Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The French Cable Station

On November 24, 1959, the French Cable Station in Orleans, Massachusetts closed after sending the following message: "Have a happy Thanksgiving. Station closed."

The cable from France to North Eastham, via Newfoundland, had been laid in 1879, and the station then moved to Orleans in 1891. In 1898, a 3,200 mile direct cable ("Le Direct") from France to Orleans was installed. So by 1905, when the photo shown in the above postcard was taken, the French Cable Station was already a fixture on the Cape Cod scene. It later transmitted the news that Lindbergh had landed in Paris in 1927, and that the Germans had taken Paris in 1940. Today it serves as The French Cable Station Museum.

An 1892 Boston Globe article describes the operation of the station:

A good cable operator can keep up a steady pace of 25 words a minute, although of course on occasion and by spurts this rate is often exceeded; yet an operator who can do his 25 a minute is a skilled hand.

The French cable, after plunging into the Atlantic from the Cape Cod shore, makes straight off to sea for the island of St. Pierre, where there is another station, where the messages are repeated to Brest, on the French coast. The fact of the repetition, however, causes no delay worth consideration. . . .

Supposing operators at both ends are sending messages at the rate of 25 words per minute, that is to say, 50 words a minute both ways, each cable would have an hourly capacity of 3000 words, or 30,000 words per hour for the entire 10 - 72,000 for the entire 24 [hours] of each.

When it is understood that all these cables are kept pretty busy night and day, it will be possible to appreciate in a measure what the telegraphic communication between the United States and Europe has grown to be.

Illustration Credits and References

This article from Cape Cod Today describes the history of the station.

1 comment:

Rick Beyer said...

The telegraph, of course, is the forgotten technology that revolutionized communications.

Instant messaging in the mid 1800's was considered almost magical. The very first telegraph line in the US was set up by Samuel Morse from Baltimore to Washington in 1844. When he began telegraphing reports from Baltimore about the political conventions going on there, crowds gathered around his Washington telegraph office in the basement of the capitol to hear the latest bulletin. According to a Washington newspaper, the National Intelligencer, the reports were received “as the responses of the ancient Oracle may be supposed to have been.” The age of instant news updates was born.

Modesty should. but does not, forbid me from mentioning that this is a story told in my book The Greatest Stories Never Told.

A fascinating history of the telegraph, and the many ways in which it presaged the internet, can be found in Tom Standage's wonderful book The Victorian Internet.