Sir Samuel Canning - Ogbourne St Andrew History Group

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Sir Samuel Canning

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There is a plaque in St Andrew’s church to Sir Samuel Canning, who was born in Ogbourne St Andrew in 1823 and was the engineer in charge of laying the first successful Atlantic telegraph cable in 1865.  The project has been likened to the challenge of landing men on the moon in terms of technical difficulty and involved the use of the then largest ship in the world.

Educated at Salisbury, by 1844 he was an assistant engineer working on extensions to the GWR.  He then moved on to be the Resident Engineer on the Liverpool Ormskirk & Preston railway and continued in railway engineering until 1852, when he turned to the development of submarine cables, their design, construction laying and recovery.

At about this time it took six days to send a message to the USA: by ship from the UK to Newfoundland; by telegraph 400 miles across Newfoundland; then by steamer (or carrier pigeon!!) to Cape Breton (the Mainland); finally telegraph onwards in the USA.  Laying the cable across Newfoundland was an unimaginably difficult job, across a VERY rugged inhospitable terrain of forests, bogs rivers gorges.  By 1856 a new cable had been laid from New York to St John’s, one thousand miles, it just needed a cable across the Atlantic, 1600 miles.

The first task was an ocean survey, completed in 3 weeks plumbing depths up to 2.5 miles but fortunately the bottom was found to be flat with sand and gravel and no tidal flow.  Three attempts were made using sailing ships as cable layers.  The first two failed but in 1858 they succeeded, however the cable failed electrically almost immediately.  The US Civil War then intervened and it wasn’t until 1865 that an attempt was made with a new cable design and using the monster steam ship Great Eastern.  It is at this point that Canning became involved, having successfully laid cables in the Mediterranean and around Europe.

He was appointed Chief Engineer for the project but on the first attempt the cable broke 600 miles from Newfoundland and they were forced to try again the following year.  This time not only were they successful, but they retraced their steps, grappled and recovered the broken cable from the previous year (two miles down!).  Having spliced new cable on, they successfully landed this second cable.  These cables worked until 1873 and 1877, by which time four new cables were in place.

The cost was prodigious, and the charges reflected that: $1 per character payable in advance in gold! It also was slow: at two minutes per character it took 17 hours to transmit the first short message. However speeds rapidly increased: 1866: 8 words/minute, 1870: 20 words/min, 1900: 120 words/min.  These days a single fibre optic cable allows 6,000,000 simultaneous telephone (not telegraph) signals.

Samuel Canning was knighted in 1866 and continued to lay cables, even one for the French from Brest to the USA.  He was decorated by several foreign governments.  In 1881 he was living in Kensington with his wife, 3 sons & 3 daughters.  He died on September 24 th 1908 at Kensington.


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