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

La Vieille Dame de Calais
by Stewart Ash

La Vieille Dame de Calais

The Alcatel-Lucent factory in Calais is the oldest submarine cable manufacturing facility in the world. It went into production in 1891 under the ownership of La Société Générale des Téléphones and shipped its first cable on 19th April the same year. Calais was chosen because of the then-new port facilities that were being built and its close proximity to the mining regions of northern France, which provided the fuel to drive the machinery and the steel wire required to make the cable.

The motivation for building a factory was the desire to break the virtual monopoly of the English over submarine telegraphy and its importance to international commerce. Apart from a small factory in Italy the only submarine cable factories at that time were in England and only the English were capable of laying transoceanic cables. As of 1891, the only transatlantic telegraph cable landing in France (Brest), had been made and installed by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company for La Société du Câble Transatlantique Française in 1869. This company was promoted by Baron d’Erlanger and Julius Reuter but by 1873 it had been absorbed into the Anglo-American Telegraph Company and had no real French ownership.

Within a year the Calais factory was taken over by La Société Industrielle des Téléphones and for the next decade experienced a period of relative prosperity. In 1897 it manufactured 3,400nm of its own transatlantic cable to connect Brest to New York; however, competition from Marconi radio telegraphy, the First World War and its aftermath, followed by wireless telephony in the 1920s, all made business difficult. In 1938 the company needed finance and succeeded in attracting interest from La Compagnie Générale d’Electricité, which led to a merger, and Calais, along with a factory in Bezons, was incorporated into Les Câbles de Lyon.

When the Second World War broke out the Calais factory was making cables equipped with microphones for the French navy, used to detect enemy submarines. By May 1940, the factory tanks had large stocks of this cable. The tanks were blown up to prevent the cable falling into German hands and the rest of the factory was destroyed by successive German bombing raids.

The Calais Factory 1940

The factory was rebuilt in 1948, and shortly afterward commenced coaxial cable production. The company traded as Les Câbles des Lyon until 1991, when it became Alcatel Cables. From 1970, Les Câbles des Lyon and Alcatel CIT supplied submarine cable systems through the submarine marketing division of Alcatel, Submarcom. In 1994 Alcatel purchased STC Submarine Systems, then the market leader, from Northern Telecoms, and restructured to form Alcatel Submarine Networks. With the acquisition of STC came cable making facilities in Southampton and Portland, Oregon, to augment Alcatel’s Calais and Port Botany, New South Wales, factories. When the industry downturn hit, three of the four cable factories were closed, but despite her great age the old ‘lady’ survived them all.

CS Vercors in the Carnot Basin Calais

Article text copyright © 2016 Stewart Ash

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Last revised: 2 February, 2021

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