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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

1889: Cable Operators
The Little Army of Men Who Work the Long Ocean Wires

Introduction: Thanks to Richard Hobby for supplying this article from the Utica Morning Herald, Thursday, May 16, 1889.

--Bill Burns

Cable Operators
The Little Army of Men Who Work the Long Ocean Wires

Although it is comparatively a very brief period since the first submarine telegraphic cable was successfully laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, such vast strides have been made in the perfection, construction and laying of deep-sea cables that the earth is almost entirely girded by them. The coast lines of the American, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia are festooned with countless miles of submarine cable that loop gracefully from the ocean bed at regular intervals to touch at some busy seaport or relay offices. There are now, says the New York Herald, nine great submarine cable companies in the world with over 60,000 miles of cable extending to the remotest parts of the habitable globe.

The greatest or these companies is the Eastern Telegraph Company of London with 39,000 miles of cable under its control. This line starts from Lands End, Eng., and runs under the ocean to Lisbon. From there it loops to Gibraltar, then under the Mediterranean to Malta and Alexandria. Overland to Suez, under the Red Sea to Aden, under the Gulf of Arabia to Bombay, looping around to Madras, to Singapore, to Saigon, to Hong Kong, Amoy and Shanghai in China, to Nagasaki, ending at Vladivostock, Eastern Siberia. Africa is looped on the east from Aden to Zanzibar to Cape Town. On the west coast 4,000 miles of cable only touch at four places. Another long cable runs from Lisbon to Pernambuco. South America is festooned on both coasts as far south as the Argentine Republic The Eastern also has a line to India through Persia thence through the Persian Gulf There are nine working cables between America and England. All the West Indian Islands, the Grecian Archipelago and Australasia are all reached by cables.

To work the vast lengths of submarine cables a good-sized army of operators is employed. Not much has been written about these men, but these deep-sea cable operators constitute one of the finest bodies of skilled workers in the world. All the cable lines are manufactured and owned in England, and the operators are almost without exception Englishmen, These cablemen are brave, fearless and far above the average intelligence. They never flinch from going where duty calls them, and they are most important factors in commerce, diplomacy and provincial government. They are great travelers, and numbers of them have been in every part of the known world. The deep-sea cablemen are taught the rudimentary elements in London. They are then sent to Porth Kurno, Penzance, where they become familiar with the working of the syphon recorder, the spark and the transmitter. When proficient they are detailed to any place touched by cable. These operators are well paid, work short hours and very seldom leave the service. They are called upon to work in the deadly fevers of Panama and Africa, to face wild beasts in India, to work among prowling bands of robber nomads in Arabia and Persia, they must live in the cholera-stricken cities of Siam and China, the yellow fever of Cuba, the torrid climate of South America and the bleak coast of Eastern Siberia But in spite of the fact that the cable lines are laid through such pestilential countries, the mortality rate among the cable operators is very low. This is no doubt due to the fact that the companies are continually changing their men about in such places. An operator is detailed to very unhealthy places for six months or a year. He is then sent to some very healthy spot. Men are often transferred from Panama to Nagasaki or Cape Town.

The largest force of operators are kept at the repeating stations where all messages have to be transferred. At Suez and Aden sixty cablemen are employed at each station. On the American side the largest force is at Heart's Content, Newfoundland, where there are forty men. This is a steady colony of cable operators. Nearly all of the older men are married and are bringing up families. They have a chapel, school, clubhouse and own their own houses. At the cable stations the company builds several buildings, including the office, a club-house furnished with a piano, billiard table, card room and all conveniences. Single men live here. Marriage is encouraged, and when a man marries he is given a small house, his fuel and the doctor's services, all free. Life is made as pleasant as possible, and the stations are furnished with boathouses, sail and row-boats and fire-arms, The men are given thirty days' vacation, with pay yearly. The leave is cumulative, and if a man works five years he is given five months' leave with pay and his passage paid to whatever part of the world he may live in. The cablemen are regarded as a species of supernatural being by the different wild tribes in outlandish countries.

Mr. J. Seton, of the Commercial Cable Company of New York City, has seen service all over the world. He has been in Russia, China, India Persia, Egypt, South America, Panama and Mexico. Mr. Seton was stationed in the Persian Gulf for seven years. The worst place he was ever stationed, Mr. Seton said, was on the island of Mussenden, in the Gulf of Oman. It is a repeating station on the Eastern Telegraph Company's line. The island is so small that a good swimmer could swim around it in fourteen minutes. On this small place were stationed twenty cable workers. Not a single article of food could be raised on the Island, and all their provisions had to be brought from Bombay and consisted entirely of canned goods. The mainland was filled with bands of murderous robbing nomads, and frequently a British gunboat had to be summoned and the shores raked with shell. A detachment of marines were always kept at the station for its protection. A few miles inland fresh mutton could be procured, but it was at the risk of the men's lives, as they were repeatedly attacked. Aden is also a dangerous place to work. The cablemen are, as a rule, most graciously treated by the rulers of the countries through which the line touch, as they stand in fear of England's wrath. On the great Indo-European line which runs overland through Persia the native who molests the line has either his arm, foot or ear cut off as a punishment.

The Bashi Bazooka had a great deal of fun in shooting the insulators off the poles of the Indo European Company, until an edict was issued making it an offense, punishable by cutting off a hand foot or ear of the perpetrator. Numbers of men with mangled limbs can be seen throughout the Persian desert.


Compare the conditions described in this article with life at Valentia, Ireland in 1885, and at Orleans, Massachusetts in 1892.

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