Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Underwater Cables and Canadian Innovation

From the desk of Sean Rodman
Strategic Partnerships Manager 
at the Royal BC Museum

As you surf along the internet, take a moment to ponder the signals that are transmitted along the tangle of wires and cables from your computer. Those cables stretch out and around the world, making the internet possible. But the idea of a global network of cables for communication isn't a new one. In fact, it's 133 years old. And, in the wake of July 1st, it's also a very Canadian story.

In July, 1898, the "All Red Route" was born. A group of representatives from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand decided that a cable communications line would be created that would completely circle the globe. It would run only though the countries of the Commonwealth, hence the "All Red" moniker. Remember - we're not talking about fibre optic cables, but copper. This was an earlier information revolution, allowing the transmission of dots and dashes over land and under sea.

"The All-Red Line Around The World"

Canadian visionary Sir Sanford Fleming had actually pitched the idea back in 1879, but it wasn't until nearly 20 years later that his plan came close to being completed. The last piece of the network of cable to be laid was the run from the west coast of Canada, under the Pacific to surface at a small island in the middle of the ocean. From there, onwards to Australia. And from there, the line would connect with existing cables across Asia and back to Great Britain.

"Cable Station, Banfield, Vancouver Island, BC"
After various expeditions up and down the west coast, the location for the starting point of the trans-Pacific submarine cable was decided upon. Bamfield, here on Vancouver Island, would be home to the Pacific Cable Board (PCB) Cable Station. In 1901 the cable ship Colonia set out from Bamfield to lay over 4,000 kilometers of undersea cable line to Fanning Island, a speck in the ocean some 1,600 kilometers south of Hawaii.

Meanwhile, construction of the cable station proceeded. The job fell to Francis Mawson Rattenbury, superstar architect of his day. He was also responsible for many of our province's famous landmarks including: the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, the Empress Hotel and the Vancouver Courthouse.

On November 1st 1902, the first telegraph message to encircle the globe travelled around the All Red Route. Sir Sanford Fleming sent, and recieved, the message in Ottawa.

Wally II's Test Crawl
Today, communications cables continue to play an important role in bringing our world together. And Vancouver Island continues to be on the cutting edge: the University of Victoria has created the Neptune and Venus projects, which laid cables of "underwater observatories" across the sea floor. You can watch, live, what's happening 800 metres down.

If you want to dig deeper into the history of underwater cables, come down to the Royal BC Museum. On our 3rd floor, we have a display of cables and the first telegraphs to be sent along the "All Red Route."


  1. As a follow up to this post - I just saw a map of all the undersea cables currently spanning the globe here: http://www.cablemap.info/

    Things have changed a little since the All Red Route...

  2. The Cabling in Canada increases day by day it means the progress of country in telecommunication world.


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