1871-72 The electric telegraph reaches Hong Kong
When the British first arrived in Hong Kong at the start of the 1840s, it took months to send a message to London and then receive a reply - messages only travelled as fast as the quickest sailing ship.
Just 30 years later, the electric telegraph reached Hong Kong: a message could be sent and the reply received on the same day. It must have had a huge impact on how business and government was run.
When exactly the first telegrams were sent Hong Kong needs a bit more explanation, as there were two cables heading towards Hong Kong from different directions, built in different orders:
Southern cable via Singapore and India
The southern cable was laid in segments by a group of British companies. It linked Britain to Hong Kong via Malta, Suez, Bombay, and Singapore. The final Singapore-Hong Kong section was laid by the China Submarine Cable Co., and landed at Hong Kong's Telegraph Bay.
The cable was completed on the 4th of June, and the event was reported the next day on page 2 of the Hong Kong Daily Press:
THE CHINA SUBMARINE CABLE.
We have received information that the final splice of the China Submarine Cabin was made yesterday afternoon at half-past 4 o’clock, under the supervision of Messrs. London and Laws with efficient staffs, on behalf of the China Submarine Cable Co., thus placing Hongkong in communication with Singapore and the other ports of the telegraphic world as far as San. Francisco. [...]
About 100 knots being paid out, the cable was cut and the end buoyed about 43 miles from Hongkong, the Belgian remaining outside to keep watch over the buoy. The Minia then steamed in for Taitowan where she anchored, at the spot selected for her, at about 6.30 pm, on Friday. Arrangements were then made to land the shore end as speedily as possible, in order that there might be sufficient time to get out to the buoy and make the final splice before dark. Notwithstanding the thick, unfavourable weather, this operation was finished by 4.30 p.m., the two ends having been previously tested, aad the electrical condition of the cable found satisfactory thus completing the communication with Singapore, India, Europe and America, the total length of cable laid being 1567 knots, actual distance 1483.
The new cable was soon in action, as several congratulatory telegrams were reproduced on page 2 of Hong Kong Daily Press, 1871-06-15. The earliest shown was sent on 11th June.
Northern cable via Shanghai and Siberia
The Great Northern China and Japan Extension Telegraphic Company was a Danish company, created to build and operate a telegraph cable linking Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan with each other, and to Vladivostok on Russia's east coast. From Vladivostok a cable ran along the Trans-Siberian Railway, linking Hong Kong to telegraph networks in Britain, Europe, and America.
The Shanghai-Hong Kong cable landed at Deep Water Bay, and was first used on the 18th April 1871. They beat the southern cable to send the first international telegram from Hong Kong, but took second place in the race to send telegrams to London. The connection to Vladivostok was only completed at the end of the year, and the first telegram to London via the northern cable was sent on the 1st of January, 1972.
Timeline of firsts
- April 1871: First international telegram sent from Hong Kong (telegram to Shanghai via northern cable)
- June 1871: First telegram sent from HK to London (via southern cable)
- January 1872: First telegram sent from HK to London via the northern cable
The information about the northern cable comes from an outline of the history of The Great Northern Telegraph Company. The outline is reproduced on the website http://atlantic-cable.com, which describes itself as "History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network".