First Week of NMM internship: First thoughts on the submarine telegraph cables

National Maritime Museum from the Royal Observatory. © Jonathan Eudall

This week I have started a 6 week internship at the National Maritime Museum. This is a great opportunity for me to work within a national museum and a museum I really admire. This is a particularly exciting time at the NMM as it is building up to the opening of their new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, in July, it is also exciting for me as I can get my hands on their world-renowned collection!

I’m there to do some research into the Museum’s collection relating to submarine telegraphy (unsurprisingly), and am particularly interested in the commemoration and celebration of the various cables. The majority of their collection relating to submarine telegraphy consists of samples submarine telegraph cables, and this week I was lucky enough to get into the stores with Curator of Navigation, Richard Dunn, to have a look. This blog post is to convey  my initial thoughts on the cables as examples of a material culture relating to submarine telegraphy, or perhaps the ‘cult of the telegraph’, (I admit that might be a bit strong).

These thoughts are purely based on the aesthetics of the objects and so are quite superficial observations. I am still working on the object biographies, making my way through the paper copies of acquisitions and other material, and will hopefully be able to share a more critical analysis of the objects in due course. I should also mention that unfortunately I’m unable to put any pictures up, so I hope you can visualise the cables by my descriptions!

What strikes me the most is the variation in presentation and appearance of the submarine cables. They can vary from very small sliver of cross-sections of cable to large wooden boxes lined in blue felt and a glass top containing five or six differing size cables with their comparable cross-sections or sections finished with a shiny black jute tar with brass bands at either end to stripped back layers displaying the copper wire core and layers of gutta-percha and hemp.

The different styles and methods of display suggest different audiences or targets, as well as the obvious different designs of cable. The use of a display case is the more clearly designed presentation of the cables. The expense and size suggest that these were of a certain importance, perhaps presented to an investor of the corresponding cable, or a display case for a company involved. These cases are large and heavy and would appear to demand a prominent place of display. Some detail on the plaque inside the case also invites some discussion about the cables, why they are different and how they are used.

In contrast, the small pieces of cable could easily be pocket-sized souvenirs, some have an inscription of the relevant cable e.g ‘Dover to Calais’, and also a company. There is an element of advertising in the use of company name. In fact, some companies appear to have a style of display, for example in the collection are a series of Siemens Bros & Company inscribed sections of cable. They are of different widths and possibly different cables, but they have the same black tar and brass end finish, but what I find interesting about these pieces of cable is that they are all numbered. Unlike other inscribed sections of cable they don’t have the locations they are associated with, just the company name and a number.  R. S. Newall’s cables are also presented in the same way with an outer layer of nine galvanised iron wires with brass ends, though these have locations inscribed as well as the company. These sections of cable are earlier than the Siemens cables and some are associated with cables that failed, such as the Red Sea cable of 1858, perhaps Siemens learnt a lesson from this and wanted to avoid any unfortunate association with future failures. 

Finally this are also a group of cables that don’t appear to be ‘finished off’, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to display them or note a company or cable association with it. They could easily be left over parts, or unofficial souvenirs, perhaps found or sawn off. The intrigue of these bits of cable is enhanced with some of their obvious deterioration, perhaps these are sections that have been recovered from the sea.

With these clear distinctions there seems to be an obvious hierarchy of display and commemoration. There also appears to be a contrasting very formal setting for some of the cable alongside a very unofficial setting for others. Sitting within the ‘Miscellaneous Antiquities’ category of the Museum’s collections means the submarine cables sit in a classification alongside preserved food, geological specimens, musical instruments and items relating to maritime custom and superstition. To me this highlights the relationship between maritime culture and these sections of submarine telegraph cables, these cables were one of the first uses of the seabed, only recently measured by Matthew Maury, so I wonder if there is a level of superstition surrounding the cable. There is clearly a feeling of prestige and respectability surrounding the submarine telegraph cable for those that wanted to large presentation boxes, there is also an element of education and possible interest in the workings of the cable for the layered and cross-sectioned items. Though the small and also nondescript items suggest a more popular interest.

I haven’t really discussed the different cables in terms of location, needless to say that the transatlantic cable definitely generated a lot interest. Though the interest did not end there, and the sections of cable do cover many locations, however as many cables do not have an inscription I need to go through the paper records in more details before I try to draw any conclusions regarding relations between presentation and location.

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One Response to First Week of NMM internship: First thoughts on the submarine telegraph cables

  1. Pingback: United in History: A personal experience of collaborative research in museums and academia | The History Student

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