Monday, 11 February 2013

Two pieces of Victorian engineering

I visited the Eiffel Tower recently. It was my first visit. I was staggered by this wonderful piece of 19th century engineering. The design is truly iconic but strangely was deeply unpopular when first erected. However its status is beyond question. Over 200 million people have visited since it was opened in 1889. Closer to home there is an engineering triumph of the period equally as impressive as M Eiffel construction and its birthplace was Oakamoor.

In the Victorian period Thomas Bolton’s of Oakamoor manufactured submarine telegraph cables. During the 1850s they were involved in several schemes but the greatest engineering challenge was to lay a transatlantic cable. The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed to lay a cable from North America to Europe by 1862. And Bolton’s who were contracted to quickly produce the copper cable needed.

The first cable was produced at Oakamoor works in 1856. Over 108 tons of copper was used to produce 20,000 miles of cable within 5 months. It was eventually laid and connected and a message between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan of the US was transmitted on 17 August 1858.  However technical difficulties such as poor conductivity led to only intermittent use.

Undaunted, Bolton’s continued to perfect there manufacturing techniques. In September 1863 a new order for 200 tons of copper wire was placed for a second Atlantic cable. Brunel’s Great Eastern ship was hired to lay the cable and on 27 July 1866 the laying was completed.

Almost immediately, the cable opened for business but only the rich could afford it -- the initial rates were a startling 10 shillings a letter at a time that a monthly wage for a labourer was a few £s

As with the overland cables, undersea cables were laid rapidly. Within 20 years there were 107,000 miles of undersea cables linking in the first global communication. The original cables stopped working in the 1870s but by this time four other cables were laid. It is interesting to note that even though later cables could carry large numbers of signals at the same time, it was not until the 1960s that the first communication satellites offered a serious alternative to the cable the development of which owes something to the workers of Oakamoor