Porthcurno, telegraphs and sharks?

On the Monday afternoon we headed back to Porthcurno. We had previously visited the amazing Minack Theatre perched up on the cliff.

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Today we were heading for the telegraph museum. While G had a quick nap in the car, I took a stroll down to the beach. Porthcurno beach and bay, enclosed by the Logan Rock headland is a stunning stretch of golden sands, which has been listed as one of the top ten beaches in the world! Not exactly tropical weather today but still beautiful.

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At the beach you can see the Cable Hut/House the last point before the cables go under the sea. In fact you can still see one of the thick cables. So what were these cables? And why was this site so important? We went into the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum to find out how this spot in Cornwall became the most important communications site in Britain.

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The first cable under the Atlantic Ocean was laid in 1866 by the SS Great Eastern and in Cornwall the first submarine telegraph cables were landed here in Porthcurno in 1870, part of an early international link from the UK to India (then a British colony). In 1872 the Eastern Telegraph Company Limited was formed which took over the operation of the cables and built a cable office in the Porthcurno Valley. Between the wars, the office operated as many as 14 cables for a time, the largest submarine cable station in the world, with the capacity to received and transmit up to a two million words a day. The telegraph message (though primitive in today’s technical world) transformed global communications! Before telegraphs, the quickest way to communicate with another continent was sending a letter by ship!

From the 1850s until well into the 20th century, British submarine cable systems dominated the world. In 1896 there were thirty cable laying ships in the world and 24 of them were owned by British companies!

By World War 2, the office at Porthcurno had become a crucial communication centre and to improve the security of the site, a network of tunnels were built to shelter the essential telegraph equipment from enemy fire.

It’s a fascinating place to visit with plenty of hands-on exhibits (morse code practice anyone?) and lots of information about the people who worked here and at sea laying the cables.

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It’s fascinating history, of course. But surely in this world of global satellites, we no longer need to lay cables under the sea? You might think so, but actually our internet today still relies on those underground cables. In fact 99% of all international data is transmitted by submarine communications cables, hundreds of thousands of miles long. Laying these cables is a complex expensive business! Thwarted rather by sharks, who happen to like gnawing on those cables so that companies such as Google, need to shield their cables in shark proof wire wrappers! Ouch.

Telegraphy (from Greek: τῆλε têle, “at a distance” and γράφειν gráphein, “to write”) is the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic (as opposed to verbal or audio) messages

Porthcurno, telegraphs and sharks?