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

The End of an Ocean Cable
Cromwell Childe (1899)

Introduction: Although the cable company is not named in the article, “one of the tallest of New York's office buildings” was the headquarters of the Commercial Cable Company at 20 Broad Street in Manhattan.

The map at the bottom of this page shows the location of the company's cable house at Coney Island, and traces the route of the landlines which connected the ocean cables across the wilds of Brooklyn to the Manhattan offices.

Although the story on this page was published in the New York Times in 1899, an article from 30 August 1894, also in the New York Times, reports that this land route was about to be abandoned by the CCC because of electrical currents from trolley cars interfering with the telegraph signals, to be replaced by an extension of the undersea cable from Coney Island around to New York Bay and up to “Pier A, North River”.

--Bill Burns
 

THE END OF AN OCEAN CABLE

WITH a cigar in his mouth a quiet, keen-eyed, bearded gentleman sits daily, very often at night and on Sundays, at a roll-topped desk high up in one of the tallest of New York’s office buildings. Hundreds of other men of far down town sit at similar desks, alike meditative and at the proper moment alert. But the task of this one man is far different from those of the hundreds. A few steps away from his seat stands a table covered with many delicate registering instruments, the precise uses of which a layman can only conjecture. A cloth is swung on wires overhead, to be let down when no one is at the table. Turn in the other direction from the desk, and through a door is to be seen a miniature electric workshop.

There is nothing imposing in this corner far aloft, away from the madding crowd of curbstone brokers, of industry and science, but a peculiar interest attaches to it nevertheless. For at the table of many instruments several of the great Atlantic cables have their American ends. The self-contained man mentioned can sit here and test any one and all of half a dozen ocean telegraph lines. What is more, he can tell, if not to an inch, at least within a few miles, in a length of many hundred just where any cable is broken or injured. It happened a few months ago that there was a break on one of the West Indian cables. After testing this the Superintendent marked out on the chart about where he thought the break was. The repair ship that went out found it was actually within a mile or so of the point indicated.

Precisely where the cable does land in New York is a question that is only to be answered in half a dozen different ways. What is practically its real termination Is not at all imposing. In one of the two great cable companies’ buildings there is a closet, or shallow room, on the ground floor, hidden away behind the great switchboard. Here, in one sense, this company’s Atlantic cables terminate. But quite as much do they end, unostentatiously, on a table in the big general operating room a few feet away, looking like any ordinary telegraphic instruments. Again they end, in a fashion, in the Superintendent’s office, as described above, that official, as it were, being able to pick up any cable in an instant. And, moreover, from yet another point of view, these ocean cables really end or land on the far northeastern coast up by Newfoundland, the cables that run into New York being, with the exception of the West Indian, purely subsidiary or secondary cables, coming round from the region of the “Banks” by skirting the coast. Deep sea cables they are most certainly, but not the veritable cables that stretch under midatlantic waters.

A cable directly into New York is in reality quite a new thing. Scores, hundreds, thousands of cable messages come even now part of the way by land, being sent on from a point near Halifax. There was a time when all cable messages traveled that way, and were subject to delays along overhead wires affected by weather. The outermost Eastern provinces of British North America are a very far cry from the United States’ commercial centres. It was a stroke of business genius that first put the theory of a cable “all water route” in the mind of a man. Now there is more than one of them, and even a cable that takes the “all water route” so literally that it comes up New York Bay, striking land among the wooden beams under Pier A, North River.

Far Manhattan Beach—that is, the remotest eastern point of it, out in the midst of the sand that even the most venturesome frequenters of the great hotels seldom venture upon—is the first bit of American (not British-American) soil the cables to New York touch. (To be strictly accurate. an exception must be noted here, one of the cable lines having its American terminal at Cape Cod.) Along this strip of beach there are two little houses, one a hut, the other hardly more than a hut. It is within these that the cables of the two chief companies come up from the sea. Thence in trenches they run underneath Brooklyn and across the bridge, with the exception of one—already mentioned In the paragraph above—which, having come to land, leaves Coney Island directly, plunges again into the sea, and finds its way up to New York’s Battery along the bottom of both the Upper and the Lower Bay.

It is more than worth the while to follow foot by foot one of these bunches of wires that have such mysterious powers, to track it from the clicking instruments that lie on a table in the great message-receiving office to the little house at Manhattan Beach, where, finally disappearing beneath the floor, it makes its way below the waves to the ocean’s bottom.

All the more worth the while is it, indeed, for the reason that we soon may hear that cable laying was a useless affair after all: that no electric message of the future will need a metal carrier, but can breast the waves or the air alone, quite accurately, quite in safety.

A technical explanation of the marvelous group of instruments that in this office of the Superintendent, once a week at all events, read the health of each cable is, it must be admitted, beyond the capabilities of the writer. And were such an explanation given It would be beyond the understanding of the average reader. Only a skilled telegrapher could appreciate the exact significance of all that is done at these tests. In brief, it is simply this: A wavering needle incased in glass registers as the cable, at rest for the moment, shut off from the service, has certain electric currents passed through it. The needle is the pulse of this long cord of wire. With never-failing accuracy it makes answer, telling not only how the cable is, but where the seat of possible trouble may be. The cable doctor does not wait until something goes wrong; he keeps his miles of submarine wire under observation and notes every symptom.

The Commercial Cable Company building at 20 Broad Street,
New York, next to the
New York Stock Exchange
(The Banker's Magazine, 1910)
Built 1897, demolished 1954

This one cable that writer and photographer followed from its very end to the last glimpse of it on land terminated in a great Broad Street office building. To speak with something resembling technical accuracy, it was not the cable itself that the Superintendent and his assistant were engaged in testing far up stairs, but a wire connecting with the cable. That stood for precisely the same thing. The real end of the cable, according to the way the operator looked at it, was on a certain receiving and transmitting table in the general office. At one side of this a man sat sending, at the other a man receiving, messages. Both tasks seemed extremely simple. The messages came not with the tick and the click commonly associated with everything telegraphic, but silently, automatically, on a thin strip of white paper, (ticker paper,) that, shut up in a curious glass-covered machine, narrow, long, a mass of wheels and of cogs, gradually unwound itself and appeared printed, in telegraphic characters before the operator’s eyes.

There lay a marvel of modern machinery for the onlooker. Hundreds of miles away the sender had “put” these messages “on the wire.” No human hand had had anything to do with them since. Of themselves they now lay printed on the long tape in New York. And in succession came others, perfect records that went to show the absolute obedience of the genii of electricity once subjugated.

Close to the man who was “receiving,” and close to this glass-covered case whence the tape came, the “recorder,” was a telegraphic instrument of the ordinary variety. As quickly as this man could read the printed tape he telegraphed the message along. To where? To a chair not three feet away on which sat a second man before a typewriter. The other end of this shortest telegraph line in the world ended in a box close to the second man’s ear. The clicks thus came to him distinctly, and as the message sounded the words were promptly set down on his typewriting machine, ready In an instant to send out by a boy.

The sending of cablegrams was no less simple. Here, again, a tape played a part. As each message to be transmitted came in a boy took it, and by a punching machine set it down on a length of tape along with others in the Continental Code. Translated now telegraphically into a series of holes punched into the tape, showing by their arrangement the dots and dashes of the cable, the message was now ready for transmission.

Behind the switchboard spoken of the cables, important commercially and telegraphically as they were, took up little space. They came to sight in a little box on the wall, a box with two glass doors. Behind the switchboard there was many a bristling wire, many a key and bit of metal. But the cable box showed almost nothing, save a few bits of covered wire. Particularly interesting were the printed notices on the little doors. One of these read, “Coney Island; do not open for Hayti,” the other, “Hayti; do not open for Coney Island.” Strange as it seemed, the mere opening of one of these little glass doors “cut out,” that is “broke,” a cable for the time being, the keeping of the door closed “cut in,” or made the connection.

The onlooker had, in fact, to take it on faith that here was a terminal of some of the mightiest of ocean cables. He felt more as if he were genuinely in the land of electrical and telegraphic mystery when he was ushered into a room in the far distant basement in which staffs of twisted wires, heavily coated, arose out of the floor. But even here the great cables made but a poor showing. Out of scores of these staffs of thick wire that, planted closely together, a forest in a room, shot from floor to ceiling, only two, and these seemingly the least significant, were the cables. Indeed, a proper sight of these ropes below the ocean must be sought elsewhere.

"Here’s where they go underground, Sir,” the workman was saying as he wiped his moist face with the most available rag, adding new streaks to the old. “They come out right under Broad Street. Unless the street is torn up somewhere you won't see 'em again until you get to the Bridge."

Then began a long and interesting journey of following the cable in its land course down to the little house on Coney Island’s sands. Once it is buried beneath the waves, a cable needs no guard, but on land it is a very different matter. In a trench a foot or so beneath the surface of the ground it is at the mercy of many an accident of city life. A chance blow from an ignorant Italian’s pick in street tearing up may half sever the pulsating stretch of metallic ribbon. Few people, even the foremen of street repairing gangs, seem to realize the presence of the cable in New York and Brooklyn, few think of its whereabouts, if indeed they know about it, few give it any heed.

A constant patrol is necessary. This company has a man who gives two-thirds of his time to tramping over the “line.” He starts out from Broad Street at noon, and follows the cable’s course, keeping an eye on all street work, warning foremen and workmen whenever it may be necessary, Sturdily and faithfully, day by day, does he go over the ground. It is seldom that he finds any danger menacing this land line, seldom that be has to send word to the office of any actual trouble, only two or three times a year that he needs to call for a gang of men to make repairs. The ounce of prevention here is worth many pounds of cure.

It was with this man, who thought nothing of a dozen miles of patrol a day, and to whom this cable was as a favorite child, that the writer and photographer journeyed one hot Summer afternoon. The route lay from the Broad Street building, under Broad Street to Water, under Water Street to under the shadow of the New York anchorage of the bridge. All this while the cable was beneath the travelers’ feet, but invisible. It seemed that, considering its delicacy, its importance, it was very slightly protected. One would imagine a casing of stone and cement for an implement of this sort that a thoughtless blow might injure, but on the contrary it was resting a few inches below the ground, in an ordinary six-inch pipe.

Experience bas gone to prove, however, that this all that is necessary. This particular cable has been down for fifteen years, and during all this time it has sustained practically no injury. The inspection day by day guards against this.

A mass of creels of telephone wire—a telephone company storing here—of dirt, and confusion is the New York anchorage yard of the Bridge. From here the massive construction of that great structure can best be appreciated. Up the great blocks of stone that towered overhead, growing unostentatiously out of the ground, two threads dingy in color could be seen climbing. side by side. These were the two great rival cables, burled under streets for a mile and more, now to cross the East River on their way to Coney Island. Out of their piping now, wrappings and all, they were but some three inches in diameter each. By the time they reached the under side of the promenade, to journey from shore to shore, they were but one and an eighth inches in diameter, slender ropes that gave no hint of their weighty duties.

The average man, the average woman, probably has not, probably would not notice these cables as they cross Brooklyn’s bridge, yet they swing in plain sight, two discolored ropes under the promenade, easily to be seen from the platform of either bridge or cable car. Down the stone of the Brooklyn side anchorage these cables drop in precisely the same fashion. Both again disappear underground. The cable the writer and photographer are following takes a devious course in its ten-odd miles through Brooklyn and Brooklyn’s suburbs. For some blocks, always only a few inches below the street, generally lying close to the curb, it rests in a two-and-a-half-inch iron pipe. Then it runs in a five-inch pine box, the boards being two and a half inches thick.

Beyond here along Vanderbilt Avenue to Prospect Park Plaza the construction changes again. The cable is now in a trench, covered over with a creosoted pine plank, ten inches wide and two and a half inches thick, with side pieces of board of the same thickness. From Prospect Park on the cable has no protection at all. It is simply laid in earth, and proceeds down Flatbush Avenue to Ocean Avenue, then under here in a straight line to Sheepshead Bay, where for a few feet it takes the water, coming out on the Coney Island sands under the cable hut.

If all is well with the cable, there is nothing to be seen in this ten-mile journeying. Accident is the only thing that exposes it to view, and months go by without more of it being visible than a bit of the box here, an end of board there, a stretch of piping elsewhere, during some street repairs or some high revel of workmen with gas and water pipes. The testing apparatus in the room described above can tell whether all is well along its entire length.

A workroom on one side, a storeroom on the other, with cots and blankets, for sometimes it is necessary for men to stay down here days at a stretch, comprise the entire outfit of the cable house on the beach. In this workroom it is that the cables appear to their best advantage. Black and bristling at their points or connection with many wires, they show against one of the walls of the room, half a dozen and more in all, some up from the ocean, having passed through the sand and under the house up through the floor, others on their way to New York, via land, or, as in the case of one, by direction of sea.

These are, after all, the genuine cables, the cables caught wild in their lair, for in this room they are seen wrapped in their ocean sheathing. Here it is that the cable gives evidence of its power, shows its strength and its trustworthiness to bind together two continents. And, as the expert electricians on duty, garbed in workingmen’s clothes, with many a dexterous twist and turn, harness one cable here to this land line, attach another, cut off yet another, splice and bind, recoat and make their joinings, all in obedience to the clicking of the messages that come to them from the Superintendent in Broad Street, who holds all of these wires literally in the hollow of his hand, one can only feel that a great magic lies in it all—the magic of the science that is of to-day.

These cables’ sheathings are wonderfully Interesting. First, there is stranded copper coil in a cable, insulated with pure gutta-percha. Over this is stretched a cushion of Russian hemp, and outside still, for protection against the elements of the deep, there is steel wire. Near shore—that is, five or ten miles out—a cable has a double coating of “armor” for better guarding against the waves. Two to two and a half inches in diameter are the dimensions of a cable near shore, one inch that of a deep-sea cable. At Canso the cables have ferrules, or rings of steel, to protect them against ice.

It is only when the cables that come from the sea need changes in connection with the “land lines” that men come to this cable house. At times the little building may he deserted for a week: again, it may be visited every day. When the cables keep in proper trim there is little to be done at Coney Island. Yet, on the other hand. these men have known a week of hard and constant work in the Winter here, on guard day and night, when storms were blowing fiercely and all else of Coney Island was deserted, the workers’ food on these occasions being mainly “canned goods.”

“Put the main cable on No. 3 underground.” This message comes in clicks from the Superintendent in New York, and the men are alert. There is a connection to be cut apart, the “land line” and a sea cable to be severed, a sharp jab with swift cutting of knives and untwisting of wires. Even more knack is required in the joining. Two lengths are dangling, to be welded into one strong rope. The solder is softened with a lamp, and dexterously the “joint” is made. There must be neat and close fitting to prevent high resistance in the circuit. Wood alcohol is poured over to remove the acid used in this soldering.

The “joint” is, so to speak, made; the cables have become one. Yet there is still much to be done. Harrington, the workman, smears on “Chatterton’s compound” (Stockholm tar, gutta perches, and resin.) to make the gutta percha adhere to the wire. Heated glue is as nothing to this combination. Harrington has to moisten his fingers constantly to prevent the gutta percha from sticking to them. With tool after tool, with turn and twist, the joining is welded into a single mass. One would never know that this rope was a few moments before two distinct cables.

Finally he drops the now completed rope and nods his head. The man who has been helping has his finger on a telegraphic instrument. “Tell him Coney Island’s O.K.” says Harrington.

The New York Times: August 27, 1899


The map shows the location of the Oriental Hotel and the Commercial Cable Company and Western Union cable houses (see photographs below). The line beginning at the flag marker at the foot of Ocean Avenue on the north side of Sheepshead Bay shows the approximate route of the landline cable to the CCC offices at Broad Street in Manhattan, which may be followed by dragging or zooming the map.

View a larger map

Photographs of the cable houses in 1909:

Commercial Cable Company and Western Union
cable houses, Coney Island, 1909
Bill Holly Collection

Detail of Commercial Cable Company’s
Coney Island cable house
Bill Holly Collection

Last revised: 16 February, 2010

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