History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
|1856 Cabot Strait (Cape Breton - Newfoundland) Cable|
After failing on the first attempt in 1855, Cyrus Field’s New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company succeeded in laying a submarine cable across the Cabot Strait in 1856. Also completed that year was the Company’s trans-Newfoundland overland line. The entire operation, which established a telegraph link all the way between New York and St. John’s, is estimated to have cost over a million dollars. This was the first link in Field’s proposed Atlantic Cable.
The 1856 Cape Ray - Aspy bay cable was 85 nm. in length, with a further 12 nm. being used for the Prince Edward Island - New Brunswick run. It was made by R.S. Kuper, Glass & Co., using core supplied by the Gutta Percha Company.
The cable was laid by the steamship Propontis on 10 July 1856. It took 15 hours to complete the run across the Cabot Strait, from Cape Ray at the south-west corner of Newfoundland to Aspey Bay at Cape North on the north shore of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
The New York Times reported on the laying of this cable in its edition of 14 July 1856:
The core of seven copper wires No. 22 BWG, covered with gutta percha to No. 1 BWG then wrapped with tarred yarn, was armoured with twelve iron wires No. 9 BWG. According to Charles Bright, writing in 1898, the 1856 Cabot Strait cable was significant in being the first to use a stranded conductor, all previous cables having used a single solid copper wire:
The cable section shown here came from a source in Canso, Nova Scotia, a little over 100 miles from the cable landing site at Aspy (sometimes Aspey) Bay. The only information with the sample was as shown on the document fragment and envelope (below), where the cable is described as “pieces of the first Trans Atlantic Cable”. Some research was needed to determine from this limited evidence exactly which cable this was.
The place names of Aspy Bay on the document fragment and Baddeck on the envelope locate the cable on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
The only cable which ran to Aspy Bay was the 1856 connector to Cape Ray, as described above. The technical details of the construction of this cable are known, and the measurements of the wire gauge of the armouring wires and the diameter of the core match almost exactly.
The armouring wires are listed as No. 9 BWG (= 0.148"); the wires of the sample measure ~0.15". The core is listed as No. 1 BWG (= 0.3"); the sample core measures ~0.35".
Charles William Kandick McCurdy
The envelope accompanying the cable is marked: “Pieces of the first Trans Atlantic Cable. Came from C.W.K. McCurdy’s house in Baddeck”, and the document fragment is signed “CMC”.
Genealogical research indicates that the McCurdys were a prominent family of long-standing in Baddeck, Cape Breton, having settled there in the mid-1800s. Charles William Kandick McCurdy, the orginal owner of the cable sample, was born in Baddeck on 28 August 1878, and died there on 18 Feb 1957. At some point he was Municipal Clerk of the local district of Victoria, which he represented at the Annual Convention of Nova Scotia Municipalities.
Baddeck has another connection with communications - Alexander Graham Bell arrived there in 1885 and built two homes, as well as the forerunner to Bell Laboratories. Bell spent much of the rest of his life in the area until his death there in 1922, and was associated with various members of the McCurdy family.
Bell had a keen interest in aviation and was an active member and patron of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), formed in 1907 by John Alexander Douglas McCurdy and his friend Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, two young engineers fresh out of the University of Toronto. McCurdy and Bell were pioneers in early aviation, and their accomplishments are described in many histories of the field. There are commemorative plaques for Bell, Baldwin and McCurdy on the wall of the Bell Museum in Baddeck.
McCurdy had grown up in Baddeck, and his father, Arthur Williams McCurdy, had been the personal secretary of Dr. Bell since 1887. J.A.D. McCurdy was later Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, and wrote several articles about Bell.
C.W.K McCurdy a cousin of J.A.D. McCurdy, evidently knew Bell too, and contributed an article of recollections of the Bell family in Baddeck to the Maritime Telegraph & Telephone Company’s Monthly Bulletin of May and June 1947. Perhaps his involvement with Bell led to an interest in the history of communications, and hence his acquisition of the cable sample in 1934.
The cable landing site at Aspy Bay is commemorated with a monument and plaque. The plaque reads as follows:
A detailed history of the cable and photographs of the historic site may be seen at the Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook web page on the cable.
The Aspy Bay website has many photographs of the area.
A 6" long intact sample of the 1856 Cabot Strait cable is shown below:
The cable section has a handwritten tag:
In the early 20th century a “Mr Dunham” is recorded as Manager of the Western Union cable station at Bay Roberts, Newfoundland. It is possible that this cable came from him, but there is no direct evidence for this.
Last revised: 27 August, 2012