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

Touching the Net
by Dave Boyle

Introduction: Dave Boyle recently wrote this article on cables at Loch Awe in Scotland, and has kindly given permission to reproduce it here. The original article may be seen on his blog.

-- Bill Burns

Touching the Net
by Dave Boyle

I’ve just read Andrew Blum’s fantastic Tubes, about the physical infrastructure of the internet. I’ve long been interested in the subject, after reading Neal Stephenson’s seminal Mother Earth, Mother Board in Wired years back. I think it’s the fragility of the internet that they reveal, and whilst the telecoms network of voice calls was no less fragile, we weren’t always on and dependent on it.

Every year for the last 9 years, I’ve gone fishing on Loch Awe in Scotland, where I stay with some friends at a cottage. Years ago when building a boathouse, the cottage owner was told that all building work needed to be cleared first with the council as “the hotline ran underneath”. At the time, I’d been intrigued but not done anything about it, but in the last 12 months, I’ve done some more research and pieced together the story, which led to me holding the cable in my hands last week.

There’s two cables that cross Loch Awe: one built in 1937 and a later cable in 1956. The first was a standard telephony cable, and ran above ground when not under the Loch. It came across the loch because of the geography of the Highlands, for the same reasons that the drovers took cattle the same way. Loch Awe runs SW to NE diagonally, creating a barrier from the central belt to the Highlands. You can either cross the Loch at its shortest point (around 520m) or go around via Dalmally, a journey about 13 miles longer.

For hundreds of years, drovers bringing cattle from the Highlands chose the ferry. As Andrew says in his book, geography is destiny. Just because it’s the internet and modern and futuristic doesn’t make it any less in need of the same shortcuts as those transporting Scottish Kings to Iona for burial.

The 1937 cable crossed just east of the Taycreggan, a drover’s inn at the northern ferry port, which is now a lovely hotel of the same name. You can see the gap in the trees in the google satellite view below, so as to allow the cable to climb to the brow of the hill rising up from the Loch shore. You can see this cable being floated across the loch in this Pathé news feature from the time and also this snippet from the Glasgow Herald.

In the 1950s, a consortium was created to build a new cable across the Atlantic, the first modern telephone cable capable of handling a volume of ordinary calls thanks to in-line repeaters that boosted the signal every 40 miles or so to get it across the ocean. This cable - TAT-1 - was to land in Gallanach Bay, just south of Oban at a specially constructed landing station hewn out of the rock. The tricky part was getting the signal from there to Glasgow, and thence London and the rest of the world. Relying on the existing cable - and thus overhead wires - was deemed too likely to leave the signal exposed to the vicissitudes of weather, and so a new cable was laid from Oban to Glasgow, around 80 miles.

This cable leaves the Loch to the west of Taycreggan, next to a small jetty which leaves the road just after a bridge carrying a small brook into the loch. You can clearly see two cables - the original one from 1955, alongside another one laid more recently. I couldn’t work out how far the heavy casing around the original went on for, but you can see it very faintly on google maps coming out of the water just to the left of the of the jetty. At both sites, there’s various bits of detritus from the installation - van doors, loads of unused wire, old kit that’s been replaced and such like.

I followed the cable up the shore, and then through pretty dense (and, given it was chucking it down at the time and I was in appallingly ill-suited shoes, quite hairy) foliage up to the top of the road, where it connects to big old metal GPO telecoms box.

The cable would have needed power for repeaters along the way, and I suspect that the communities alongside it got a boost as a side benefit; I read a local history of the area which said electricity came in 1956, many years before many larger communities in the highlands and islands got hooked up.

TAT-1 became the backbone of the hotline when it was established after the Cuban missile crisis, until it was decommissioned in 1978, having long since been superseded by successor cables which ran at greater speeds. Even so, the two cables are still seemingly in use, a relatively new too. I presume they’re part of the west highland telephony network, and the newer cable laid since 1956 could well be an domestic fibre cable for the Highlands - comments on this welcome!

The two sites are here on this google map I’ve made for this post:

View Loch Awe Cables in a larger map

Thanks are due to several people who helped enormously in researching and writing this post. Fiona Sutherland, manager of the Taycreggan Hotel was very helpful and saved me hours of stomping through undergrowth by pointing the way. Alison Taubman from the National Museum of Scotland sent me several articles on TAT-1’s construction, and put me in touch with Philip Kelly, one of the project’s senior engineers.

Last revised: 6 September, 2012

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