Federal Internet Law & Policy
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Undersea Cables Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

Ocean Cable Telegraph

Note: jurisdiction over landing rights for undersea cables now belongs to the FCC's International Bureau

1845 Prospectus for the European and American Submarine Telegraph Co. 1845 (LOC, Morse Papers)

1850: First telegraph cable between France and England. [ITU2015 p. 15]

1851: Telegraph cable laid across the English Channel [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 1]

1853: "USS Dolphin conducts soundings along the 1600-mile route between New Foundland and Ireland, discovering that a smooth plateau (soon dubbed the 'telegraph plateau') stretches across almost all of the distance." [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 2]

Cyrus Field. Source: The Atlantic Telegraph (1865)

1854: Cyrus Field, persuaded by the potential of a transatlantic cable, begins to pursue the project. The New York, New Foundland, and London Telegraph Company is formed. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 1] [Cyrus West Field, Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications] [Guide to the Cyrus W. Field Papers, Smithsonian Institution]

1855: August 7 attempt to lay transatlantic cable fails. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]


1857 :: Atlantic Cable Act

Field lobbies Congress for a similar arrangement as with Britain. Proposal passes Senate by one vote. March 3 Pres. Franklin Pierce signs Atlantic Cable Act supporting transatlantic cable.

An act to expedite telegraphic communication for the use of the Government in its foreign intercourse. 11 Stat. 187 (March 3, 1857). Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the Secretary of State, in the discretion, and under the direction of the President of the United States, may contract with any competent person, persons, or associa - tion, for the aid of the United States, by furnishing not exceeding two ships in laying down a submarine cable, to connect existing telegraphs between the coast of Newfoundland and the coast of Ireland, and for the use of such submarine communication when established by the gov ernment of the United States, on such terms and conditions as shall seem to the President just and reasonable, not exceeding seventy thou- sand dollars per annum until the nett pronts of such person, or persons, or association shall be equal to a dividend of six per cent . per annum,and then not exceeding fifty thousand dollars per annum for twenty - five years : Provided, That the government of Great Britain sball, before or at the same time, enter into a like contract for those purposes with the same person, persons, or association, and upon terms of exact equality with those stipulated by the United States: Ind provided, That the tariff of prices for the use of such submarine communication by the public shall be fixed by the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the government of Great Britain, or its authorized agent : Prorided further, That the United States and the citizens thereof shall enjoy the use of the said submarine telegraph communication for all time on the same terms and conditions which shall be stipulated in favor of the government of Great Britain, and the subjects thereof, recog nizing equality of rights among the citizens of the United States in the use of said submarine communication and the lines of telegraph which may at any time connect with the same at its terminus on the coast of New Foundland and in the United States, in any contract so to be en tered into by such person, persons, or association, with that government: Provided further, That the contract to be made by the British govern ment shall not be different from that already proposed by that govern ment to the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, except such provisions as may be necessary to secure to each govern ment the transmission of its own messages by its own agents : And pro rided further, That it shall be in the power of Congress, after ten years, to terminate said contract upon giving one year's notice to the parties to such contract.

[Annual Report Dept. Interior Appendix I 1880, p. 195] [PBS Transatlantic Cable] [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing] [Stathis] [Bayard 1]

August 5: The USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon begin attempt to install of the first transatlantic cable. "With capital obtained from private subscriptions in New York and London and, in part, appropriated by the British and United States governments, an attempt was made in 1857 to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean. The cable broke after 355 miles has been laid by a ship operating from Ireland." The cable could not be recovered and the effort was abandoned. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 5]

Morse partners with Field. In 1859, Field's American Telegraph Company acquires Morse' Magnetic Telegraph Company. [Letter from Morse to his wife describing attempts to lay the transatlantic cable, 12 August 1857, Bound volume---9 July 1857-2 April 1858 LOC] [Morse Timeline LOC]

The cable consisted of seven copper wires, insulated with gutta-percha latex, wound with hemp, and then protected with a sheath of iron wire. The cable, too heavy to be carried by one ship, had to be cut in two, placed on two boats, and then spliced together at sea. As a massive spool of wound copper wire, the cable also disturbed the magnetic field around the ships, messing up their navigation; this problem was solved by having guide ships lead the cable ships. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Duncan Geere, How the First Cable was Laid Across the Atlantic, Wired 2011] [Alexander at 3]

The Queen's Message

To the President of the United States, Washington -

The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest.

The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable which now connects Great Britain with the United States will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.

The Queen has much please in thus communicating with the President, and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

The President's Reply

To her Majesty, Victoria, the Queen of Great Britian

The President cordially reciprocates the congratulations of her Majesty the Queen, on the success of the great international enterprise accomplished by the science, skill and indomitable energy of the two countries.

It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle.

May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bound of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.

In this view, will not all nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communication shall be held sacred in passing to their places of destination, even in the midst of hostilities?

James Buchanan

16 August 1858

1858 :: Transatlantic Telegraph

"Mr. Bayard, from the Committee on the Judiciary, to whom was referred the bill (S. 448) to repeal an act entitled "An act to expedite telegraphic communication for the uses of the government in its foreign intercourse," approved March 3, 1857, reported it without amendment, and submitted an adverse report, (No. 313;) which was ordered to be printed. Mr. Bayard, from the Committee on the Judiciary, to whom were referred the memorial of the Magnetic and New England Union Telegraph Companies, and the memorial of the American Telegraph Company, submitted a report, (No. 313;) which was ordered to be printed." [Senate Journal June 9, 1858 Page 648] "It might well be questioned whether Congress has any authority to legislate penally on the subject, and for the purpose so indefinitely stated in the memorial ; but it cannot be doubted that the legislature of each State has full authority to control and regulate telegraph companies so far as their lines pass through the State, and to them it belongs most appropriately, either by penal legislation, or by the re strictions contained in corporate acts to prevent the monopoly and oppression within the United States complained of in the memorial ." [Report of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 9 June 1858, 35th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. Com. No. 313. Bayard Report]

March 10th: Memorial of the Magnetic Telegraph Company and the New England Union Telegraph Company to the Congress of the United States ("Your memorialists therefore pray for the passage of a general law which shall prevent combinations between citizens or companies in the united states, and monopolists or companies out of the united states for the purpose of oppressing telegraph companies and monopolizing the business of telegraphing in the united states, and shall enable all telegraph lines in the united states to form connections with all telegraph lines approaching their borders on terms of perfect equity")

June 10th: The ships again attempt to lay the cable, this time meeting in the middle of the Atlantic. The attempt failed three times, before, on June 29th, the attempt was abandoned and the ships returned to Queenstown. [Alexander at 5]

July 29: USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon begin again their attempt to lay the transatalantic cable. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable][Alexander at 5]

Aug. 4: USS Niagara reaches Newfoundland; next day HMS Agamemnon reaches Valentia Bay. The first transatlantic cable has been laid. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 5][Standage 80]

Aug. 16: First telegraph message sent across the Atlantic:

"Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men"

by the New York, New Foundland and London Telegraph Company. Queen Victoria telegraphed Pres. Buchanan with typical utopian sentiments that are met with any new communications era. Buchanan cordially replied from the White House proclaiming that the Atlantic telegraph would prove to be "a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations..." and then, having completed the ceremony, has the telegraph instrument removed from the White House. [The telegraphic messages of Queen Victoria and Pres. Buchanan, Library of Congress] [Wheeler at 5]

This cable failed Sept. 3 due to the operator increasing the voltage, compromising the insulation. 271 messages had been transmitted over its short duration. [Duncan Geere, How the First Cable was Laid Across the Atlantic, Wired 2011] [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 4][Standage 84]

Chart of the submarine Atlantic Telegraph 1858. Library of Congress

Cable Neutrality

From the beginning, USA takes the position of "Cable Neutrality." (See call that cables remain neutral in Pres. Buchanan's message.) Undersea telegraph cables were so important - and the utopian belief that improved communications would foster peace was so strong - that the USA argued that undersea cables should remain open and available to all, even to belligerents during times of conflict.

Still the upstart nation looking to its European elders, the NY Times expressed the sentiment that Cable Neutrality was unlikely.

The Telegraph is regarded as thoroughly and exclusively a British institution, —just as completely British property as the Cunard steamers; and so it will remain. It is owned mainly by British capital: it is mainly in the hands of British directors:—its ends are upon British soil, —and its operators are British subjects. In the event of war it will be used, solely and exclusively for the promotion of British interests:—and that, too, in spite of all the promises, negotiations and pledges that may be entered into. [“Our Foreign Correspondence,” New York Times, October 1, 1858]

[Jenna Supp-Montgomerie, MAKING A WORLD FOR AMERICA: ELECTRIC COMMUNICATION, EXPANSIVE PROTESTANTISM, AND GLOBALIZATION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, 2013] The Telegrapher reported on USA diplomatic efforts to negotiate the neutrality of telegraphs. [The Telegraph, Cable Neutrality, The Telegrapher VI, No. 19 (Jan 1, 1870): 149] [Cable Neutrality and Protection, The Telegrapher VII, No. 29 (March 12, 1870): 231 (negotiations with Austria "for the better protection of ocean telegraph cables")]

American "Cable Neutrality" would slam into the Spanish American War, when USA identified communications networks as a legitimate military target.

See Network Neutrality

1861: Civil War

The Trent Affair: Nov. 8, 1861: The Civil War intervenes, but in a Cuban Missile Crisis moment, a Union Navy ship boards a British mail steamer in international waters and seizes two confederate diplomats, leading the US and Britian to the brink of war."Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, had dispatched these envoys—James Mason, former Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and John Slidell, a prominent New Orleans lawyer—to secure British and French recognition of the Confederate States as a sovereign nation." [DoS] Lincoln and his Cabinet convene in the telegraph office of the War Department. Lincoln concludes that the envoys must be released and an apology given to Britan, in order to ensure that Britan remains neutral. [Bates 98] Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis led to the installation of the "red phone" for improved communications between the White House and the Kremlin, this crisis was used for a renewed call for the transatlantic cable, in order to enable diplomatic resolution of incidents. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [The Trent Affair, Office of the Historian, Department of State [DoS] ("Thanks to a communication malfunction, the cable containing the severe early reaction and demands of British officials took almost a month to arrive in Washington. ")]

1864: Russian Telegraph Bill


1866: Post Roads Act

"On July 27, 1866, the steamship "Great Eastern" completed laying a new cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Returning to mid-Atlantic, the ship located and raised the cable used in a previous attempt, spliced it, and extended it to Newfoundland, where it was landed on September 8, 1866. Thus, America and Europe were linked by two cables and other ocean cables followed. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 6]

"An act to encourage telegraphic communication between the United States and the island of Cuba and other West India Islands and the Bahamas." 14 Stat. 44 (May 5, 1866) Recites that James A Scrymser and others, composing the International Ocean Telegraph Co., a New York corporation, desire to establish a line of submarine telegraphic communication between the United States and the West India Islands. Grants to said company the sole privilege for a period of 14 years to lay cables from the coast of Florida to the Island of Cuba and the Bahamas and other West India Islands. Provides that the company shall give the United States the free use of the cables; that the said company shall keep all its lines open to the public for the daily publication of market and commercial reports and intelligence; that all messages shall be forward in the order in which they are received; no charge to exceed $3.50 for messages of 10 words." [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing] [Annual Report Dept. Interior Appendix I 1880, p. 204] 1865: International Ocean Telegraph Company established [Tom Hambright, Key West & Cuba Become Link for International Communications, Fall 1991 issue of Florida Keys Sea Heritage Journal. ]


1869: Reconstruction

The Great Eastern lays a competing cable between France and St. Pierre. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

"Ocean cables were operated by repeating the messages along the route. In 1921, "regenerators" were developed for direct transmission between terminals. Less than 300 single letters a minute could be sent over the original transatlantic cable. Later new "permalloy" cables raised that capacity to about 2,400 letters a minute.

"Until 1877, all rapid long-distance communication depended upon the telegraph. That year, a rival technology developed that would again change the face of communication -- the telephone. By 1879, patent litigation between Western Union and the infant telephone system was ended in an agreement that largely separated the two services.

. . . . .

1873: Atlantic Cable Cartel


The act of August 15, 1876 (19 Stat. 201), "An act to encourage and promote telegraphic communication between America and Asia" Grants to Celso Caesar Morena and others the right to construct, lay, land and maintaqin a cable or cables to connect the America nand Asiatic coasts by telegraph lines on the following conditions:

  1. That the government of the United States shall have the same privileges with regard to the control and use of such line that may by law, agreement or otherwise be exercised and enjoyed by any foreign company.
  2. Citizens of the United States shall enjoy the same privileges as to the payment of rates as the citizens of the most favored nations.
  3. The transmission of dispatches shall be made in the prescribed order
  4. That the line be kept open to the public for the daily transmission of market and commercial reports and intelligence, and all messages shall be forwarded in the order in which they are received.
  5. Before extending and establishing any such line in or over any waters, reefs, islands, shores, and lands within the jurisdiction of the United States, a written acceptance of terms and conditions imposed by the act shall be filed in the office of the Secretary of State.

It further provides "But nothing in this act shall be construed to limit the United States in granting to other persons or companies similar privileges herein contained. [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing]


Depiction of the Battle of Cienfuegos, Cuba, 11 May 1898, Wikicommons


"The act of August 8, 1882 (22 Stat. 371), "an act to encourage and promote telegraphic communication between America and Europe" : Grants to Samual L.M. Barlow and others, the right to lay cables to connect the American and European coasts, upon the same conditions, with the same additional privileges to the Government of the United States in the use of the lines, and with the same reservations of power to the United States to grant similar privileges to others, and to alter, amend, or repeat. Provided further, that no amalgamation, combination to establish rates, union or sale of cable interests established under this act shall be made to any European or other cable companies, and any violation of the provisions of this section shall work a forfeiture of all rights thereunder." [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing]

"The act of June 21, 1884 (23 Stat. 30) "An act to extend an act approved August 8, 1882, to encourage and promote telegraphic communication between American and Europe" : Time under the act of August 8, 1882 extended until 8th of August 1886." [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing]

1883 The act of March 3, 1883 (17 Stat. 547, 556) "An act making appropriations for the naval service for the year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and seventy four, and for other purposes. Provides "That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he hereby is, authorized to make sounding between the western coast of the United States and Japan, for scientific purposes, and for the purpose of determining the practicability of laying a telegraph cable between those points." [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing]


MacKay Bennett System established 1883, which soon became the Commercial Cable Company, lays two trans atlantic cables in 1984. Rate was 40 cents per word. Gould and CCC would go in a rate war which would drop price to 12 cents per word. By 1890 the rate had stablized at 25 cents per word. [Mackay History] CCC had ownership in common with the Postal Telegraph company.

1889 :: Battle of Cienfuegos

During the Spanish American War, the USA sought to sever communications between Spain and Cuba. The cables landed at Cienfuegos. The USA dispatched the USS Marblehead, the gunboat USS Nashville, and the revenue cutter USS Windom. The mission successfully destroyed the communications house where the cables entered from the sea, and cut the two known cables - however the the mission discovered but, due to Spanish resistance, where unable to cut the third cable. The sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. The action established the USA's military position with regards to communications networks during armed conflict. Communications networks were legitimate military targets. "Cable Neutrality" would not be followed during conflict. [Rush Doshi and Kevin McGuiness, Huawei meets history: Great powers and telecommunications risk, 1840-2021, Brookings March 2021] See also Civil War where telegraph networks were military targets


Western Union transatlantic cables. 1900. Library of Congress


Cable-landing Licenses: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, United States Senate, Sixty-sixth Congress, Third Session, on S. 4301 A Bill to Prevent The Unauthorized Landing of Submarine Cables in the United States, p. 250 et. seq. (December 15, 1920) (printed by GPO 1921) [1920 Unauthorized Landing Hearing]

1935: Undersea cable companies include Western Union; ITT (All American Cable Co.; The Commercial Cable Co; The Commercial Pacific Cable Co.); The French Telegraph Cable Co.; The Mexican Telegraph Co (owned 40% ITT; 60% WU); Cuban American Telephone and Telegraph Co (owned 50% ATT, 50% ITT). "The Western Union Telegrah Co operates 10 trans-Atlantic cable circuits between the United States and Europe and gives direct service between New York, Boston, Washington, and Montreal in North America, to the Azores Islands, Ireland, London, Paris, Amsterdam in Europe, and intermediate stations en route." "The capacity of the Western Union trans-Atlantic cable system is 325 words per minute from New York to Europe, 440 words per minute from Europe to New York. " [FCC Report 1935 at 42-45 ]