In 1812, Baron Schilling detonated a mine under the Neva River at St. Petersburg by using an electrical pulse sent through a cable insulated with strips of India rubber. This is probably the earliest use of a continuously insulated conductor on record. One of the earliest experiments with an underground line was made by Francis Ronalds in 1816.
This work was in conjunction with a system of telegraphy consisting of 500 feet of bare copper conductor drawn into glass tubes, joined together with sleeve joints and sealed with wax. The tubes were placed in a creosoted wooden trough buried in the ground. Ronalds was very enthusiastic over the success of this line, predicting that underground conductors would be widely used for electrical purposes, and outlining many of the essential characteristics of a modem distribution system. The conductor in this case was first insulated with cotton saturated with shellac before being drawn into the tubes. Later, strips of India rubber were used. This installation had many insulation failures and was abandoned. No serious attempt was made to develop the idea commercially. In 1837, W. R. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone laid an underground line along the railroad right-of-way between London’s Euston and Camden stations for their five-wire system of telegraphy. The wires were insulated with cotton saturated in rosin and were installed in separate grooves in a piece of timber coated with pitch. This line operated satisfactorily for a short time, but a number of insulation failures due to the absorption of moisture led to its abandonment. The next year, Cooke and Wheatstone installed a line between Paddington and Drayton, but iron pipe was substituted for the timber to give better protection from moisture. Insulation failures also occurred on this line after a short time, and it was also abandoned. In 1842, S. F. B. Morse laid a cable insulated with jute, saturated in pitch, and covered with strips of India rubber between Governor’s Island and Castle Garden in New York harbor. The next year, a similar line was laid across a canal in Washington, D.C. The success of these experiments induced Morse to write to the Secretary of the Treasury that he believed “telegraphic communications on the electro-magnetic plan can with a certainty be established across the Atlantic Ocean.” In 1844, Morse obtained an appropriation fkom the U.S. Congress for a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. An underground conductor was planned and several miles were actually laid before the insulation was proved to be defective. The underground project was abandoned and an overhead line erected. The conductor was originally planned to be a #16 gage copper insulated with cotton and saturated in shellac. Four insulated wires were drawn into a close fitting lead pipe that was then passed between rollers and drawn down into close contact with the conductors. The cable was coiled on drums in 300 foot lengths and laid by means of a specially designed plow. Thus, the first attempts at underground construction were unsuccessful, and overhead construction was necessary to assure the satisfactory performance of the lines. After the failure Morse’s line, no additional attempts were made to utilize underground construction in the United States until Thomas A. Edison’s time. Gutta-percha was introduced into Europe in 1842 by Dr. W. Montgomery, and in 1846 was adopted on the recommendation of Dr. Werner Siemens for the telegraph line that the Prussian government was installing. Approximately 3,000 miles of such wire were laid from 1847 to 1852. Unfortunately, the perishable nature of the material was not known at the time, and no adequate means of protecting it from oxidation was provided. Insulation troubles soon began to develop and eventually became so serious that the entire installation was abandoned. However, gutta-percha provided a very satisfactory material for insulating telegraph cables when properly protected from oxidation. It was used extensively for both underground and submarine installations. In 1860, vulcanized rubber was used for the first time as an insulation for wires. Unvulcanized rubber had been used on several of the very early lines in strips applied over fibrous insulation for moisture protection. This system had generally been unsatisfactory because of difficulties in closing the seam. Vulcanized rubber proved a much better insulating material, but did not become a serious competitor of gutta-percha until some years later.
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