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

Havana – Key West
by Stewart Ash

Havana – Key West

In light of announcements by the Obama administration to ease the restrictions on submarine cables between the USA and Cuba, it only seems right to look back at the Havana to Key West cable systems that are arguably as important to the development of the submarine cable industry as the pioneering Dover to Calais systems of 1850 and 1851.

The idea of a cable between Cuba and Florida was first put forward by a group of Cuba-based Spanish business men in the early 1860s, but despite their obtaining the necessary concessions and completing a route survey, the project failed to get off the ground. However, after the end of the American Civil War two American soldiers rekindled interest. In 1864, Captain James Alexander Scrymser (1839-1918) applied to the Florida State Legislature for permission to land cables at Punta Rassa in Florida and was granted rights for twenty years. At the same time General William Farrar Smith (1824-1903) the President of the newly formed International Ocean Telegraph Company (IOTC) was granted the cable landing rights in Cuba for forty years. An Act of Congress was passed on 5th May 1866 giving IOTC the sole right to handle traffic between Cuba and the USA for fourteen years.

Two cable systems were installed between Havana and Key West, one in 1867 and one the following year. In 1873, the Western Union Telegraph Company took a two-thirds majority holding in IOTC and a new Havana to Key West Cable was laid. Two more cables were added in 1899 and 1917.

International Ocean Telegraph Company Stock Certificate

In 1921, AT&T joined with the Cuban Telephone Company (an ITT company) to form the Cuban American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The new company purchased three coaxial cables to connect Key West to Havana. These were the first ever coaxial cables for deployed for submarine cable use and were manufactured (at Greenwich, UK) and installed by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon). They went into service on 11th April 1921.

In 1928, the Bell System (owned by AT&T) made its first proposal to the British General Post Office for a transatlantic telephone cable. Bell Laboratories had come up with a new cable design, but as there was no serous submarine cable manufacturing capability in the USA, the manufacturing rights were offered to Telcon. Amazingly, Telcon turned this opportunity down, and the design was then offered to the German company Norddeutsche Seekabelwerke (NSW). Eventually they produced 111nm of coaxial cable, which was laid in 1930, between Havana and Key West. The system went into service on 6th June 1931.

Through the depression years Bell Laboratories continued their development and came up with a flexible repeater design. This was complete by 1941, but due to the intervention of WWII it wasn’t until 1950 that a full scale trial of a long-haul system could be implemented. Twin coaxial cables were laid between Havana and Key West, each cable containing three unidirectional flexible repeaters. Simplex Wire and Cable manufactured the polyethylene (invented by ICI in 1933) dielectric coaxial cable and the six repeaters were supplied by Western Electric. The system provided 24 x 4kHz voice channels and was the test bed for the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT-1. The installation of these repeatered cable systems is generally accepted as the start of the ‘Telephone Era’ of submarine cables.

Clearly, Havana to Key West has a long association with technical innovation in the submarine system industry; now it appears that it could be the catalyst for a significant political breakthrough.

Article text copyright © 2016 Stewart Ash

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Last revised: 5 October, 2016

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