The Eastern Telegraph Company: Wiring the Depths of Innovation

The Eastern Telegraph Company stands as a beacon of progress in the chronicles of maritime communication, with its roots deeply entrenched in the historical opening of the Suez Canal that transformed Aden into a crucial nexus for global connectivity. Amidst the vast expanse of the sea, it was under its waves that the ambitious endeavour of subaquatic telegraphy took shape, despite early setbacks. In 1870, after a hiatus filled with technological advancements, the Eastern Telegraph Company orchestrated a feat of engineering by successfully laying a telegraph line from Bombay to Aden, knitting together distant lands with the invisible threads of electrical communication. This article unfolds the saga of the Eastern Telegraph Company, encapsulating its struggles, triumphs, and the pivotal role of Aden as a repeating station in the vast network that bridged continents.

With the opening of the Suez Canal Aden became an important communications hub, not only on the sea but also under it. The first effort at laying an undersea telegraph line from Suez to Karachi in 1858 had been an expensive failure. Named the ‘Ocean Line’ the sheathing wires were slight and gave no protection from corrosion. There was not sufficient slack and the route selected was rated a few years later as having been ‘poor’. There were several landfalls along the route besides Aden and within a few weeks of laying one or more sections were unservicable. In fact the line was never working throughout and it had cost £800,000 – a huge sum in those days.

There was then a 12 year interval until 1870, by which date considerable advances in the technology needed had been made including in 1865 the laying of a transatlantic cable by the huge SS Great Eastern. At 32,000 tons this ship was by far the largest in the world when it had completed its maiden voyage in 1860 as a passenger ship.

With its great space it was ideal to be used as a cable ship. On 14 February 1870 the Great Eastern sailed from Bombay with a full load of deep-sea cable. She arrived off Aden 12 days later and the shore end was landed on 5 March in what became known as Telegraph Bay.

The cable was then laid overland to the offices of the British India Submarine Telegraph Company in the Prince of Wales’ Crescent in Tawahi. Later that day the cable section from Bombay to Aden was certified as being electrically perfect and properly laid. Also on 5 March the shore end of the Suez section was landed at Telegraph Bay from the Great Eastern which the next day began laying the Red Sea section towards Suez. She passed Perim through the large strait and on arriving off Jebel Tir laying operations were transferred to the SS Hibernia, one of the other three cable ships involved.

These three were much much smaller ships and on the 13th the Hibernia handed over to the SS Chiltern. Meanwhile the SS William Cory began laying from Suez, the splice being effected on 22 March some 110 miles from Suez. The cable from England to Alexandria and overland to Suez had already been laid.

The line between England and India was opened on 26 March, the Bombay to Aden section being 1,818 miles and Aden to Suez another 1,465. The Bombay to Suez sections had cost £1 million. In the next seven years there were two interruptions to the line in the Red Sea and another off Perim, whilst there were no interruptions to the Aden to Bombay section.

In 1872 the British India Submarine Telegraph Company was renamed the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC). Four years later the ETC duplicated both sections east of Suez. Aden was the vital link as it was a repeating station as all messages in both directions were read off and then passed on. In 1872 a duplex system called ‘The Recorder’, invented by Sir W Thomson, was introduced which allowed messages to be passed in both directions simultaneously on the same cable. In 1877 or 1878 the ETC moved its offices to a new complex at Ras Boradli where quarters were also built for all the staff. Bearing in mind that Aden was a repeater station the staff consisted of a Superintendent and an electrician and seldom less than 16 clerks and signallers.

As one might have expected it was not cheap to send a cable. In 1877 the charge per word from Aden to London was three shillings and nine pence (and one penny more to outside London). Cables to India were a little cheaper but those to China were more than double the UK rate. One can appreciate why there was almost a dictionary of phrases abbreviated to four or five letter ‘words’.

The ETC also had an important hub on Perim Island.

SS Great Eastern

ETC Mess Quarters, Ras Boradli, 1905

Landing of the cable in Telegraph Bay, Aden

5th March 1870 the cable is landed in Aden

SS Hibernia

ETC on Ras Boradli in Telegraph Bay