by the terrific upheaval of the sea-bed.

During the war of 1914-18 the ships encountered a different kind of difficulty, for in some instances torpedoed ships sank right across the cables and cut them. Then it was necessary to build by-passes round the wrecks. Parts of mined or torpedoed ships were constantly brought up on the cable ships’ grapnels.

The cable ships during the war suffered little considering the danger to which they were exposed. With the exception of the loss of the Post Office’s ship Monarch and the torpedoing of the Dacia by a German submarine off Funchal, Madeira, scarcely any damage was done. The Telconia had a narrow escape in the English Channel. A German submarine sank a merchant vessel close to her and was manoeuvring into position to send a torpedo into the Telconia when, in answer to an SOS, two destroyers and a light cruiser arrived on the scene.

The Telconia also had a narrow escape from a mine. This was seen right ahead while she was at work. Instead of cutting the cable, the captain managed to steer out of the way of the mine, which passed about two feet from the Telconia’s side.


THE WORLD’S LARGEST CABLE SHIP was the Dominia, a twin-screw vessel of 9,273 tons gross. Built at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1926, she has a length of 488 ft 11-in between perpendiculars (509 feet overall), a beam of 59 feet and a depth of 37 ft 5-in. She had four cable tanks and on one occasion carried 2,144 miles of cable weighing 9,547 tons. In 1936 she was sold to become a whaling depot ship.

[From part 50 and part 51, published 19 and 26 January 1937]

You can read more on Laying the Ocean Cables, the Cable Ship Faraday, and the SS Great Eastern in Shipping Wonders of the World; and you can read about The First Atlantic Cable in Wonders of World Engineering