UPDATE ON UNDERWATER SALVAGE DIVING EXPEDITION TO
RECOVER A PIECE OF VERY EARLY SUBMARINE TELEGRAPH CABLE
I have always been fascinated by the early transatlantic telegraph cables
which linked, for the very first time, Europe and the United States beginning
in 1858. Here is a picture of one of the original ships laying the cable.
and here is another picture of the laying of the cable. As you can imagine, this was an absolutely incredible undertaking at the time and it allowed nearly instantaneous communication between the United States and Europe instead of the several-week delay necessitated by using ships to carry the messages.
For a number of years I have been interested in trying to locate and recover some of these very early cables from the depths of the Atlantic ocean. This is a report on this year's expedition:
With visions of beautiful, calm, sailing as shown in this photograph,
I chartered this TICON 34 sailboat and invited my long-time friend George Ward to join me. As you can see, the boat has unusual unstayed masts but it is a good stable boat for diving. The cable section that I chose to collect was located about 11 miles off the coast and, although not a Transatlantic Cable, it was one of the cables laid between the United States and Havana, Cuba during the time period starting in 1866 and lasting into the early 1900s. It was similar in design and made by the same company that manufactured the transatlantic cables and I knew that it would provide me with information about how well these early cables survived after about 100 years on the floor of the ocean.
Several of the more pessimistic telegraph key collectors that I discussed my plans with suggested that I would probably cut an active cable and summarily deprive some South American country of the Information Age.. so I was a bit hesitant when I cut through the center conductor...
I have carefully watched the newspapers and no International Incident has been reported and War does not seem to have been declared against the United States... So I conclude that I did not cut an active cable... Also, the cables that I found dated from 1866 to the early 1900s. They were clearly recorded as having been abondonned, and I was certain that they were not in use.
As I put on my diving gear, I clipped on a hacksaw with a carbide blade to cut
into the steel casing since the metal in the submaring telegraph cable seemed
to have crystalized and was instantly dulling the teeth of the conventional
hacksaw blades that I had tried using last year.
When I got down to the cable, I was greeted by this fish that did not seem very happy to see me..
The cable was heavily covered with coral and I could see
places where it was starting to disintegrate and rust under the coral.
As soon as I cut it, the thick steel outer wires
started to unwind but, luckily it did not continue to unwind. The second cut did not unwind at all since it was not under any tension strain.
I used up all 3300 lbs of air in my tank during only 29 minutes of cutting twice through the cable. I had never used that much air in that short a time in over 40 years of diving! That much air usually lasts for about 1.2 hours under normal conditions! I had not realized that hacksawing underwater could be so incredibly strenuous. I had a 20 cf pony air bottle with me to allow safe completion of the dive...
I got a little bit greedy and just couldn't resist taking a pretty big piece. I had to use air-filled lift bags to help me get the extremely heavy cable to the surface, and doing it on a solo dive meant that I had to think out the recovery pretty carefully. Over 90% of my diving has been solo over the years since obviously, it is hard to find anyone else crazy enough to be interested in the kind of underwater adventures that I enjoy... This This picture shows how happy I was to have been able to cut and raise the cable.
I haven't had time to analyze it yet but it will be interesting to see what the electrical characteristics of the cable are after many years under the ocean. I will be measuring the insulation resistance and the capacitance-per- foot of the cable when I get it stabilized.
I cut the cable into shorter pieces and stored it wet as I prepared to do the electrolysis that I understood was necessary to stabilize and conserve the steel. Apparently the salt from the ocean gradually finds its way into the metal over a period of many years and when the metal dries out, I am told that the embedded salt crystals expand and gradually cause the metal to disintegrate. I had this happen to a lovely cannon ball that I found. One year it was a great cannon ball and the next year it was a pile of rust powder. I hoped to avoid having this happen to the telegraph cable!
Following suggestions from "Cleaning & Stabilizing Metal Artifacts by Means of Electrolysis and Protective Coatings" published by the Florida Division of Historical Resources, I planned to use a sodium bicarbonate electrolyte solution and to place the cable at the cathode end of the circuit. I planned to use a stainless steel anode simply immersed in the electrolyte. I have been told that the process may take as long as 6 months or a year.
When I unwrapped and looked at the cable with its heavy outer wrap of steel
wires, they already showed early signs of disintegration...
so I put the cable in its electrolyte bath in the basement, turned on the 12VDC and noted that it was drawing about 3 Amps and bubbling happily.
You would not believe the smell that the cable
It was sort of like a combination of really rotten fish and the worst smells
from all of the world's garbage dumps combined. I expected some smell from my
past experiences with drying out coral and cannon balls but the electrolysis
actually COOK this mess and worsened the odors !!
After 4 months, I removed the cable from the electrolytic bath and applied a thin layer of clear varnish to seal out moisture and eliminate the chance of further deterioration. I displayed pieces of the cable At the September - 1997 Antique Wireless Association meet in Rochester, NY., and made sections of the cable available to serious collectors and museums.
In the future, I plan to add information about the electrical
characteristics of this cable.
I will also update these pages as I try to recover all six of the underwater cables. They will provide samples of the technological improvements in cables from 1866 to the 1900's and allow me to analyze how well they have survived over 100 years under the ocean.
Professor Tom Perera
Montclair State University
Extra Class Licensed Amateur Radio Station - W 1 T P
First licensed in 1953 as K2DCY. All Bands. All Modes. Mobile/Fixed.
Member: OOTC, QCWA, AWA, MTC, NEARC, ARRL, AREC, RACES, RCC
Specializing in Telegraph Keys dating to before the Civil War.
Licensed Private Pilot: Single-engine, land, and instrument ratings.
Owner of Piper Cherokee 180 Aircraft.
Certified Advanced Open Water Scuba Diver - Over 600 dives.
Hobbies: Sailing; Mountain Climbing; Diving; Spelunking; Running; Electronics.