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

Remembrances of a Cable Operator
by George S. Watson

All America Cables 1928 route map, showing Panama as one of the main cable links between North and South America

I was born in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, in November 1922. In 1910 my father, a chemist, had been contracted in Boston, where he lived, to be in charge of the assay office of the Abangares gold mines in Costa Rica. It was there that he met my mother who, after finishing her schooling in England, had traveled to Abangares to live with her parents. At the time, my grandfather was in charge of the machine shop of the mining company. When the mines closed in 1920, my family moved to San José.

I graduated from High School in San José. Then, in 1942, I got a job with All America Cables, Inc., the Company that offered cable service to most of Latin America and the Caribbean. I started as a clerk, mostly attending to customers. Not long after, two job openings materialized in the system, which covered all of Latin America, for cable operators who were U.S. citizens: one at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the other at Balboa, in the Panama Canal Zone. The Office Manager asked me if I was interested in either job opening. When I was born, my father, an American, had registered my birth with the American Consulate. I was thus considered an American citizen. I told him I was and that I preferred Balboa.

A cable operator had to be able to read and transcribe, on a typewriter, messages that were encoded onto a moving paper tape. The encoding was based on the Morse code. It was done by making ink tracings on the tape according to the combination of dots and dashes that represented each of the letters being transmitted. The stylus would move up from the center of the tape to record a dot and down to record a dash.

Tape sample, showing the siphon recorder
ink trace and the message transcription

I was already a good touch typist (typing was one of the 21 courses required for graduation from High School!) and I had some knowledge of the Morse code from my Boy Scout days, but I needed to learn to "read" the tape. I was able to take some of the old tapes to study them at home in my spare time and after a while I became very proficient at reading them, just about the time that the new position was offered to me. I underwent additional training that included learning the 3-letter designation of all the stations in the Central and South America system. I also had to learn the operators' lingo such as SII (Say if incorrect), PDN (Please do needful), etc. which they used when sending messages from one station to another regarding garbled messages or other transmission problems. Then I traveled to Balboa to start my new job.

There was plenty of work at the Cable office. I was housed in a room above the office. Balboa was a very important link in the cable system. All messages from North and Central America had to go to Balboa first, and were then rerouted to their final destination. 1942 being wartime, traffic from U.S. Government agencies was very heavy, especially from the State Department, all in code, which consisted of groups of 5 letters, about 50 groups to a page and running up to 20 pages per message. I would often work double 8-hour shifts.

The All America Cables office at Balboa, Canal Zone

Originally, the International Telegraph Union required that only words found in the dictionary were to be used as codes, but starting in 1934 any 5-letter combination was accepted for transmission. Codes were widely used, not only for security but also for the savings in the word count, on which the tariffs were based. Most letter groups stood for phrases. In 1928 a report stated that 87 percent of all international messages sent by Americans were in code. Code books were published and one, with 100,000 phrases, had sales of 50,000 copies [1]. Messages to or from the Canal Zone had to be typed at the Balboa station. Most of the local traffic was from Government and Consular offices. If incoming, they would be typed on the standard cablegram forms. If outgoing, the messages had to be transcribed on a special typewriter that would produce a perforated tape. It would then be fed into the transmitting equipment connected to the line on which the intended station was located. Since each line served many destination stations, each station had its own identifying 3-letter code, which was placed at the beginning of the message so that the operator at the other end would know which messages were intended for his station. At times, I was entrusted to prepare the perforated tape for the coded messages to the State Department. As the letter groups were gibberish until decoded, one had to be extra careful when transcribing them. Typing a wrong letter or transposing letters would change the meaning of a group, requiring the receiving party to initiate a check as to the accuracy of the questionable group or groups, which meant delays in decoding that we, as operators, endeavored to avoid. At the end of 1942 I had to return to Costa Rica for health reasons but, as a 19-year-old, my experience as an operator in Balboa was very interesting, exciting and unforgettable. That New Year's Eve, I arrived in the U.S. and have lived here ever since.

[1] George P. Oslin: The Story of Telecommunications p.289-290.

Route map and photo of Balboa office from ALL AMERICA CABLES, INC., A Half Century of Cable Service to the Three Americas 1878-1928. New York, 1928.

The Balboa cable office site in 2013, now occupied by Cable & Wireless
Image courtesy of and copyright © 2013 Michael J. Merry

For more information see these pages on

All America Cables

Captain Frederick Hack and CS All America

The 1926 Balboa-Santa Elena Cable.

Text copyright © 2004 George S. Watson

Last revised: 7 August, 2013

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