Skip to Content
With the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, people needed not only rapid modes of transport for themselves and their products but also modern means of transmitting all kinds of news. Reliable communication could be decisive for accessing colonies as well as linking markets and trade partners. Turning such communication into reality necessitated major investment in new technologies and infrastructure projects, many of which were offered and implemented by only a handful of specialized companies. The establishment of telegraph networks had been proceeding apace throughout Europe since 1845, with numerous companies active in this new area. However, in order to achieve lasting success, a combination of competitive technology, sound financing and, above all, the necessary authorizations from the governments involved were required. In Prussia, the budding enterprise Siemens & Halske was one of the leading telegraph companies.
The plan to construct a telegraph line from England to India had been under discussion repeatedly since about the 1850s. As a result, individual sections of the line had been built along this route, but a reliable, uninterrupted link was not completed until 1870. The technical prerequisites for transmitting information across such a long distance had not yet existed. After refining telegraph equipment to enable direct connections, Werner von Siemens developed an operator model geared to maximizing the profits that could be achieved by marketing his new technology. A direct Indo-European line appeared to be the most promising approach.
It was a tremendous challenge: the line had to cover a distance of 11,000 kilometers extending across the sovereign territory of four different states, and the deployment of labor and material required for a project of this magnitude had to be organized. Strong teamwork on the part of the Siemens brothers proved to be a decisive success factor here. Sir William handled the negotiations with England, the country that was clearly expected to make the greatest use of the line. Carl von Siemens served as representative to the Russian tsar, who although he was very interested in the revenue to be generated by having a modern telegraph line passing through Russia, was unable – and unwilling – to contribute any money for the endeavor. Walter Siemens, head of Siemens’ branch office in Tiflis, conducted negotiations with Persia, which had been selected for the route to India because of differences between Turkey and Russia. Finally, Prussia was basically amenable to the plan to have a company headquartered in Berlin, giving Werner von Siemens a favorable starting point there.
Nevertheless, negotiations with the various contracting parties went on for several years, until in 1867 all the necessary authorizations had finally been obtained and the Indo-European Telegraph Company, with headquarters in London, was established. The purpose of the company was to finance, construct and operate the new line. In addition to Siemens & Halske and Siemens Brother Ltd, the participating states also played a key role in the formation of the new company.
On April 12, 1870, following a construction phase of just two years, the first dispatch was sent. On this occasion, Sir William had invited prominent guests to the telegraph station in London, establishing a connection to Teheran – the intermediate station on the way to India – before successfully demonstrating a direct link to Calcutta. Werner von Siemens was present and wrote to his brother Carl that same day, “Despite fears and worries, it was a great success today! When London called Teheran, Berlin-London malfunctioned, and the connection with Kertsch was very poor. […] I called Kertsch on a second line and translation in all stations. Because that worked, I called Tiflis, then Teheran, and then got London connected with this line! […] Shout it from the rooftops […] our one minute to Teheran and 28 minutes to Calcutta.”
After this initial dispatch, the Indo-European telegraph line was in operation for more than 60 years, until 1931. It was not technical deficiencies that ultimately caused its decline, but the rise of wireless radio connections after World War I. Individual sections of the line remained in operation, and according to Corporate Archives sources, original iron telegraph masts were still in service in Iran in 1965.
Dr. Florian Kiuntke