This Week in History


Turning the Tide in Communications

For the week of Monday October 25, 2004

On October 31, 1902, the Pacific Cable was officially opened. Sir Sandford Fleming, a prominent Scottish engineer who was once the Chief Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was also a major force in the realization of this project. The Pacific submarine telegraph cable extended under the Pacific Ocean to connect the British territories around the Pacific Rim. Fleming believed that modernizing the communications system would increase the sense of unity in the British Empire.

Sir Sandford Fleming
© Library and Archives of Canada / C-0014128

Fleming proposed this project to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, and his government allowed Fleming to organize the government-controlled Pacific Cable Company. In 1894, the Canadian government hosted a meeting about the Pacific Cable, with representatives from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Cape Colony attending. The meeting resulted in tenders being called. To the surprise of many of the representatives at the meeting, more than six companies responded. Fleming was delighted that so many businesses were willing to undertake the construction of the Pacific Cable.

In an 1896 meeting of the Imperial Pacific Cable Committee, the representatives agreed to state-ownership. The route was established as Vancouver Island, Fanning Island, Fiji, Norfolk Island, New Zealand, and Australia. In 1887, Fleming attended the Jubilee Colonial Conference in London. This was his golden opportunity to promote the Pacific Cable to the rest of the Empire. Although Fleming’s proposal met opposition from critics, he responded with sound arguments. Fleming's belief that the Pacific Cable would enable secure communications within the British Empire because it did not pass through any foreign country, was very convincing.

View of Pacific Cable Station, Bamfield, British Columbia
© Library and Archives of Canada / PA-037135

The cable was British, state-owned and made possible through financing from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. To celebrate the opening of the Pacific Cable, King Edward VII sent a greeting to the people of Fiji. The first message to be received in Canada was congratulations from the New Zealand Prime Minister to Sir Sandford Fleming.

The Pacific Cable was revolutionary in the development of modern communications. Today, communications are more advanced than Sir Sandford Fleming could have ever imagined. The completion of the Pacific Cable was designated as a National Historic Event of Canada in 1927.

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