The Ocean Telegraph to India

I’ve been rereading Peter Hopkirk’s book on the Great Game in parallel with my rereading of Fred Burnaby’s A ride to Khiva (Google Books have a good copy of the latter – Peter Hopkirk’s book only appears to be available as a physical book)

Hopkirk’s book was written over thirty years ago in the dying days of the USSR and without benefit to Russian sources, and so tends to concentrate on the British side of the power play.

However, there was a passage that suddenly leapt out at me


simply because of the concern with the risks of people interfering with the cables between England an India – India of course being the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and whose exploitation made the whole empire thing a financial success.

I searched the online copy of the Times digital archive at the State Library of Victoria for the exact passage without success, but what emerged was an interesting technology story.

In 1870 there was an existing overland telegraph link to India via Constantinople and Teheran.

And by 1870, and remember that this was also the time of the Franco Prussian war, Britain was increasingly concerned about the security of its communication links to India

Queensland times

falmouth link times

as the Ottoman Empire appeared in danger of collapse and Persia was under Russian influence.

So, a group of British capitalists, who had already successfully built the second, successful, transatlantic cable, financed the laying of a cable from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Aden, which was then a British protectorate, via Egypt, which was nominally independent but a British protectorate in all but name, to Malta, Gibraltar and Falmouth (actually Porthcurno), meaning that the entire route was under British control.

Given that in 1878, during the Russo Turkish war, the Russians got as far as Yesilkoy, about 10 kilometres from the then centre of Constantinople, it probably seemed a very sound investment.

And of course, having built a cable to India it was possible to extend it to Singapore, and via what was then the Dutch East Indies to Australia, which is exactly what happened in 1873, connecting Australia to the world.

And connect it it did, not only for news, but it allowed pharmaceutical wholesalers such as Rocke Tompsitt in Melbourne to order stock and supplies directly from England almost instantaneously, and halving the time it took to complete orders (I’m sure there are other examples, but Rocke Tompsitt is the example I know best).

But the thing which really amazed me about the reports of the construction of the link was the sheer amount of geekery in the reports, detailing the construction of the cables, the number of cores, the insulation used – there is even a book published at the time The Ocean Telegraph to India, detailing the construction of the link.

It really was seen at the time as a major technical advancement …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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