Extremely rare chart of Transatlantic submarine cables owned by the Commercial Cable Company

Folding map printed in black and red, 15 ¼”h x 29 ¾”w at neat line plus margins. With original mailing envelope. Map with folds as issued, with a couple of minor separations at intersections and a bit of edge wear; envelope with minor soiling and bumping; very good overall.

An extremely rare navigation chart highlighting the locations of the Transatlantic telegraph cables operated by the Commercial Cable Company (aka Mackay-Bennett), published in 1886 for distribution to fishing vessels. 

In the early 1880s Western Union, controlled by Jay Gould, was the dominant player in the Transatlantic telegraph business, a position it gained by leasing existing cables from other firms. This changed in 1883 with the foundation of the Commercial Cable Company by mining magnate John Mackay and New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett. Over the next forty years the firm commissioned the laying of no fewer than six Transatlantic cables, two in 1884-85 and others in 1894, 1900-1901, 1905 and 1923. All ran from various locations in Nova Scotia to Waterville, Ireland, with additional cables connecting on to the United States and France. If I read the history correctly, the firm endured until 1938, when it merged with other cable firms to form the American Cable and Radio Corporation, of which ITT was the major shareholder.

Offered here is a chart of the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, published by the Company in 1886 for distribution to fishing vessels. The chart covers the American coast from Cape May, New Jersey to Cape Breton Island, extending in places several hundred miles offshore to include the rich codfishing grounds off Cape Cod and Sable Island. It shows the usual hydrographic data (soundings, hazards, lighthouses, &c) as well as the routes of the two “Mackay-Bennett” (i.e., Commercial Cable Company) cables laid in 1884-85, both terminating at Cape Canso, Nova Scotia. Additional cables connect Cape Canso with Brooklyn, NY and Rockport, Mass. A small circular inset at upper left, just above the title, shows the Company’s entire Transatlantic cable system.

The chart was intended to help fishing captains avoid fouling their gear on the cables. Entanglement was hazardous to the vessels involved and potentially damaging to the cables, which had been manufactured and laid at very great expense. Such events must have occurred with some frequency, for in March 1884 a “Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables” was signed by Great Britain, the United States and other nations. Key articles of the Convention are reprinted prominently in red at lower right of the map. Below this is an offer, also in red, offering compensation to any vessel that loses an anchor or tackle as a result of accidentally fouling a cable.

The map is arguably as interesting for what it does not show, namely the many other Atlantic cables then in existence, operated by competitors of the Commercial Cable Company. Damage to those competing cables would of course have been to the Company’s advantage.

Maps and broadsides commemorating the laying of the earliest Transatlantic cables appears on the market with some frequency (See for example here and here.) “Working” material, intended for use at sea during this era, is very rarely encountered, and I find no examples of the present map having appeared on the antiquarian market or in institutional collections.

A rare and interesting find from the early years of Transatlantic submarine cable operations.

OCLC 937700006, giving microfiche holdings only. Not in Library Hub Discover. Background from Bill Glover, “Atlantic Cables: 1856-2018”, “British Submarine Cable Manufacturing Companies”, and “The Commercial Cable Company”, all accessed on line at Atlantic-cable.com (May 2020).