PK Cable Map 1880's

PK Cable Map 1880's

Monday, 19 December 2011

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) archive material

A great wealth of archive material relating to William Thomson is to be found in both the Cambridge University Library and Glasgow University Library. Much of it ( and there really is a lot) is hard going due to Thomson's very scratchy/scrawly handwriting.

Quite by accident I recently came across some additional material held in the National Archives at Kew.
1. Records referenced BJ refer to Records of the Meteorological Office and BJ1/33 cover a large selection of letters written by William Thomson between around 1860 and 1867

2. Records prefixed PRO/30 refer to a whole bag of domestic records of the Public Records Office and within PRO/30/69 we can find the 1835 files covering James Ramsey McDonald ( a period covering 1793 to 1937) and eventually at PRO/30/69/949 is a file "Lord Kelvin. Various letters . Cable Impulse tape - HMS Agamemnon"
Within that file was the bundled-up length of tape shown in the picture above with the note attached by a somewhat rusty paper clip. It was clearly in a delicate state and I pointed this out to an archivist who was not too concerned and only commented on what an awful lot of conservation work they had to do !!

Much more research is required on both items above and also the tape.

Where was HMS Agamemnon on the date shown ?

There we go .............research is fun and invariably leads on to just having to take a peep at totally unconnected material. If you go to PRO/30/69/1766 for example you will find a file entitled " Poem for H G Wells' Birthday "

Happy Christmas to anyone who reads this before Dec 25th 2011


Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Airgraph

As the Second World War progressed, Allied commitments in Africa, India and Burma grew heavier, and the distance of the fighting forces from home necessitated the invention of a new mail delivery system for the Middle and Far East, that would not involve a voyage by ship around the Cape of Good Hope that could take anywhere from four to six months. By way of a response to this intolerable situation, the GPO and the RAF devised a new system of air mail communication with troops stationed overseas - the Airgraph.

The problem, as the GPO saw it, was how to send hundreds (if not thousands) of letters in the space that would ordinarily be required for one. The solution was 'micro-photography':

The sender begins by asking his local post office for an airgraph form. This is handed to him with a 'stern injunction not to fold or crease it, and to write distinctly'. Once filled in, it was retured to the Post Office where it would be sent to London, 'where the real work begins...'

'A girl is seated before what looks like a flat-topped metal desk, with a slit in its surface just wide enough to admit a single form. Below the surface is a 16-millimeter movie camera, and each form, upon being dropped down the slit, automatically switches on an electric light which illuminates it just long enough - a fraction of a second - to be photographed by the camera.'

The final result is a strip of film 100 feet long and 16 millimeters wide, displaying a continuous succession of 1,700 airgraph photographs. The whole affair, with the little metal container in which it is coiled, weights 5 1/2 ounces. If the letters had been sent by ordinary letter-post and in their original form they would have weighed 50lbs.

'Reduced to this minimum of size and weight, the airgraphs travel by aeroplane to their destination. Here the process is reversed: the film negative is thrown by a projecting machine on to a moving strip of sensitised paper, the result this time being a series of positive photographs of the original forms, of the size familiar to all to-day.'

The strip was then cut up, each airgraph 'enveloped' and delivered. It was also possible to order duplicates of lost or damaged airgraphs - as the GPO still held the negatives.

The service was discontinued in 1945, after being deemed no longer necessary. While it was in operation, however, approximately 330,000,000 airgraphs had been sent and received.

DOC/GPO/12/2 - 'The Post Office Went to War'; 1946.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

W. H. Ash and his descendant.

Just heard from Ann Lewis, an Emeritus Professor of Education at Birmingham University, who's descendant of PK's second superintendent. She asked me to provide a link to the Nerve Centre of Empire website and details about Ash materials in the C&W archive, and naturally I asked her about family papers handed down. I'm sure some of you know the chap called Roger whom she mentions.

"Many thanks for the speedy and full reply- I was thrilled to hear back from you so quickly and with so much info.

Sorry I don’t have any photos or letters, I have a silver plate (I think given to WH when he left London for Porthcurno in 1877, a slightly smaller version of the one in your exhibition at Porthcurno) and my brother has some other artefacts including a silver inkwell inscribed to WH from St Leven. We have been strangely very short indeed on family info. I knew only that a relative had had some involvement at Porthcurno. So you can imagine how very surprised I have been to discover more about WH’s story and his significant role there.

My grandfather was Arthur Stanley Ash (WH’s son), AS had one son – my father Gerald, and I have a younger brother (Roger Ash) and older sister. Arthur retired early to the Lizard from Essex/London so my brother and I spent all our childhood holidays in Cornwall. The only reference to local family history that I can recall were dire warnings about the dangers of the sea (Arthur had at least one brother who drowned [age 27] although I only discovered that recently). Roger [who has a smallholding near Helston and has talked a while back with some people at the Telegraph museum] is a hydrographic surveyor involved in the laying of deep sea cables for gas /oil. As an educationalist / psychologist I have always argued for nurture over nature so it is disconcerting to discover the close family involvement in the laying of deep sea oil pipes / telegraph cables over a century apart!

Yes please- re sending a copy of your exhibition booklet – that would be fantastic [am happy to pay any costs re copying/postage. If it is eformat pl send to this address; if hard copy pl send to my home address below].

I visited the museum a couple of weeks ago and thought it was excellent- indeed it has triggered my rooting around the web and contacting you. Roger is currently working offshore and has not seen the new exhibition- I know he’ll be similarly impressed and will visit again asap.

Thanks again."

Friday, 30 September 2011

If you are in London on 12th October...........

See the following link for information about the forthcoming meeting of the Newcomen Society at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday 12th October.

I hope that we might see you there.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Ebay items

If, like me, you have a naughty habit of collecting bits of old telegraph kit, check out the following ebay items, all rather too expensive for me:

Section of submarine cable made by Silvertown Telegraph Works:

It's amazing what you find on ebay. There was a sample of mumetal on there a while back, with the original Telcon label!

Enjoy, and happy bidding!


Thursday, 22 September 2011

PK on the BBC next month

The BBC have now advised us of the details of the screening of their new series " The Story of Electricity" which brought their production team to Porthcurno in February this year.
In three parts starting with "Shock & Awe" on Thursday 6th October it is on BBC4 at 9.00pm.
The second episode which we believe will contain some footage at PK is called " The Age of Invention" and this will run at the same time, same channel on Thursday 13th October.

The star of the series is Professor Jim Al Khalili ( above) and we can already get a flavour of the series by going to the BBC "Sneak Preview" on You Tube at :

Tell your friends ! ...........and look out for the credits !!

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Whilst researching the work carried out by Dr Wildman Whitehouse prior to the laying of the 1858 Atlantic telegraph cable I came across an interesting set of curves plotted by him in June 1857. They relate to measurements he made on a length of cable using his magneto-electrometer ( more on this item to follow) and utilising both voltaic cells and induction coils as an energising source.
The curves were uncovered in the Library & Archives of the Science Museum at Wroughton . Interested to discover whether the shape of the curves were electrically meaningful my colleague Donard de Cogan did some work on them using a tool known as TLM ( Transmission Line Matrix) ...............the results of this work were written up and have been published by the IET in ‘Science Measurement and Technology’ Vol. 5, Issue 4, pp.117-124.

A PDF copy of the paper can be found on the PK website at

So what might one conclude from all that ?
Whitehouse, his instruments and his (alleged) 'non-scientific' approach to his work have all been heavily criticised by historians over the past 150 years. The main reason for this is that he was made the scapegoat for the failure of the 1858 cable and anything and everything he did before or after that event has been largely ignored by by historians. Even present day writers invariably refer to Whitehouse as setting the benchmark for scientific inadequacy. The fact that with his magneto-electrometer he was able to make such sensitive measurements as required to plot the curves goes some way to support an argument that he deserved a rather better 'press' .
As Shakespeare had it in Julius Caesar: ' The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones'.

Allan Green

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Sir John Pender Trophy ?

About 4 years ago I was sent this photograph by an ex-colleague who claims that it was the Sir John Pender Trophy. He believed that it was awarded for some aspect of cable laying, that it was solid silver and had cable routes marked in inlaid gold.

It seems that it had been brought to his attention by a dealer in antiques who knowing of his interests in submarine telegraphy went on to tell him that it had just been sold in Tehran for £1million !

I had forgotten all about it until I came across the photo the other day...............I am not particularly interested but thought that it might be of interest to those researching history of the ETCo........................

Don't tell me it's sitting in the PK archive ! Perhaps, however, there are better photos and something about its history ?


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Traffic on the 1858 transatlantic telegraph cable

I have plotted above the number of words received ( i.e. read and understood) at each end of the cable from August 5th, the day it was landed in each country, through to the 1st of September 1858.The traffic west to east clearly got off to a better start and was of higher volume than in the other direction.

There is a lot more to this story which I hope to publish shortly but one thing is worth thinking about...................Note the traffic levels before and after 'the gap' at the 18th August which was the date that Whitehouse was recalled to London, dismissed and replaced by William Thomson on 19th August.

When was it might we suppose that Whitehouse blew-up the cable with his "giant induction coils"........?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Highways of the Empire

This would be a great find, if it could be found! In a report of the ETC's Ordinary General Meeting for June 1925, the chairman John Denison-Pender referred to a promotional film that the company that had been shown on its stand at the British Empire Exhibition, the year before. Called "Highways of the Empire", it shows "cable manufacture, cable laying and repairing, and transmission".

I've checked on the BFI catalogue and it's not there so maybe it's at PTM?


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

George Draper

Just been trying to find some details about cable signalling patents when I came across this part of the BBC's "History of the World" website concerning the transatlantic cables.

There's a comment at the bottom from one Bruce Henderson who says:

"I was very interested to see this item imcluded in the list of 100 objects. My GGgrandfather, George Draper was, for 35 years, secretary to Eastern Telegraph co, which was the company that operated the telegraph systems round the world. In the year of his retirement, 1903, there was an International Telegraph conference in London. I have a book of cuttings and invitations to the various events held. Telegraph Construction and Maintenace Co , of London, which manufactured and laid the cable; notably the original transatlantic cables, using the good ship Great eastern."

It would be fascinating to contact Mr. Henderson and find out what he's got -- unless PTM staff have already done so? Has anybody heard of him?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Double click on image for a better view

In PK NEWS Issue 46 John has written an interesting piece, 'Money Mistakes and the Birth of Science' which includes a section about the mid-atlantic ridge.

Making soundings across the Atlantic in the mid 1800's was a long and laborious task. The number of soundings made along a track would to a large extent dictate the accuracy and worth of the exercise. In mid-atlantic it took anything up to four hours to get a line to the bottom and back up again and in some cases bottom was not reached............Lieutenant Maury's measurements were taken as the best available and what he called the 'Telegraph Plateau' would have appeared as very good news to the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Unfortunately he and others who followed were quite wrong about the profile of the sea-bed along the track from Valentia on the west coast of Ireland to Newfoundland.

I have been doing some work recently on this subject with very helpful assistance from Global Marine Services who hold uptodate bathymetric surveys for many parts of the world's oceans including the Atlantic.
With their help we have superimposed a recent survey on the 1850's plots of Lieutenant Maury and British navy man Lieutenant Dayman RN in HMS Cyclops .
In the image above it is difficult to see much detail, however the RED line is the 21st century plot which shows some interesting features:

  • The very steep transition where the Irish shelf ends.
  • The area around 350 nm from the Irish coast which is the zone where it was believed the major fault occurred in the 1858 cable.
  • Right in the centre the very pronounced Mid Atlantic Ridge which the two previous surveys of the 1850's had failed to detect.
As we can see from modern bathymetry the route between Valentia and Newfoundland was anything but a 'plateau' and one might imagine that there would have been some serious doubts about the viability of a transatlantic cable in 1857 had they been aware of the Ridge.

The Ridge itself runs for a great distance (North / South) in the Atlantic extending from the arctic as we can see on the map above. Research continues on this topic particularly to look at just how much more was known ( not known) about the Atlantic sea bed and the Mid Atlantic Ridge by the time the next attempts to lay a cable were made in 1865/6.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Amusing Post-War Telegram

I came across this telegram on Wednesday in one of the more eclectic files in the archive; I think it speaks for itself. It was intercepted by Cable and Wireless before reaching its final destination...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Enderby Wharf again.........STOP PRESS

The large site by the Thames at Greenwich has been in the ownership of Alcatel-Lucent for several years now. Although they will stay on the site carrying oout work on submarine cable equipment ( though no manufacturing these days) , they have sold the entire waterfront area together with the 1840's Enderby House ( the white building in the centre of the photo) to developers West Properties.
Today's Sunday Times carries a piece ( Business p2) advising that Greenwich council have now approved plans for the development which is primarily aimed at becoming London's major terminal for large cruise liners. The Times states " as well as the Terminal it will be a base for the Thames Clipper service, site for 770 homes and a 251 bedroom hotel.......pending a final nod from Boris Johnson, work will begin this year and hopefully be up and running for the Olympic Games next year"
Earlier reports mentioned shops , restaurants and a heritage centre perhaps based on Enderby House which is a listed building.
Watch this space !........... afterall it was by far the world's largest manufacturing site for submarine cables for more than 150 years. John Pender was chairman of Telcon there from 1864 to 1868 and later during his 24 years as Chairman of Eastern Telegraph Company he dealt almost exclusively with Telcon at Enderby Wharf for his supply (and laying) for his cables.

Friday, 18 February 2011

On the front line in Valentia 1858

This man is James Burn Russell ( 1837-1904) best know as Glasgow's first Medical Officer of Health. He happened to be at Glasgow University studying under William Thomson ( Lord Kelvin) when Thomson was seeking assistants to accompany him on the 1857 ( and later 1858) Atlantic Telegraph cable laying trips..........and off he went !
I am very grateful to John Burnett and Alison Taubman curators at Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh for introducing me to this character and in particular his manuscript journal which he kept during his entire time with Thomson on the voyages and the fraught days on Valentia Island ( August-October 1858) when Dr Whitehouse was endeavouring to communicate with Newfoundland and was allegedly at loggerheads with William Thomson.
Russell's journal written for his sister Aggie is wonderfully detailed, he was clearly a very astute observer of everything happening both in and around the cable station. He was obviously "Thomson's man" which makes it even more interesting to read of his admiration and support for Whitehouse particularly his comments about how the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Co were, even then, in his opinion judging Whitehouse unfairly.
The manuscript journal is a very hard read, feint and difficult to transcribe in places. It is held at Glasgow City Archives ( Mitchell Library) under reference TD1434/1. It is an important document in relation to the Atlantic telegraph cable of 1857/8 and is currently providing me with useful details in the work I am doing on Whitehouse.
If you are interested but are unable to get to Glasgow and/or spend the time trying to decipher his manuscript there is another account which Russell wrote and was published in three parts in "The West of Scotland Magazine" in the " New Series " No59, 1859. It was titled "Leaves from the Journal of an Amateur Telegrapher" I should add that this is a much more romanticised and less technical account of his experiences than the journal. Nevertheless to find new, detailed, contemporary and "on the spot" accounts of the voyages and events on Valentia is rare and very useful.
Historians to date have usually taken positions either denigrating Whitehouse and his instruments and/or trumpeting the virtues and scientific approach of William Thomson and his mirror galvanometer (or both !). One can only hope that with interesting and useful information coming from sources such as the Russell journal a more balanced historical perspective will eventually emerge.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Wildman Whitehouse & H A C Saunders

Reading one of the few obituaries to Wildman Whitehouse who died in 1891 I came across the following:
" Mr J C Laws, Mr Frank Lambert, Mr Joseph May and Mr H A C Saunders (of whom only the latter survives), assisted him in his electrical work from early 1854 until his connection with telegraphy ceased.........etc"
Saunders pictured here was apparently Electrician in Chief to the Eastern Telegraph Company ( dates unknown....perhaps 1870's ?).
I have been unable to track down anything about Saunders in the archive so far and would be very interested to hear from anyone who has and particularly to know if there may be any references there to his work with Whitehouse.

I've just come across this Spanish map from 1882 of the Eastern Telegraph Company's cables (in the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana). It's a good deal clearer than most cable maps I've been able to find, and is going to be particularly useful in the telecommunications history course I'm currently teaching.

The map suggests that the ETC, or one of its subsidiaries, operated a cross-channel cable from somewhere near Hastings to Le Harve. Does anyone know which firm ran it?

On the subject of cable maps, the ever-brilliant Distant Writing website has just posted a link to a high-quality scan of the Electric Telegraph Company's routes in 1852: . It's interesting to compare this to the earlier and later maps that Wendy found in the BT Archives, and the one that's in PK.


Friday, 11 February 2011

Enderby Wharf Greenwich the birthplace of the British submarine cable business

This photo dated 1890 shows the Test Department at Telcon with some beefy looking buoys ( perhaps boys too !) in the background
If I have loaded this correctly it should be possible to click and enlarge to a really high definition shot and allow identification of the names of the staff. This may be interesting to anyone looking into Greenwich family histories.
The photograph is one of a number related to the early days of Telecon held in the Porthcurno archive ( Alcatel)
By the way if you are interested in buoys (careful!!) we have engineering drawings of such devices in the archive dating back to 1860 and before.

GPO Time

I asked Julian Stray at the BPMA about GPO time for Adam Hart-Davis. This was the response.... it links into Post Office Telegrams, thought you might be interested...

As you are aware. The Post Office tended to reply on contracted services to supply the transport element of mail collection and delivery. This would apply to sea (Packet boats), road (Mail Coaches, Mail Vans, Horsed mails etc.), railways (the various railway companies, light railway etc) and any other (air, trams, bus and so on). This was via competitive tender. Constraints were specific and demanding. For example, on the railways, the 1838 Conveyance of Mails act gave the Postmaster extraordinary power in demanding that the companies transport mails at times set by him, regardless of how that fitted in with their own operating requirements. Any disputes went to an independent arbiter (Railways and Canals Commission I believe), contractors were paid an agreed rate. Needless to say there were frequent disputes and some contracts remained unresolved for years, the Post Office frequently unwilling to go to an independent arbiter in case they were found against, with a large financial loss as a result. Things like the 1903 GWR test case had repercussions still felt in the 1960s.

Both on the road (Mail Coaches from 1784) and on Rail (from 1830), to avoid unnecessary conflict and argument, the Mail Guard (the only Post Office employee accompanying the mails on Mail Coaches and many trains) carried a locked Time Piece (clock) together with a Time Bill. The Time Bill detailed the stopping points, times of arrival and departure, time allotted for stopping etc. Along with a few other extra details depending on the mode of transport, type of mail, period etc.

It has been quite difficult for me to locate much relating to these within the RM Archive, the detail may be there but it has proved to be elusive. To add a little more detail from what I have found:

We have four timepieces in the collection. One has a key, none have a case. Two are manufactured by George Littlewort, London, one by David Murray, Edinburgh and the fourth by Edward Smith, Dublin. Time pieces were no doubt supplied by other manufacturers too. The Inland Incident Books will almost certainly show payments to those firms. Even though I have not found it, I have also (in the past) seen mention of a person being paid to wind the clocks at GPO (St. Martin’s-le-Grand).
Object numbers: OB1995.328, 2009-0060/14, E11988, OB1996.549. Three are out on loan or display at present.

These could become quite battered and misused. There is a lovely account from 1795:

“ … the Guards frequently throw the time pieces in the Pouch from one to the other when they change…”.

The same report also contains a detail that I had not seen before:

“… we have regulated them to gain about 15 minutes in 24 hours, that when they are travelling Eastward they may be with real time, therefore they gain about 10 minutes in their way to Weymouth which, added to the Clocks so far west, being a few minutes slower than in London, is the cause of the variation in the time Bill at Weymouth”
Ref: POST 10/26 pp211, 212

Certainly if this was the case, making clocks run faster or slower depending on the direction in which the mails were running, it did not remain the case. I can not see this being the practice for long. I have my doubts over practicality despite the reference, for example, what happened on the return trip (The Up mail)? Despite time pieces being individually numbered the logistics of ensuring the gain (or loss) for each particular piece on each particular route would, I feel, be insurmountable.

We also hold a number of time bills for the various routes, some used, some not. These show the expected/contracted times. You may recall the lovely example from December 1840 from the York-Manchester route that records the delay due to the death of a horse on the journey!

Bills were usually printed in batches of 200 and in the earlier years the colour of ink also explained the service: black ink for Night Mails, red for Day Mails and green for trains not under a fixed notice but accompanied either by a Mail Guard or Mail Messenger.

As you know, time varied across the country. Most of this was put to ease before the Royal Assent was given to the 1880 Statutes (Definition of Time) Bill. The railways had already introduced ‘London’ time across much of the network. I have seen catalogued reference to some previous efforts by the Post Office in this direction:

‘Greenwich time signals relayed from Central Telegraph Office, period 1870-1946’ Ref: POST 30/2536
This is held at the BT Archives so I haven’t seen it. The relevance to the Post Office is that they had taken control of Inland Telegraphs in this country from 1870.

The Post Office Circular (that is, instructions to postal staff) for 29 July 1872 contains the following:

“Greenwich Time to be observed at all Post Offices in England & Scotland.
Hitherto it has been the rule of the service to observe local time for certain purposes at Country Post Offices, while Greenwich time (spoken of in the Book of Rules as “London” or “Railway time”) has been observed for certain other purposes.
In future, Greenwich time (which is notified daily to all Postal Telegraph Offices) is to be observed solely at all Post Offices in England and Scotland.”
Ref: POST 68/471, p100

Just thought I would add something to get you started..

have a good weekend, Libby