History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
|At an Atlantic Cable Station (1895)
At an Atlantic Cable Station
By Roland Belfort.
ccupying a picturesque position on the Canadian coast, in the vicinity of the Strait of Canso—the Golden Gate of the St. Lawrence—stands the Commercial Cable Company’s Hazel Hill Station, an important centre of those "nerves of the nations" which maintain the Old World and the New in constant communication and facilitate international relations. A recent visit to this establishment afforded us an interesting insight into the working of that admirable system of submarine telegraphy which constitutes one of the triumphs of the nineteenth century.
The station itself, especially when seen in the radiant sunlight of a glorious summer morning, forms a striking picture, set in a framework of hill, dale, and sparkling waters. It comprises about a score of substantial buildings—houses, offices, and cottages—built in the form of a crescent, rising upon a terrace of green lawn, on an eminence overlooking a beautiful islet-dotted lake. Beyond can be seen wooded hills, and the Atlantic surf breaking on the shingly shores of a miniature bay, where the cables land. Around the station are the outbuildings, the recreation hall, the cricket and tennis grounds, and several trim gardens. Every building throughout the station is heated by hot water pipes, lighted by electricity, and furnished with an abundant supply of pure water from the lake. Protection from fire is provided by a complete system of hydrants and electric fire alarms connected with the various buildings and registering in the cable office, where men are at work night and day. Groves of pines form a health-giving background for this model commercial colony. "A delightful spot!" is the involuntary exclamation.
Remote from any civilised centre, the station is so isolated, especially in winter, that it had to be made almost self-supporting. The manager acts as a sort of magistrate, conducts the postal business, and fulfils other useful functions. The staff comprises a doctor, but Hazel Hill is so healthy that his services are seldom required. Educational and religious matters receive due attention. One might suppose that they are completely snow-bound in winter, and wonder how they get their news and mails. But we find that the latter arrive with fair regularity. As for news, they are better informed than the ordinary inhabitants of London or New York. Every hour brings them bulletins from the remotest corners of the earth; not an event of importance occurs anywhere that is not instantly known at Hazel Hill. The results of the Derby, Boat Race, and other important fixtures are flashed to them in ten seconds. The smartest journalists on the world’s Press work for them, and they often get important news before it is published in London or New York, and always before those who pay for it!
Entertainments and concerts are not rare. Singers, dancers, and pianists are found on the staff. There is sure to be a smart photographer or two. The battery man will do all the carpentering work, make and mend boots, whilst his wife will "do" generally for the bachelors. Some enterprising individual will keep a small Whiteley’s, selling a variety of articles— whisky and tobacco for the men, sweetmeats for the children, light literature for the ladies. One cablist we know wields the razor with the grace of a Figaro. Thus they have realised that ideal independence dreamed of by social reformers.
Naturally, this result was not attained without labour, patience, and careful organisation. When the manager arrived he found nothing but a barren waste. He had to buy the land, have it cleared, get the timber felled, make paths across the property, plan the sites for the first buildings, and watch, their construction. Then he organised the offices, set up the instruments, ran the wires in, and prepared for business. By the time the ship had laid the cables, the station was ready. He and his assistants camped out for some time, leading a jolly pioneer’s life. When the staff arrived a mess was organised, quarters furnished. Then the married ladies appeared on the scene, and the barren waste was thus transformed into a thriving colony of skilled workers. By degrees the staff increased, so did the population, and the station reached the perfection in which we find it.
The centre of interest is naturally the cable office, a large fireproof building of granite, brick, and iron. It comprises : the operating room, containing the apparatus for working the cables; the mechanicians room. where the beautiful and delicate machinery is made and repaired; the testing room. fitted up with the most accurate electrical instruments, with which are made the various tests requisite to the maintenance of the cables, the location of breaks, faults, etc.; the battery room, with its neatly-arranged shelves, containing seven hundred cells of battery power; the post office, and, finally, the manager’s office. The ocean cables are brought to Hazel Hill through a chain of lakes and trenches into the testing room, whence they are connected with the signalling instruments.
Standing in the office, about 2 p.m. (London time), just as the daily rush of work is commencing, we witness a scene admirable in its regularity, rapidity, and orderly character. Hazel Hill is ready for action; so are the other stations: New York, Waterville, and London. All the managers are present, their eyes everywhere, ever ready to remedy the slightest defect. The buzzing instruments glisten, the bright duplex apparatus is arranged in neat array. Every clerk is at his post; there is no bustle or noise; quiet is essential, much work being done by sound.
From Hazel Hill they work three of Lord Kelvin’s Recorders to Ireland, one to New York, another to a point near Boston, a third to St. Pierre, Miquelon, whilst other circuits connect with important American cities west of New York. The European cable terminus is at Waterville, a picturesque little town on the south-west coast of Ireland, whence other cables and land lines connect with London and England generally, and the Continent. During busy times all lines are utilised. The entire system, comprising 9000 miles of cable, is worked at maximum speed. The cables vibrate with despatches of all descriptions, from the three-word "stock" to the interminable "Press" message. The rush now commences. Little is heard but the buzz of the recorders and the tick-tack of the transmitting keys. A constant stream of messages is passing along all the cables, both ways at the same time, thanks to a most ingenious system of duplex working, which almost doubles the capacity of the cables.
The clerks sit at their instruments, quiet and attentive; some "sending," others reading the serpentine signals printed on the slips, and transcribing the messages with unerring exactitude and rapidity. High speed and accuracy go together. Check-clerks flit noiselessly about, passing messages and assisting the operators. Occasionally the human relay is used. The slip that runs from a New York Recorder is handed to the man on another cable, and he, without transcribing the messages, transmits them to Ireland, thus saving the time required to write them out. This requires a skilled, keen-eyed operator, capable of reading the most difficult signals at a glance. But this company has introduced an improved apparatus, known as the "Automatic Transmitter," by which the work is done with greater speed and accuracy. Its function is to replace the ordinary combination of men and transmitting keys, by mechanism which combines the utmost uniformity of signal with a speed and tirelessness unattainable by hand.
Fascinated, we watch the beautiful Recorder, which works with almost human intelligence. The slip is kept constantly running by clockwork. The delicate siphon, with one end in the ink and the other hanging over the running slip, is gently undulated by the current transmitted from the distant station. Thus it records a continuous series of signals, cabalistic zigzags to us, but as easy as A B C to the operator. A skilful clerk will decipher eighty or ninety ordinary messages per hour, and do five hundred messages a day without making a serious error. But this involves great powers of concentration, and a rare strain on the eyes and nerves. Accuracy is a cardinal point here. Slight errors may lead to serious losses. The company has an elaborate system of tracing errors, and fines are imposed, ranging from sixpence to a month’s pay. Errors are a terror to all concerned, and the clerks check their messages with minute care.
When the Stock Exchange is agitated the short "stocks" pour in by hundreds, the offices in New York and London are besieged by excited brokers. Prices rise and fall with startling incoherency; the cables literally hum with frantic orders to buy, sell, cancel, and quote. Some firms exchange a hundred and fifty messages on such occasions. Very curious is this battle of the bulls and bears, waged through a copper "string" buried beneath the waves, the two armies being three thousand miles apart. The clerks, becoming as excited as the brokers, work with extraordinary precision and rapidity. One of the first messages sent over the Atlantic in 1858 occupied twenty-five minutes in transmission, but cablegrams are now delivered in London one minute after leaving New York.
Before five o’clock this "stock" work ceases. Then begins the ordinary commercial work, long cipher despatches from the English Government offices and Foreign Ministers, and Press messages for the New York evening papers. These occupy the line till about nine p.m., when a slight lull occurs till midnight. At that hour the news agencies and special correspondents hand in long despatches for the American morning papers. Dozens of these bright, crisp cablegrams are required to keep our American cousins up to date in European affairs. During any startling crisis this company gets as many as 10,000 words of press matter for transmission during the night, and the speed attained by judicious abbreviation is astonishing. Whilst this work is going westward the American commercial and press work is streaming towards Europe, and the lines are kept busy until about six a.m. They usually remain clear from that time to midday, when work again commences.
To properly handle this traffic the station manager must be a smart man, gifted with tact and resource, well acquainted with every detail of practical telegraphy, administration, etc. He must also be a good electrician, and carefully watch over the lines running into his station. All cables are tested every Sunday morning—that being the most convenient time available. When the manager finds a fault he makes a careful test in order to locate its position and advise headquarters. If this fault be sufficiently serious, the ship is despatched to repair it. Localising is a very delicate operation. In one case an
As may be gathered, operating work is very hard; a man’s entire attention is absorbed by his delicate instrument and minute signals. No careless working is possible without complaint from the distant station. "Wake up, U Q," is the warning signal. Quarrelling on the cable is severely repressed; clerks breaking this rule sometimes pay for their conversation at current rates. Curiously enough, operators often detest correspondents they have never seen. An incompetent clerk betrays himself in many ways, and is execrated by his colleagues. Naturally, there are operators and operators; some seem born for the work, others barely attain mediocrity. Some will make endless errors and madden their correspondents, whilst others will not make ten errors in a month, and are hailed as "O M" by their colleagues. "O M" is "Old Man," an affectionate appellation only bestowed by cablists on jolly good fellows and smart operators.
A healthy rivalry exists between the various stations, and high speed is attained, the average delay rarely exceeding fifteen minutes. Spurred on by keen competition, the company is continually improving its system. They once offered to transmit the Liverpool merchant’s messages to Havre, via New York, ten times quicker than they could be sent via Calais; but the French Government, jealous of such superiority, pronounced this a violation of the company’s concession. That novel service was suppressed. A commercial code telegram would run thus:—
"Stock" messages are usually short:—
The figures represent the time, 12.40 p.m.; the two words may mean, "Sell £100,000 Wabash." A Government cipher message looks something like this:—
Press messages are sent in plain language, more or less abbreviated. But the cable is used in a variety of other ways, of which the general public hardly dreams. A famous French comedienne once used it for an animated conversation with a dear friend. She was in New York, and he was in France. These two stations were connected one Sunday, and the divine but nervous artist commenced a passionate dialogue with her distant correspondent, who answered promptly and with equal warmth. Though three thousand miles apart, they conversed as rapidly as if standing face to face.
Astronomers in England and Canada have chatted across the Atlantic and compared notes. A chess tournament was recently conducted across these cables. Mr. Gordon Bennett edits his newspaper by this medium, seldom visiting New York. Whether in Paris or cruising in Eastern seas, the cable keeps him in constant touch with America. He often despatches entire leading articles on burning questions necessitating personal views. Weather warnings are sent by cable, as important point of observation being Bermuda, where an American has established an observatory which enables him to herald advancing cyclones and hurricanes.
Though the receipts are good, the expenses are very heavy. The costly transmitting stations in Canada and Ireland do not earn a penny directly. The cables average £250 per mile; the delicate instruments cost from £50 to £200 each; the expenses of executive management amount to about £10,000 per annum; the station managers draw from £500 to £800 per annum. The stations being 3000 miles apart, travelling expenses form a serious item. Repairing expeditions are ruinous. £35,000 was sunk in one expedition that failed; another ship had to be employed at £500 per day. Cables break. Four were broken down simultaneously by an extraordinary seaquake — a violent submarine eruption; whales get entangled with them. Once a schooner settled down on one and broke it. Ship’s anchors break cables in shallow water. Fishermen bent on a "catch" will drag for a cable, hook it, and then claim compensation for not having cut it to save their anchor and chain! On one occasion a cable was wilfully cut off Newfoundland. The culprits were strongly suspected; but conviction would have been difficult and costly. Cables have been buried for miles in submarine ravines and lost. Even the landing rights in France cost this company £8000 and three months’ tedious negotiations. They got similar facilities in England for £1, and a polite letter to the Board of Trade! The repairing ship cost £60,000, and often absorbs £500 per month to maintain her ready for sea at a moment’s notice.
The colony numbers about 150—60 being employees. The senior clerks are mostly married men with families; they receive from £20 to £25 per month, and live rent free. The bachelors have comfortable quarters, club, mess rooms, etc. They draw from £12 to £18 per month, according to ability and seniority. All recreations provided by the company are enjoyed by the whole staff. Each man gets a month’s holiday every year on full pay, and the company pays half the premium of his life insurance.
Operators average eight hours per day. The staff is usually divided into three brigades, working morning, evening, and night, the hours being arranged to suit local requirements and the clerk’s convenience. Cablists—the aristocrats of the telegraphic profession—work free from petty restraints and that officious supervision so irksome to Government operators. Smoking is tolerated whenever possible; reading when the lines are "clear" is allowed; temporary leave is readily granted, and studious men are always encouraged. Unlike most cable clerks, who are migratory in their habits, the Atlantic men seldom wander far; being well treated and well paid, they settle down and save money, usually with matrimonial ambitions.
When off duty the men have plenty of time for sport and study. Some boat, fish, or play cricket, others indulge in billiards or lawn tennis; several have musical tastes, whilst the kodak keeps others busy. A glance around the station at the sturdy, happy children, the placid and contented features of the colonists, and the solid comfort apparent in their homes—all these things convince us that, leading a pleasant, healthy existence, free from the worries and drawbacks incidental to town life, they are absolutely satisfied with their lot.
During the evening we visit the billiard-room, where some good play is proceeding on a hundred-guinea table presented by the President, who paid the same sum for a piano for the reading-room. The young men seem very comfortable, and speak favourably of Hazel Hill. They have dull moments, it is true; but are the dwellers in cities always gay? Many clerks know from experience what London life is like for the telegraphist vegetating on a small salary. Several graduated as Government clerks before entering the company’s service. Nothing would induce them to leave their comfortable though isolated quarters to return to the doubtful delights of London life. They are all in robust health, their genial manager studies their welfare with paternal solicitude, their work is agreeable, and they can indulge in all those manly sports so dear to Englishmen. What more could they wish for?
No season of the year is without its pleasures and amusements, which are at all times entered into with commendable heartiness and appreciation. Far from dreading the advent of winter, they quite look forward to that season. They lay in stocks of everything, furbish up their sleighs, skates snow-shoes, etc., and decorate their recreation hall for dancing. Friends come from afar to their dances, and they reciprocate when climatic conditions are favourable. But these social functions often prove expensive to the company, as they necessitate the building of more houses. Young fellows, envying the comforts enjoyed by their married colleagues, apply for a cottage, annex a bonny Canadian, or send for their English sweetheart,and boldly plunge into matrimony. The cables of the world are worked by British operators, the few foreigners employed usually occupying subordinate positions. Even foreign companies employ English clerks, who hale made of cable telegraphy a national speciality. Practically the English have made, laid worked and repaired all our ocean cables.
Last revised: 28 December, 2019