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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 French Cable Station Museum
at Orleans, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Note: The French Cable Station Museum website is now on line, with a history of the station, details of the exhibits, and information for visitors.

France laid its first submarine cable across the Atlantic in 1869, from the cove of Petit Minou (about 10km west of Brest on the French mainland) to Saint-Pierre et Miquelon (off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada), with an extension to Duxbury, Massachusetts.  After four years this enterprise was absorbed by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company. See Bill Glover's detailed history of the French cable companies.

In 1879 a new French cable was laid. Its owner was La Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York, which contracted with the English company of Siemens Brothers to manufacture and lay the cable.  The order was placed in March 1879, and Siemens began laying it in June, using their cableship Faraday (1), built in 1874 as the first ship designed specifically for laying cable. The cable stretched 2,242 nautical miles across the Atlantic from Deolen (about 17km west of Brest) to St. Pierre and 827 nautical miles from there to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, landing at a custom-built station near the Nauset Light Beach lighthouse at North Eastham which was used for the next twelve years 

The North Eastham station was somewhat isolated and difficult to access in the winter, so in 1891 a new station was built at Orleans, near the town's commercial district.  A cable from the old station at Nauset was laid across Nauset Marsh to the foot of Town Cove at Orleans and then to the new cable station house. Maintaining the large, old station merely as a connection point proved too costly, and, as a result, the Nauset station house was sold in 1893. At the same time, a small hut that measured about ten by fifteen feet was constructed near the old station as a connecting point for the cable. That hut currently forms part of the structure known as the French Cable Hut.

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These cable maps, published by the International Telegraph Bureau, Bern, in 1897, show the 1879 cable route from Brest to St. Pierre & Miquelon, continuing to Cape Cod.

The New York Times reported the landing of the cable on November 17th:

THE NEW OCEAN CABLE IN PLACE
THE FINAL SPLICE MADE—A CONGRATULATORY DISPATCH TO FRANCE.

NORTH EASTHAM, Mass.,  Nov 17, 1879.  The steamer Faraday returned at 7:30 A.M. Sunday, and anchored a mile off the beach. George Van Chauvin, cable engineer, boarded the steamer, followed soon after by President Bates and vice-president Thomas Swinyard, who went on board to welcome Capt. Trott, of the Faraday, and L. Loeffler, the agent of Siemens Brothers. The work was immediately commenced on the shore end of the cables and at 6 P.M. it was on the beach and laid through a trench dug to receive it, and signals exchanged with the Faraday from a temporary building on the beach. The shore end being landed, the officers connected with the cable company and the American Union Telegraph Company, with M. P. Magno, Inspector of French telegraph lines, and Count von Hoff, went on board of the steamer, and she proceeded to the spot where the cable is buoyed, about 10 miles off shore. To-day the final splice was made, and the cable was worked throughout the entire circuit from Cape Cod to Brest. About 1,000 people visited the beach yesterday from adjoining towns, many of whom went on board the Faraday.

The first dispatch over the new cable to Brest, from this station, was the following:

NANSET BEACON LIGHT, CAPE COD.
NORTH EASTHAM, Mass., Nov. 17, 1879.

To President of Compagnie Francaise du Telegraph de Paris et New-York:

It gives me unbounded pleasure to send to you, through your own cable, this moment completed, the warmest congratulations of my company upon an achievement in respect of which, both as regards rapid construction and the laying, as well as perfect insulation, there is no parallel in cable history, it being only just seven months from this very day, the 17th of November, since the concession to your company was granted by the French Government. Messrs. Siemens Brothers, Mr. Loeffler, Capt. Trott, and Mr. George Von Chauvin, your worthy representatives in this country, deserve the highest praise for the energetic and able part each has taken in this great enterprise, through the success and instrumentality of which, it is devoutly hoped, that national friendship and commercial intercourse between our two Republics, as well as between the Old and New Worlds generally, will be still further strengthened and advanced.

D.H. BATES
President American Union Telegraph Company.

The steamer Faraday arrived back from making the final splice at 3:30 P. M. The entire party soon after assembled on the beach, where mutual congratulations were exchanged. All the business having been finished, a final departure from the beach took place, and, at a few minutes before 6 o'clock, the party started from North Eastham Station, by special train, for Boston. Previous to starting, Cable Director Brugiere and Engineer Von Chauvin telegraphed their thanks, on behalf of the French Cable Company, to Secretary Evarts for the liberal action of the American Government, by means of which the cable was landed under very favorable circumstances.

BOSTON, Nov. 17. The officers of the new French Cable Company and the American Union Telegraph Company, who assisted at the landing of the cable at North Eastham arrived here at 9:45 P. M., and left here in a later train for New-York.

The 1879 cable remained in operation until the 1930s.   Meanwhile, in 1898 the first direct cable from France was laid by the François Arago from Brest to the Orleans station.  At 3,173 nautical miles it was the longest single-span cable laid up to that time.

The Orleans station operated until it was dismantled by the US Signal Corps during World War II. It was put back into operation in 1952, and finally closed in November 1959.  Fortunately the building and its equipment were preserved, and the station opened as a museum in 1972.

The museum now has its own website.

The Cape Cod Times had a feature article on the museum in 1999.

The Cape Cod National Seashore has a page on the French Transatlantic Cable

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The French Cable Station Museum building today
The station building circa 1905. Note the absence
of the extension visible on the current photographs


Cable House, Orleans, Mass
Postmarked 1910

Photographs of the cable station and equipment dated 1987, from the
Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record

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Rear of station building

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Operations room equipment

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Operations room equipment

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Heurtley and Muirhead magnifiers

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Left, rear of the Muirhead cable transmitter
Center, St. Pierre recorder
Right, automatic message sender and perforator

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Detail of Heurtley and Muirhead magnifiers

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Muirhead electrostatic siphon recorder

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Signal monitor and regenerator, used to relay the signal from New York to France

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Left, Muirhead cable transmitter
Right, rear of St. Pierre recorder

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The photograph on the bench shows the operations room in the station's working days

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Muirhead cable transmitter with harmonic motor

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Clokey double-pen siphon recorder, used to monitor both the incoming and outgoing signals

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Presentation sample of the 1879 cable, 5" long, 1" diameter.

Top Cap: "Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York"

Bottom Cap: "Siemens Frères à Londres   B No. 8107"

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Stock certificate: La Compagnie Française
du Télégraphe de Paris à New York

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Promotional paperweight for the French Cable Co.

Neal McEwen's 1879 cable section, recovered from the bed of the Atlantic Ocean
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The paper label inside the lid of the box states:

Piece of Atlantic Cable recovered from a depth of 1748 fathoms [about two miles] after being submerged eight years

This section of cable was presented to O. French by George G. Ward, Vice President of Mackay Bennett Cable Co., 1890. The box is silk covered and silk lined, though a little water-stained.

The cable specimen is 5 inches long and has a diameter of 1⅛". Its cover is tar impregnated twine, then called 'jute.' Under the jute are 18 steel wires, a layer of insulation and a multi-strand copper core consisting of a central wire and 10 thinner wires wrapped around it.

Each end of the cable piece has an engraved decorative brass cap. The engraving reads as follows:

Top Cap:
Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York Cable No. 8105

Bottom Cap:
Siemens Brothers & Co. London
Submerged 3rd September 1879
No. Longitude 43 N 24 W Depth 1748 Fathoms

1879 recovered cable images and text courtesy of Neal McEwen: The Telegraph Office

See also the detail page for the 1879 cable

Life at Orleans, 1892

This article, published in the Boston Globe on 23 October 1892, gives an interesting insight into life at the then recently opened Orleans Cable Station.

The French Cable Station Museum, August 2008

Ocean Cables

Ten of Them Connect Us With European Nations

How Operators at the Different Ends Live, Work, and Are Paid.

In Comparison with Telegraphers, the Cable Operatives Fare Better.

There are 10 wire filaments now connecting the American continent with Europe, and one of them touches our shores down on the bank of the pretty cove at Orleans village, on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts.

This is the line of the French cable. Although the cable station is there, and although the wire takes to the salt water there, it is not quite true to say, nevertheless, that it makes its final plunge into the Atlantic from that point.

Dipping into the water a few hundred feet back of the cable station on the beach, it runs out into the cove for a distance, and then trends off towards the point of land to the northerly, which it touches, plunges through a narrow covered trough about a mile in length, and then leaps into the sea (for its 1000-mile run to the island of St. Pierre) at the old landing place at North Eastham.

As life at cable stations goes, that of the operators here on Cape Cod is exceptionally pleasant. Compared, for instance, with that at Aden, in Arabia, and at Kurrachee, on the Persian gulf, it is a little paradise.

The operation of cables is practically a monopoly in the hands of the English. All the cable stations in the world are manned with men of British birth.

When a new company is formed and a new line put to work there is naturally a preference for old and experienced operators, as the task of breaking in new men is tedious, and for a new line anxious to do good work with as little blundering as possible, liable to be costly as well. The consequence is that the men are drawn from the old lines, and the consequence of that is that at every cable station you will men who have worked at one time and another at cable stations in every corner of the world.

In the little group of 10 men who are employed here there are those who have worked in Europe, Asia, Africa and South and North America.

Thus there is abundant means for comparing Cape Cod with other stations, and the general verdict is that life here at Orleans is vastly better than at nearly any other shore station in the world, barring a few on the coast of Great Britain and the continent. 

Yet life in a Cape Cod beach village, especially in the winter, can not be described as wildly hilarious at the best. The topics of conversation do not cover a range of sufficient width to be quite filling for a man of cosmopolitan scope of thought.

Fish and cranberries are the serious things in Cape Cod life, and naturally are the chief topic of native discussion.

In mere points of view – of nagging and wanging it and never letting go of it even after he has said the same thing about it many times – the Cape Codder has this faculty more surprisingly developed than any other living being that uses language. So it will be seen that a winter’s isolation on the Cape to a man of a social turn who was not of the habit of thought of the neighborhood would have its drawbacks.

But the village of Orleans is one of the most beautiful on the cape.  The sight of the cable station commands one of the prettiest marine views on all the cape shore line.

There are good schools, and the air is a sweet and pure as though the narrow neck of land, which shoots like a long, bent arm straight from Massachusetts’ shoulder far out into the Atlantic, were an island far at sea.

There is, moreover, all about the evidences of Yankee thrift and tidiness which make the New England States so attractive. The cost of living is exceedingly small, and a pretty home with plenty of ground around it is quite within reach of very modest incomes.

As compared with the life of a telegraph operator in the cities, that of an operator at a cable station as pleasant as Orleans is better in every way. The cable operators are paid – that is the good ones – at the rate of about $100 a month.

In addition to this, they have a month’s vacation at full pay every year. Many of them prefer to let the vacations accumulate for three years, so that at the end of that time they have a solid three months to themselves.

When they do this the cable company pays them the cost of a saloon passage in a first-class steamer to their homes in Great Britain and back again to the station. This, of course, is in addition to their regular salaries, which go on at full rates during the entire three months of their absence.

The $1200 a year which they receive is worth, on Cape Cod, quite as much as $2000 would be in a city, to say nothing of the additional wholesomeness of surroundings and impossibility of spending money for the hundreds of little follies which are a constant source of temptation in the city.

It is possible for an operator on the Cape, on $1200 a year, to have a pretty home, to keep his horse if he wishes, and to save a little money besides. Nor are the hours of labor long, or the labor itself very heavy.

The force is divided into relays, each working eight hours at a stretch, one being in operation, of course, both night and day. Since the introduction of the present recording system the work of receiving cable messages is much less trying than it was in the old days, when the operator had to keep his eyes constantly fixed in a darkened room, on a little fluttering bar of light thrown over his shoulder upon the receiver before him by a tiny mirror delicately balanced and move to right or left by the operator at the other end of the cable.

This was very hard upon the eyes, and the operators could not continue steadily at it from day to day without intervals of rest. The messages are now transcribed in waving ink lines on a constantly moving strip of paper tape.

This is not only vastly easier to the operator, but has the further advantage of preserving a permanent record of the message sent.

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.

The operator at St. Pierre reads the message from the tape, and at the same time repeats it to Brest without transcribing, and is never more than a word of two behind the operator at Cape Cod.

In the same way the messages from the Cape are sent into the office of the company in New York by its own direct wires from Orleans.

The vast majority of messages to this country from Europe are from London, although in the fall Liverpool sends many and sometimes very long cablegrams to the Southern States. The cabling possibilities between New York and Europe are now something surprising.

The Anglo-American Company has three cables from Great Britain and one from France, the Direct Company has one, the French Company one, the American Company two, and the Commercial Company two – that is 10 in all. By the duplex system two messages – one each way – can be sent on the same cable at the same time.

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.

Photo Credits:

Cable Station color photograph from the cover of the Museum Tour Book, 1988

Black and white photographs by Martin Stupich, September 1987, from American Memory, Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record,
Survey number HAER MA-67, French Cable Station, Cove Rd. & MA Rt. 28, ORLEANS, Barnstable County, MA

Last revised: 27 December, 2011

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