cables in the Brest Harbor
short History of French Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cables from the French
The first underwater
cable linking Brest, Saint-Pierre and Cape Cod was commissioned by the
Société du Câble Transatlantique
Français in 1869.
The cable was manufactured by the Telegraph Construction
and Maintenance Company and laid by the Great
Eastern assisted by a number of auxiliary vessels. France's first
submarine cable operator was, however, taken over by the Anglo-American
Telegraph Company in 1873..
In 1879, Mr. Pouyer-Quertier founded a new firm, Compagnie
Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New-York,
and commissioned a new cable linking Brest to Saint-Pierre with extensions
to both Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Cape Breton, Newfoundland. The firm
soon became known as "PQ", after the founder's initials. The
nickname was so popular that for many years, the British and continental
Europeans referred to all French companies operating trans-Atlantic cables
In 1880, the company added an extension from Brest to Porthcurnnow in
Cornwall to pick up traffic from London. A little later, to avoid head-on
competition, PQ signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the Anglo-American
In 1895, at Pouyer-Quertier's instigation, Compagnie
Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New-York
merged with Société Française
des Câbles Télégraphiques, which retained the
nickname PQ in France and became totally independent of the British and
American companies. On the American side, the company was known as the
French Telegraph Cable Company, or FTCC.
One of the first things the new comany did was to lay a new cable from
Brest to Cape Cod. Manufactured in Calais, France, by Société
Industrielle des Téléphones (SIT), it took four expeditions
by the French cableship François Arago during 1897-98 to lay. At
3173 nautical miles, it was the longest telegraph cable ever laid. The
cable core weighed 300/180 kg/NM (i.e., 300kg, of copper conductor and
180 kg of guttapercha insulation per nautical mile). For deepwater sections,
the core was protected by stell armor comprising 24 wires each 2 mil in
diameter. The cable was particularly subject to twisting and kinking,
making it difficult to handle and lay
The first cable linking Brest to Saint-Pierre and Cape Cod, wich landed
ate Duxbury, Massachusetts, was abandoned in 1893. In 1899, an extension
was laid from Cape Cod to Coney Island, New York.
The PQ network comprised :
- The Brest - Saint-Pierre - Cape Cod Cable laid in 1879.
- The Brest - Cape Cod cable laid in 1898 and known as the "Le Direct".
- The Brest - Portcurnow extension laid in 1880.
- The Cape Cod - New York extension laid in 1899.
In 1891, the US terminals were grouped together at the cable station at
Orleans Cove, now the French Cable Station Museum.
On the French side, the first cable (laid in 1869) came ashore on a beach
below the lighthouse at Le Minou on the north side of the entrance to
the narrows leading from the open sea to Brest harbor. Starting in 1879,
efforts were made to find a landing point further away from Brest. A small
inlet at Deolen, 17 km west of Brest, proved ideal. Since then, all French
trans-Atlantic cables have landed at Deolen. To avoid the long detour
around Ouessant Island, extensions to Porthcurnow landed at Brignogan
to the north.
At the end of the First World War, the German cable linking Emden, Fayal
(in the Azores) and New York was assigned to France. This was rerouted
to Deolen in 1920 and its operation entrusted to PQ. To give London access
to three trans-Atlantic cables, a second extension was laid between Porthcurnow
and Brignogan in 1918.
In 1929, the Brest - Saint-Pierre - Cape Cod cable was damaged by a submarine
earthquake south of the Newfoundland Grand Banks and had to be abandoned.
Until 1925, there was no terminal station as such at Deolen, just a small
building some 200 meters above the landing point. Here the Submarine cables
were joined to a buried landline running 17 km to the main post office
in Brest. The building also contained measuring equipment to monitor the
submarine cables and locate faults on the sea end. The cables from Porthcurnow
to Brignogan ran to a similar building then by buried landline to the
Brest post office.
In Brest, messages were transferred manually from the trans-Atlantic cables
to the lines to London and Paris. The receiver was a device known as an
ink siphon recorder. The operator read the tape produced by the siphon
recorder and copied it on a typewriter. The typewritten message was then
passed to the telegraph operator connected to Paris via the French
Telegraph Network operated by Baudot or to London via Porthcurnow.
At first, transmission over the submarine cables was by operators using
handkey senders. Later punched tape and automatic senders offered a more
uniform transmission rate.
In 1922, PQ decided to centralize submarine cable operations at Deolen.
The new station, built on the site of the former cable hut, was commissioned
in 1925. It was superbly situated.The Superintendent's house was on higher
ground offering magnificent views over the Iroise Sea, the local name
for the approaches to the narrows leading to Brest harbor.
The new station featured more modern equipment and direct connections
between the submarine cables and the telegraph network linking Deolen
to PQ's Paris office via the Deolen-Brignogan landline and Portcurnow.
By this time, the latest receiving equipment at each end of the trans-Atlantic
cables was the Heurtley magnifier (a type of hot-wire amplifier). This
produced a signal strong enough to drive a regenerator which, as the name
implies, accurately regenerated each dot, dash or space in the correct
Incoming signals from London or Paris for transmission over the trans-Atlantic
cables went directly to a regenerator which acted as an automatic sender
transmitting at as steady 450 centers holes per minute for "Le Direct".
Given the cable's length (and the fact that transmission speed is inversely
proportional to square of the cable's length) this was a remarkable achievement.
It compared very favourably indeed with the Brest-Fayal cable which was
only half as long, yet operated at just 660 center holes per minute.
The new equipment at Deolen also made it possible to upgrade Le Direct
from simplex to duplex operation (i.e., simultaneous transmission in both
directions).The received signals being very weak, duplex operation required
a bridge arrangement which, in turn, called for an "artificial cable"
to balance the actual submarine cable. The cable's RLC characteristics
were duplicated using "Muirhead boxes." A 1450-F cable required
an artificial cable comprising 60 to 70 Muirhead boxes. The new equipment
was installed in a very large room in the station's basement. Mr. Bernard,
the superintendent, became very adept at quickly readjusting the artificial
cable each time repairs were made at sea.
In June 1940, the German army occupied Brest. The Brest - Cape Cod, Brest
- Fayal and Brest - Porthcurnow cables immediately ceased operation. The
German forces did not, however, damage any of the submarine cables in
the Brest area. Further out to sea, the British cut them and attempted
to divert them to the British Isles for their own use. Throughout the
German occupation of France, the German army exercised strict control
to ensure that none of the cable equipment was used for clandestine activities.
On the other hand, nothing was destroyed or removed. The Brest cable plant
was placed under the control of a highly skilled German officer with specialist
knowledge of underwater cables.
Brest and Deolen were liberated on 3 September 1944 after a 40-day siege,
including heavy shelling and bombing; but the cable station was intact
and, thanks largely to the courage and efficiency of Superintendent Bernard,
the Germans left without destroying this important resource. As a result,
the station itself was ready to operate almost at once.
By 1945, the Brest - Fayal - New York link had resumed service after having
been repaired by British cableships. To improve the connection with London,
one of the
Brignogan - Porthcurnow cables was rerouted to Deolen via a submarine
extension in 1947.
It took much longer to repair "Le Direct" as it was broken and
damaged in many places including at least three at depths between 4,000
and 5,000 meters. Repair work was undertaken by the Pierre Picard.
Built in France in 1913 and operated by PQ as the Edouard Jeramec,
she had been sold to all America Cables in
1929. In 1946 she was repurchased by the French
PTT administration and renamed the Pierre Picard. Work began on
the western side of the Atlantic. The Pierre Picard left Le Havre
in January 1949 and began repairing the shallow-water section (down to
200 m) on the continental shelf off Cape Cod and out to about 200 nautical
miles. Ten or more breaks were repaired in this section including one
very close to the Orleans Cove shore-end. In May 1949, a new shore-end
The first deepwater break, south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was not due
to natural causes. In 1941, the British had decided to use the Brest-Cape
Cod cable to provide an additional link between Halifax and Porthcurnow.
The western derivation had to be abandoned due to the threat posed by
German U-boats. When the Pierre Picard arrived on the scene in
1949, neither the PQ management nor the French PTT
administration was aware of what had happened. During a stopover in Halifax,
the officers of the Pierre Picard had the immense good fortune
to meet those of the Cyrius Field. Just before they were scheduled to
set sail, the officer of the Pierre Picard learned what they needed
to know, making their task considerably easier than it would other side
The Pierre Picard returned to Brest in September 1949 after completing
all necessary repairs between Cape Cod and a point in the mid-Atlantic
north of the Azores. Much work remained, however. The author remembers
this eight month expedition particularly well. Up to 35 days were spent
at sea between ports. As a young engineer, I assisted Mr Mangon who had
been a senior cable engineer with PQ before the war. It took two more
summer expeditions to finish the job. Given the cable's susceptibility
to twisting and kinking and the weather in North Atlantic, summer was
the only season deep-sea repairs could be undertaken with a fair chance
of success. Only in 1962 did "Le Direct" return to service.
In 1945, the Compagnie Française des Câbles
Télégraphiques closed down. The French government
asked the country's other cable operator, Compagnie
des Câbles Sud-Américains, popularly known as "Sudam"
to take over PQ's trans-Atlantic cables. The company continued to be known
as FTCC in the United States, and as PQ in
France and Britain. Customers in both european capitals had long been
accustomed to writing "via PQ" on their telegrams to America.
The French PTT administration operated two
other cables from Brest; one to Casablanca, Morocco, the other to Dakar,
Senegal. Both came ashore at the lighthouse at Le Minou, the landing
point for the first Brest-Saint Pierre cable laid in 1869. Before the
war, both were connected to buried landlines running to the terminal equipment
at Brest's central post office. With the post office destroyed during
the siege of 1944 and the new one unable to accommodate the cable terminals,
they were transferred to Deolen. For a time, the PTT
administration and Sudam shared the Deolen station, the former occupying
the first floor, Sudam the second. In 1952, the PTT
transferred the operation of its African cables to Sudam
and the Deolen station was once again under the management of a single
In engineering and operational terms, the basic principles were the same
as they had been before the war. Regeneration and direct retransmission,
element by element, to London and Paris, and direct transmission of signals
over the submarine cables after regeneration. The main improvement in
the immediate post-war period was a device to relay the recorded signal
to a normal harmonic telegraph channel on the landline network.
Le Direct was abandoned in 1959. In France, 1959 proved a big year for
submarine cable in central. Two major events marked the end of an era
and the beginning of a new one. First, Compagnie
des Câbles Sud-Americains became Compagnie
Française de Câbles sous-marins et de Radio, or FCR.
Second, the TAT 2 trans-Atlantic telephone cable was commissioned to take
over from the TAT I cable laid in 1956. FCR
obtained rights to operate telegraph circuits using the TAT 2 cable enabling
it to expand its activities as a "record carrier". FCR
also went on to become a driving force behind French participation in
the development of modern submarine telephone cables.
The Deolen station remained operational until 1962 when the Brest - Fayal
- New York cable was abandoned, after which, FCR
sold the land and building. The equipment was removed and dispersed, most
of it being destroyed. Fortunately, a few items were saved, including
two Heurtley magnifiers. One of these is to be seen at the PleumeurBodou
telecommunications museum in Brittany, the other is part of the historic
telecommunications collection in Paris. Other surviving items are displayed
by various organizations and at FCR's head office in central Paris.
It is a pity that Deolen in Brittany was not made into a museum similar
to that at Orleans, Massachusetts. On the other hand, thanks to the efforts
of everyone associated with the French Cable Station
Museum project, the world now has access to the heritage of some
60 years of service provided by Le Direct and FTCC,
or, as we say in France, PQ. During those 60 years, the Orleans station
was an important link in the saga of submarine telecommunications that
began with the first cable between England and France in 1851 and today
includes a world-encircling network of fibre-optic cables. Since the introduction
of fibre optics, submarine cables are again one of the most efficient
ways of moving information between continents.