Halfway around the world in 28 minutes

Building the Indo-European Telegraph Line 150 years ago

Several days – that’s how long it took back in the 19th century for news to travel from England, the heartland of the superpower of the day, to its most important colony, India. So when a message from London first reached Calcutta in “only” 28 minutes, it was a world sensation. That a telegram could be transmitted at all across the 11,000 kilometers between the two points was due in large part to Siemens, and became the foundation of the company’s international reputation. 

New technologies, receptive markets – and sights set on early profits

The rise of industrialization continued undiminished as the 19th century went on, with the result that people needed not only rapid modes of transport for themselves and their products, but also modern means of transmitting all kinds of news. Being able to transmit information reliably could be crucial in gaining access to colonies as well as linking with markets and trade partners. Making such communication a reality necessitated major investments in new technologies and infrastructure projects, many of which were offered and implemented by only a handful of specialized companies. New kinds of telegraph networks had been growing up throughout Europe since 1845. The invention of electric telegraphy, which replaced the previous optical transmission of messages via visual signaling systems, brought a quantum leap in communication technology. Numerous companies became involved in the new field, including Berlin’s Siemens & Halske.  

 

Long land lines that would permit fast communication between strategically important terminal points were of particular interest. The plan to build a telegraph line from England to India had repeatedly come up for discussion ever since the 1850s or so. Individual sections of the line had been built along the route as a result. But there was no reliable, uninterrupted connection until 1870. Even the technical ability to transmit information across such a long distance simply did not exist as yet. Yet the incentive to overcome these obstacles remained – because such products offered the promise of great profit.

Excellent connections in both business and family – Siemens becomes involved

Those in charge faced a tremendous challenge: the line had to cover a distance of 11,000 kilometers, would cross the sovereign territory of four different states, and would call for organizing the deployment of labor and materials on a massive scale. Here Siemens & Halske could draw on its strengths, and the Siemens brothers’ teamwork and business connections proved to be crucial for success. Sir William handled the negotiations with England, the country that was clearly understood to be the line’s principal user. Carl von Siemens served as representative to the Russian tsar. Walter Siemens, head of Siemens’ branch office in Tiflis (Tbilisi), conducted negotiations with Persia, which had been selected as a transit country for the route to India because of the tense relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Prussia was already amenable in principle to a project that would be headed by a company based in Berlin, gaining Werner von Siemens an extra degree of favor from that government. 

Crossing borders – the Indo-European Telegraph Company is founded as a European project

All the same, negotiations with the various contracting parties dragged on for several years, until in 1867 all the necessary authorizations had finally been obtained and the “Indo-European Telegraph Company,” headquartered in London, was finally established in April 1868. The purpose of the company was to finance, construct and operate the new line. In addition to Siemens & Halske and Siemens Brothers Ltd, the participating states also had significant interests in the new company. They were also where the company’s stock was placed with investors. After an initial slow start – potential stockholders were reluctant at first to invest in a project of such scope and novelty – the company ultimately raised 450,000 pounds sterling in capital. Stock was placed on markets in all three of the European sponsoring countries: 36 percent in Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, 4.5 percent in St. Petersburg, and 39 percent in London.

A planned division of labor and technical innovation – Siemens companies in three countries share in project

The new company engaged Siemens & Halske to build the line. But all three Siemens companies that had been established at the time were involved in carrying out this major project. The parent company in Berlin and the Russian branch in St. Petersburg were responsible for building the land line, while Siemens Brothers from England took care of laying the submarine cable through the Black Sea and all transportation of materials to Russia, the Caucasus, and Persia.

 

But the Berlin headquarters’ role was special. That was where Werner von Siemens had developed a special telegraph apparatus that could be used at the operating stations all along the line. With the aim of eliminating error-prone, time-consuming manual transmission at the intermediate stations, he developed a technical solution that made it possible to pass the telegrams down the line automatically from one segment to the next. The transmission process was further automated with punched tape. This technique, which he called “independent translation,” lent the Indo-European line project a technical advance over existing connections.

A truly mammoth task – work starts on building the Indo-European Telegraph Line

Construction proper started at the beginning of June 1868. But Siemens did not build the entire line – only the portion from the Prussian-Russian border, across the Caucasus, to Teheran in Persia. Once finished, the new segment, some 4,700 kilometers long, would connect to existing lines to complete the London-Calcutta connection. The “Siemens Line” was subdivided into three construction segments, each managed by an experienced telegraph engineer. One was from Thorn on the Prussian-Russian border to Kerch, a port city on the Crimean Peninsula; the second included the portion of the line that crossed the Black Sea to Tiflis in Georgia and onward to Julfa on the Persian border; and finally from there to Teheran.

 

As a special incentive for their great responsibilities, the section managers would receive not only their regular pay, but a share of the profits that the Siemens companies collected for building the line. And that reward made sense – because construction posed a major logistical challenge. All the construction materials, weighing many tons – the line wire, porcelain insulators, telegraph apparatus, cast-iron masts – first had to be laboriously hauled to their installation point. At the same time, the project proved to be an outright adventure. The section through Persia in particular posed all kinds of dangers to those in charge. Besides disputes with hired Persian construction crews and thefts of material, they even faced armed ambushes. But they somehow defied all adversities and the effort ultimately paid off.

“Shout it from the rooftops” – advertising brings success

On April 12, 1870, following a construction phase of just two years, the first dispatch was sent. On this occasion, Sir William Siemens had invited prominent guests to the telegraph station in London to witness making a connection to Teheran – the intermediate station on the way to India; the direct link to Calcutta was established afterwards. Werner von Siemens was also present and wrote to his brother Carl that same day, “despite fears and worries, it was a great success today! […]  Shout it from the rooftops […] that we made it to Teheran in one minute and to Calcutta in 28.”

Dr. Florian Kiuntke | Dr. Ewald Blocher

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