The humble telegram will be laid to rest on July 15th this year, ending a saga that began in 1839.
“The story of the telegraph in India” by Charles C. Adley, published in the year 1866, provides in the first chapter a narration of the sequence of events that led to the commissioning of the telegraph system in India. It highlights the splendid efforts and marshalling of resources by the British officers in India to achieve the planned link-up in very short time.
The history of the Telegraph in India is briefly recorded.
In May, 1839, Dr. William Brooke O'Shaughnessy erected an experimental line of wire, twenty-one miles in length, in the vicinity of Calcutta. The wire was suspended upon bamboo poles, and on the completion of the experiments, which were eminently successful, it was taken down and the results published. At the same time, the importance of the introduction of the telegraph into India was strongly urged.
On the 26th of September, 1849, the Court of Directors of the late Honourable the East India Company referred to the foregoing experiments, and directed the attention of the Government of India to the advisability and importance of establishing a system of telegraphs throughout that empire.
About the same time, others were occupying their minds with the subject, and, preparatory to propounding a definite scheme, two long pieces of gutta-percha covered copper wire were despatched experimentally to India. One of these was vulcanised, the other not. The object was to ascertain if wire, so protected, would withstand the ravages of the white ants, the great enemies to underground operations in that country, for at that period, the merit of the overground or underground system was a debated and unsettled question in Europe.
The experiment was perfectly successful, and in September, 1850, an elaborate communication was addressed to the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the late Honourable the East India Company, wherein proposals were submitted for the establishment of a comprehensive system of political and mercantile lines throughout India, and some pains were taken to show the advantages that would accrue to the Government and the public therefrom. The report also comprised the details of a scheme for establishing telegraphic intercourse between England and India vid the Persian Gulf. In reply, it was stated that the subject was then under the consideration of the Government.
The accompanying map, which is an exact copy of the general plan drawn out more than fifteen years ago, will exhibit a sketch view of these projects, and it is remarkable how closely the plans then devised assimilate with what have been subsequently carried out at the present time.
Two months later, reports were submitted to the Government in India by the late Colonel Forbes and Dr- O'Shaughnessy upon the subject, and, after some discussion upon the overground and underground systems, it was decided that an experimental line should be constructed of thirty miles in length, partly overground and partly subterranean.
This line was commenced in October, 1851, and opened in December following. It was then extended underground to Kedjeree eighty-two miles; and in March, 1852, the line from Calcutta to the sea was opened for official and public correspondence. Of this line, sixty-nine miles were overground and eleven subterranean, and the mean average cost was 59l 8s. 1d. per mile. The wire used consisted of pieces of iron rod 3/8 in. diameter, 13 ft. 6 in. long, welded together, and weighing 17-1/2 cwt. to the mile.
In the overground portion the rod was placed in a notch cut in the top of bamboo poles 15 ft. high, and placed 200 ft. apart, being strengthened at every furlong by stout sal or iron wood posts, to which the rod was clamped. The underground portion was coated with layers of Madras cloth saturated with melted pitch mixed with tar and then placed in a trench 2 ft. deep, "laid in a row of roofing tiles half filled with a melted mixture of three parts dry sand and one part resin by weight, and when laid the whole was then filled up with the same melted mixture." The trench was then filled in and rammed down in the usual way.
At the river crossings, which were about a mile wide, various plans were tried, viz., 1. A copper wire insulated with wax and tape. 2. An iron wire rope. 3. A gutta-percha covered copper wire undefended. 4. Gutta-percha covered wire similar to that first laid between Dover and Cape Grisnez; and 5. A guttapercha covered copper wire secured in the angles of a chain cable. The first four plans were soon destroyed by the grapnels of native vessels, while the last proved successful.
The working of this experimental line was highly satisfactory, and the returns during the first three months of opening were equivalent to a dividend of five per cent, on the outlay, after deducting the working expenses.
These results having been duly reported on the 14th of April, 1852, Lord Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India, adopted measures for constructing an extensive series of lines between Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Peshawar, and on the 3rd of May, Dr. O'Shaughnessy was despatched to England on the subject. Before his arrival in London, on the 20th of June, the proposition of the Governor-General had been acceded to by the Court of Directors and Board of Control, and on the 1st of August, the contracts were entered into for the supply of 5600 miles of wire (No. 1, B. W. G.) and other materials in proportion.
These materials were manufactured and despatched to India with the utmost alacrity, and on the 24th of March, 1854, a temporary flying line of telegraph was opened between Calcutta and Agra, 796 miles, and the connexion between Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay was completed by a similar temporary line by the 1st of January, 1855. On the 1st of February following, or within two years and a half of the commencement of the undertaking, these lines, amounting to 3544 miles, were opened to the public.
The construction of these lines was effected in two stages. 1. The erection of a temporary flying line. 2. The strengthening and insulating the flying line. The first of these operations was to be carried out with the utmost speed, the second at leisure. There was also a third stage proposed in the manual of instructions, which was to have consisted of a permanent double line, but it was never carried out, owing, it was stated, to "insuperable practical objections."
The main object to be accomplished in constructing the temporary flying line was to get up a line in any manner whatsoever with the greatest possible rapidity. This was effected by using bamboos, or any form of cheap temporary wooden support available in the district. These poles with a groove cut in the top for the wire to rest in, were erected along the Grand Trunk Road, 50 ft. apart and 3 ft. in the ground. They were put up with remarkable celerity, an order having been previously issued, while the material was being prepared in England, to every magistrate to have the poles set up in the manner described by a fixed date, along such part of the Trunk Road as passed through his jurisdiction. By this means, an enormous existing establishment of Road inspectors, sub-conductors, police, and coolies were brought into immediate action, and on commencing to run out the wire in November, 1853, the poles were erected throughout the country.
To further expedite matters, all the powerful resources of the Government were brought into play. The bullock train establishments, inland river steamers, commissariat, and public works departments throughout the country, were more or less placed at the disposal of the telegraph, and the result was as already narrated.
The lines were completed with such wonderful celerity that even Europe re-echoed with astonishment. The most noble the Governor-General of India was elated; ambition was appeased; another of the many brilliant visions of a glorious rule was realised; another achievement was added to the long roll of beneficent conquests which history would twine with lustre round his name; honours and rewards were liberally showered around, and the Telegraph was inaugurated amid the joyous congratulations of rulers and the triumphant paeans of an empire.