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Copper cables

Cables and wires are the unsung heroes or 'facilitators' of the age of telecommunication. In the space of twenty years, cables changed from two mile long wooden troughs containing copper wire in grooves to cables that could be laid underwater across the Atlantic.

This required enormous technological feats. Perhaps more surprisingly, copper cables have also stood the test of time, as scientists and engineers have developed techniques to squeeze more and more out of them.

5-wire telegraph line - Connected Earth artefact, now at the Musuem of London

5-wire telegraph line (1837) : making the first connection

When Cooke and Wheatstone made their historic demonstration of the electric telegraph between London's Euston and Chalk Farm stations, not only did they have to invent the telegraph instruments but most of the support materials as well, including the system to connect them together.

Five needles needed five connecting wires, but there was no off-the-shelf electric cable for sale then and the partners had to create the wire itself. They also had to make sure the wires couldn't touch each other, break or get wet in the rain.

This picture shows a piece of the wire fitting that was laid along the track. Actually a number of methods were tried, but this turned out to be one of the most successful. They took lengths of triangular wood and cut two grooves along either side and one along the top. Wire was then fitted into each groove, re-covered with wood and sealed with tar.

1857 Transatlantic cable samples

The first Transatlantic cable (1857) : it's tough making ends meet

The attempt to lay the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1857 presented a huge challenge and these two sections of cable show just one of the potential problems.

The cable was manufactured in two separate factories, Newall's on the Mersey and Glass Elliot's on the Thames, which was not unreasonable since the cable had to be carried on two separate ships and spliced together halfway across the ocean.

The cable was spun with a twist-like rope; however, Elliot's discovered it could be loaded onto the ship without kinking if it was spun in the opposite way from normal rope. No one told Newall's and this made the two cables almost impossible to join.

However, as it turned out, the cable was lost overboard before any jointing could take place and the operation was postponed for another year.

The different types of cable

The different types of cable
fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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