India stopped telegraph services in July 2013 after 163 years of its launch in Calcutta in 1850, but it was only in 1870 that India was firmly linked to the outside world through thousands of kilometers of undersea cables to various continents anchored in a corner of England.
The sylvan Porthcurno valley in Cornwall, located on the Atlantic coast 506 km south-west of London, was the unlikely place of a revolution that enabled Britain and its former colonies to communicate with each other.
It was the hub of international cable communications from 1870 to 1970. The place from where this communications revolution happened is now a museum housing rare equipment and details of the history of telegraph. It also acted as a secret communication bunker during World War II. The recently refurbished museum includes the first telegraph messages between Porthcurno and Bombay.
The first message was despatched on the night of June 23, 1870, and a reply was received in 5 minutes, which was a technological feat at the time. The message was called a ‘complimentary telegram’ between the ‘Managing Director in London and the Manager in Bombay’.
It was from ‘Anderson to Stacey’: “How are you all?” The second message from Anderson was: “Please ask gentlemen of the press, Bombay, to send a message to gentlemen of the press, New York”.
After several messages that night, including some to the governor of Bombay, from Lady Mayo to Viceroy Lord Mayo based in Simla, and one from the Prince of Wales to the viceroy, a response was received from journalists based in Bombay.
It said: ‘From the Press of India to the Press of America: The Press of India sends salaam to the Press of America. Reply quick’. By 1870, several English and Indian-language newspapers had been launched in Bombay.
The viceroy then sent a telegraph to the president of the United States and “received a reply which reached him in 7 hours 40 minutes”. The viceroy’s message, which was read in the American Congress the same evening, was: “The Viceroy of India for the first time speaks direct by telegraph with the President of the United States. May the completion of the long line of uninterrupted communication be the emblem of lasting union between the Eastern and Western World”. Intercontinental telegraphic communication with India was first established in 1864 by overland telegraph lines from Europe to the top of the Persian Gulf and then by an undersea cable to Karachi, but the overland section was never satisfactory, prompting efforts to lay more reliable cables below the sea.
In 1869, telegraph pioneer John Pender established the British Indian Submarine Telegraph Company, whose task was to lay undersea cables to India. The five ships used to lay the thousands of km of cables were the Great Eastern, William Cory, Chiltern, Hawk and Hibernia. It took six weeks to lay the cables from Suez to Bombay. This was followed by the laying of the final link from Malta to Porthcurno. It was the first long distance cable ‘chain’, and opened to the public with much jubilation, museum records show. After the link with India was established, Porthcurno was linked by undersea cables to several other areas across the world. At its height, it was the world’s largest station with 14 cables in operation. Porthcurno’s telegraphic codename was ‘PK’.