On an isolated, gently shelving beach north of Blenheim, in the early evening of Sunday, August 26, 1866, all hands from the steamer St Kilda downed “champagne and other liquors” to toast their success. Then they lit a large bonfire on the sand and fired the gun of their ship, which lay at anchor in the bay.
The cause of the celebration: they had just laid a submarine cable across Cook Strait. The cable entered the water at Lyall Bay, Wellington and snaked some 60 kilometres across the seabed to emerge at Whites Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. Now, for the first time, the Northern Island and the Middle Island were linked by instantaneous telegraphic communication.
It had been no easy task. The first effort, a month earlier, failed when a chartered merchant vessel, Weymouth, snapped the cable while laying it. A second attempt came up short after strong currents dragged the cable out of alignment. The situation was remedied by splicing on an additional length of cable recovered from the first breakage.
However, the cable-laying expedition was not quite done with misadventure. Shortly after the ensign flew above the telegraph office in Wellington to signal success, communication across the strait was severed when the cable fouled St Kilda’s propeller as the vessel manoeuvred out of the bay. The men spent Sunday night in the water and in small boats, cutting the cable free and splicing it once more, and early on Monday morning, the two islands were once again talking to each other.
Over the years, the notorious weather and extreme tidal conditions of Cook Strait badly affected the telegraph link. In 1880, a submarine cable was laid along a safer, but longer, route from Whanganui to Cable Bay, northeast of Nelson, where the trans-Tasman cable had come ashore four years earlier. And when a fibre-optic telecommunications cable was laid across the strait in 2000, it also took a longer route—this time from Levin to Nelson.
The laying of the first telegraph cable had one unintended, but far-reaching, consequence: it altered New Zealand’s clocks.
In the mid-19th century, telegraph offices opened and closed according to local time—and in the case of Hokitika, which had no ‘public time’, whenever the manager felt inclined. But with telegraph relaying and receiving stations from Napier to Bluff now joined in one network, it was vital messages were not delayed due to an early closing in Taranaki, or because someone had yet to unlock the door in Westport.
To set matters right, on November 1, 1868, new legislation came into force establishing standard time throughout the colony. Geological Survey director James Hector selected the meridian 172º 30’ as the measure, making it exactly 11.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
New Plymouth found itself 9 minutes and 11.5 seconds ahead of the new time. Auckland was obliged to add 9 minutes 16.7 seconds, Picton to add 7 minutes 11 seconds, and the people of Bluff to subtract 12 minutes 35 seconds.
Had the men celebrating around the bonfire in Whites Bay known their work would lead to the world’s first official nationwide standard time, the party might have got out of hand.