Frederick Gisborne

A Pioneer of the Telegraphic Link


Putting up Government telephone lines

through the rural district.

(Photo: Department of Energy, Mines & Resources - National Archives of Canada)

Frederick Newton Gisborne was a "doer" as well as a "dreamer". A giant of a man in stature and deed, he was the sort who would not give up, chasing the impossible dream in order to make it a reality. A descendent of Sir Isaac Newton, he set out to make his own mark on history. Unfortunately, he became one of the many Canadian inventors who were used, and then shoved aside and ignored.


Setting the Stage

At age 18 he left England equipped with an education in mathematics and civil engineering, to tour Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Guatemala. Then he stopped home briefly to pack for good and emigrate to Canada. He tried fanning near St. Eustache, Quebec, while at the same time reading everything he could get his hands on relating to elec­tricity and telegraphy.


In 1847 he learned that Sam Morse was setting up a school for telegraphers in Montreal and quickly made it his business to enrol. His engineering background, along with some of the scientific curiosity likely inherited from Newton, enabled him not only to show an unusual grasp of telegraphy, but also to make minor improvements to the telegraphic system.


The Beginning of the Dream

Soon his expertise enabled him to become superintendent of the British North American Electric Telegraph Association and as such, constructed a 112 mile pole line connecting Quebec City to Riviere du Loup. But, as a "doer" chasing success, he was not sat­isfied as superintendent --the "dreamer" in him was too restless for that.


These dreams carried him into New Brunswick with visions of the "lightning wire" uniting Upper and Lower Canada. However, New Brunswickers were more interested in communicating with Maine than with anywhere as far away as Montreal or Quebec City. Them was no business there; trade was north and south.


Who was this 24-year-old upstart who wanted to control telegraphy? He was one to be watched! They sent a warning letter to Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia about this "hustler". However, Howe was unaffected by this prejudice and liked the young man's style. Howe, part of a government commission appointed to study telegraphy, shared the same vision as Gisborne.


So soon, Gisborne set out to establish the Halifax-Amherst link, thus ending the short lived Pony Express. Already, com­munications technology had displaced its first workers.


To put things in the context of time, it was November 1849, and both Edison and Bell were two years old. Edison's family had moved from the Digby area of Nova Scotia to Ontario, and Bell's grandfather had left Newfoundland to return to Scot­land. Marconi and Fessenden were not yet even gleams in their fathers eyes.


Gisborne the "doer" was not prepared to vegetate as the manager of the Nova Scotia Government Telegraphs. The dreamer had more in mind than that -- a telegraph line connecting the mainland with the col­ony of Newfoundland. This would cut Eu­ropean message time by 48 hours. A line was completed around Conception Bay in 1851.


Now, armed with 500 "pounds sterling" and a charter for the "Newfoundland Elec­tric Telegraph", he moved inland. With six companions he set out across the island. Dreamers would have balked at the jour­ney, and even his six associates gave up, leaving him to find himself a quartet of tough Indian woodsmen.


Gisbome's own description however, was that it had been an "arduous" journey -- a classic understatement! Incredibly, he pronounced the trans-provincial line "per­fectly practicable"!


Even a "doer" would have been satis­fied with the prospect of exclusive 30-year­rights to telegraph construction in Newfound­land. But not so. If we could send mes­sages across the country, why not a wire connecting Canada and England? The political and economical impact of such a link would have been invaluable.


A New Frontier

Gisborne had a certain amount of prac­ticality in his make-up and decided to try a link with New Brunswick and P.E.I. No­body in North America had experience in underwater-cabling, and in keeping with a long standing Canadian custom, no one would put up the money for such a risky venture. So it was off to New York for the money, and then to England for an education in underwater cabling.


His teacher was John W. Brett who, along with his brother, had laid cable from Ireland to Great Britain. They used four separate copper wires, encased in rubber, tarred hemp and wrapped with 10 galva­nized wires for strength. Buying fifteen miles of cable seemed enough to worry about, but this was not the only problem -- it was not as simple as tying one end of cable around a tree and swimming across the Northumberland Straight with the other tied around one's waist! So, he made improvements to the cable coating, and designed a feeding sys­tem to play out the heavy cable at the same speed the boat travelled. He also had to devise a way to connect the wires and once ashore, secure the telegraph poles in the ground so that they would not wobble (We have Gisborne to thank for inventing the post-hole digger!). In November 1852, aided by teams of horses and oxen, the last mile of cable was wrestled ashore and, what's more -- it worked!


Encouraged by this experience, Gisborne corresponded with Brett and soon the proj­ect was named the Brett and Gisborne Atlantic Telegraph. Brett estimated that 750,000 pounds sterling would do it. "I can get half over here, and if you can raise 375,000 pounds we will be in business".


Unfortunately, Gisborne's ledger was far from balanced. Deeply in debt, he had lost all of his property and it looked like he would go to jail. Not a quitter, he tried to raise money in both England and New York, but to no avail.


A Partnership Was Born

Then, by chance Gisborne met a young engineer named Matthew Field at the Astor Hotel, in New York. Matthew's brother Cyrus, was another visionary. Not only could Field grasp the challenge that lay ahead, but of equal importance he had the money, the credibility and the contacts to make it work.


It turned out though, that Gisborne had not been the first to speculate on a "Trans­Atlantic" cable -- Samuel Morse had done so in the early 40's, and there was more than coincidence in the fact that after meeting Gisborne, Field consulted Morse about the feasibility of the cable. Within 15 minutes, a deal had been struck between he and Field. They assimi­lated the financially troubled Gisborne enterprise, accepting debts and the right­of-way.


Gisborne was redeemed, but it eventu­ally became apparent that it was a bitter victory. Morse was named chief electri­cian, while Gisborne served as chief engi­neer -- a hollow title. Not on the board of directors, he was assigned to serve under Fields' brother. Consequently, Gisborne resigned the post in 1857.


In spite of a glowing recommendation from the company president, there was no further allusion to Gisborne. Any mention of his contributions were obliterated from the company history, and records went on to report that the idea had instead origi­nated with Fields.


The Continued Dream

That may have been the end of Gisborne and the trans-Atlantic cable, but not the end of Gisborne the dreamer. First, he returned to New Zealand to study the country's geology, and was next found in England as the Nova Scotia Agent for Mines and Minerals. Then, the 1860's saw him at Interna­tional exhibitions in London and Paris as the province's commissioner.


In the 1870s, Gisborne was back in Nova Scotia building the Glasgow and Cape Breton rail line, a 12 mile narrow gauge railway. Then in 1879, he was superinten­dent of the Canadian Government Tele­graph service, compiling maps of telegraph networks across the country.


When he eventually died nine years later in Ottawa during a trip to the east coast - his doctor had previously warned him against the trip - Gisborne merely re­sponded in a manner that was characteris­tic of the way he had lived his fife: "I have a duty to perform and I shall make the effort".


What better epitaph could there be for Gisborne the "Doer"?