As the previous president, Ken Terry, and his wife Sue had moved to Yorkshire over the summer, acting president Peter King welcomed everyone to the start of the new season. He explained that he and John Little would share the president’s role until a new president could be elected. Sadly, Roger and Viv Bennett would also be moving away. Roger explained the reason for their decision and promised to return for the Christmas party.
Over the summer there had been a very enjoyable range of outings (see photos below), and the annual ceremony of Crying the Neck would be held the following week to celebrate the end of harvest. The next social event would be the fish and chip supper on Friday 19th November at Kelly’s. The society would be represented at the Civic Service at St Martin’s church next month, and would present a wreath on Remembrance Sunday on 11th November.
This month’s speaker was Gareth Parry of the Museum of Telegraphy in Porthcurno, who spoke about the development of global communications in Cornwall.
Overland telegraphy had been established in 1837, by 1850 2200 miles of telegraph wires ran alongside railway lines throughout Britain, and by 1857 the telegraph had reached Falmouth. As well as conveying messages, the telegraph was vital for establishing standardised time throughout the country.
Vital business interests needed swift communication across the Atlantic and throughout the British Empire. Before telegraph, messages were taking 6 or 8 weeks to reach India, but with telegraph it could be done in 9 minutes. A businessman, John Pender, had a vision of a global network. Together with a professor of physics, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), they formulated a plan to lay cables across the ocean floor. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before, but in the can-do climate of the time they were able to finance the project. In 1870 cables were brought by ship to Porthcurno and floated on empty barrels, then hauled up the beach by hand.
By 1872 the telegraph station had been established as a home for engineers as well as a workplace. . To lay cable under the sea, they needed to take into account the need for insulation, distances, and the topography of the ocean floor with its mountain ranges and deep troughs. Five attempts were made to cross the Atlantic, in 1857 and 1858, and in 1865 and 1866. The cables were very heavy and the only ship capable of carrying a transatlantic cable was Brunel’s Great Eastern. In 1866 they lost the cable part way across. Later that year, after searching in sweeps to and fro across the ocean floor they found the lost cable two miles deep and used both.
The Eastern Telegraph Company was formed, and laid cable via Portugal, Gibraltar, Malta and through the Red Sea, reaching Bombay in 1872, and eventually on to Australia and New Zealand by 1876. The company later became Cable and Wireless.
Success was not always total. In 1869 a Mr Rowlands undertook to lay a cable to the Scilly Islands. It was a great occasion for the islanders, and they and host of dignitaries all assembled on the shore to await the arrival of the cable. Mr Rowlands discovered that his estimate for the length of cable required was 5 miles short, so he cut the cable, took the end ashore and duly installed it with great ceremony, only to have to repeat the installation later with an entire cable..
By 1906 a cable had been laid to the Azores, and by 1920 Eastern Telegraph went all round Africa and South America, all coming from Porthcurno. By the 1930s there were 14 cables in all, and 70% of all signals coming into the UK came through Porthcurno. They were transmitted further up-country to be decoded.
During World War One, five German cables were cut, so at the start of World War Two British authorities were determined to protect Porthcurno from enemy attack. In the cliff face behind Porthcurno two secret tunnels were dug. They had their own air supply, living quarters, electricity and escape route, so that their work could carry on even after invasion. The tunnels can still be seen by visitors to the Museum.
Porthcurno was also involved in the development of wireless, but a rivalry developed between Eastern Telegraph and Marconi. Marconi came to this country in the 1890s, wanting to get a signal across the Atlantic. In 1901 he claimed to have received the Morse signal “SSS”. At the time there was no way of recording the signal, so no way of verifying the claim. In February 1902 he used a Morse inker to record a signal from 1551 miles away, and by 1923 he demonstrated sending a signal from Poldhu to Cape Verde on a wavelength of 97m. This was followed in 1924 by a transmission from Poldhu to Beirut with a wavelength of 132m. The transfer from long wave to short ensured success.
Cable and Wireless was formed in 1934 and dominated global communications for many years. They were instrumental in setting up the Museum of Telegraphy at Porthcurno, which is still supported by Vodaphone, who took over Cable and Wireless’s business.
The telegraph at Porthcurno closed in 1970. From 1988 fibre optic cables were laid, which carry light signals, and are much faster and clearer than the old cables. Mr Parry showed a picture of three glass fibres against the eye of a needle. Most internet signals go via cables, and take 60 millisecs to cross the Atlantic. A cable now goes to Japan, Korea and China and another goes across the Atlantic. The old cables are gradually being lifted and recycled. The new cables are still laid by specialist ships, in much the same way it was originally done, and will remain in use for around 25 years, but demand for data transfer is increasing rapidly, and firms such as Google and Microsoft are now laying their own cables.
Peter King thanked Mr Parry for a very interesting and well-illustrated talk. Mr Parry answered questions from the floor, demonstrating his depth of knowledge of his subject.
The meeting closed with the raffle, tea and cakes.