"They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
The telegraph system was one of the technological wonders of the Nineteenth Century. It transformed communications in a profound way and helped to give the British Army a technological superiority over most of her competitors. Its invention was a product of the enthusiasm and skill of industrial revolutionary Britain. William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, a scientist and an entrepreneur, teamed up to forge a devastatingly effective alliance that combined the savvy of both individuals to produce the 'needle telegraph'. Wheatstone came up with the technological aspect whilst Cooke had the foresight to approach the railway companies in order to run their lines along side the railway tracks. On 25 July 1837 the first experimental line with the new telegraph was started. The Great Western Railway Company connected the stations Euston Square and Camden Town over a distance of 2.4 kilometres. It was an outstanding success that not only amazed Victorians but displayed obvious applications for its use. When it was used to broadcast such news as the birth of Queen Victoria's second son, or to catch a murderer who had attempted an escape by train, its acceptance and usefulness was plain for all to see. In fact, the only problem with this initial invention was that the code to transmit messages was rather cumbersome - and in fact only twenty letters were used of the alphabet. Credit for the simplification of the both the hardware and code was to cross the Atlantic to a certain Samuel Morse.
Samuel Morse had a mission in life. A devout Christian, his world had turned upside down when he missed the funeral of his wife due to a message being delivered late. He never wanted anyone to go through the pain that he had endured and so set about perfecting an easy to use message system. His revolution centred around the idea of sending pulses of electricity of two fixed lengths - dots and dashes. The subsequent morse code was so much easier for all to master. He too saw the logic in following the railroad lines and telegraph poles continued their close relationships to the railway lines that were gradually spreading out over the continents of the world. Of course, there were larger scale boundaries that also needed crossing.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a submarine telegraph line was one of the holy grails of Victorian technology. So much so that Sirus Field, a very rich American businessman, personally financed the hiring of two warships, one American and one British (USS Buchanan and HMS Victoria), to simply start in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and pull the wire to the opposing sides of the Atlantic. After a couple of attempts, they did indeed manage to succeed in their endeavour. The President of the United States and Queen Victoria managed to exchange pleasantries across all those thousands of miles. Unfortunately, the line only worked for just over two weeks. The Victorian scientists had not anticipated the high voltages that were required to send messages across those thousands of miles. The cable simply burnt out. It would be seven years before the line was reconnected due to the problem that the new low voltage, well-insulated wires were just too thick for any ship to be able to carry. Until, that was, the SS Great Eastern was launched. This was a behemoth of a ship that dwarfed all other ships by its size and speed. In 1866 she easily connected the two continents together.
Submarine telegraph lines were now spreading across the world as the British government realised the full potential of the technology for governing and communicating with its far flung empire. By 1890, of the inhabited British territories, only Fiji, British Honduras, Tobago, the Falkland Islands, Turks Islands and New Guinea had no cable at all. The importance that Britain invested in this world wide infrastructure is borne out by the statistic that by 1914, 75% of all the world's submarine lines were held by the British. Indeed, within hours of the outbreak of the First World War, the first action taken by any of the British and Imperial Forces around the world was actually taken in Melbourne in Australia. A German merchant ship was fired on by coastal batteries as she attempted to leave port. The German sailor were unaware that a war had broken out! The fact that this took place on the exact opposite side of the world illustrates how much smaller the empire had become with the advent of telegraphy.
Before the advent of this technology, the British government had had to entrust a great deal of local powers to its representatives across the world. When it took three months for a message to travel from a colony back to the capital, waiting for a reply was a luxury that frequently could not be tolerated. The man on the spot was a very powerful figure indeed. With the advent of the telegraph, London could have virtually instantaneous contact with the capitals of her colonies and dominions and conduct business from afar.
Despite all of the advantages, the value of Britain's world wide telegraphic system actually contributed to Britain's strategic worries too. The cables were kept in British colonies or under British controlled seas as much as possible, but this was not always possible and it often had to cross other country's coastal waters or the open sea. Whenever this occurred the British worried about interceptions of messages or of cutting the link altogether. For example, the link to Australia passed over Dutch Java, the South American cable ran through Portugese Madeira, but probably the biggest headache of all to Britain's strategic thinkers was the cable that ran from London to Calcutta. In fact, there were three such cables. One of which ran from Lowestoft to Germany, through Russia, Persia and in to India. Apart from the strategic nightmares of this essential line of communication was the fact that the Germans and Russians were in a position to keep the costs of using this cable artificially high. The second cable was not much better. It ran across Europe to Constantinople, across Turkey to the Persian Gulf and then by cable to Karachi. Little reliance could be placed on the Ottoman empire. The third cable ran from London to Gibraltar to Malta, Egypt to Aden and then on to Bombay. This looked secure enough, but still relied on using Spanish relay stations to boost the signals. Besides, it was generally more economic to send the messages up over France from Malta.
To add to the strategic difficulties the vagaries of the currents and weather caused yet further headaches. Storms, winds, silt, even fishermen could all accidentally disrupt the sending of messages. Combined with the distances involved, it is little wonder the tariffs could be so high. 4 shillings per word to India, and 6s. 9d. to Australia. And yet, the British were convinced that the value of the system was worth the price. All over the world, Englishmen were employed laying or maintaining cables or operating booster stations along the line. The cable manager often became a key member of society for the further flung outposts of imperial society. In Australia, Alice Springs came to life as the central station for the overland 2000 mile Telegraph line stretching from Adelaide to the North. The 36,000 telegraph poles were built years before any road or railway line crossed the continent. But it could be dangerous working in these stations too. In 1874, two cable men were speared to death by Aborigines.
The laying and maintaining of this enormous network must rank as one of the most important achievements of the British Empire. Its scope and utility are hard for us to imagine in a world where instantaneous communications are taken for granted. Before the invention of the telegraph, the speed of communication had changed little since the time of the Romans. Within thirty years of the first twitchings of Cook's and Wheatstone's needle telegraph, the world had been made substantially smaller.
Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames