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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 Key West to Havana Submarine Telephone Cables
By J. Gregory Griffin.

Introduction: This article by J. Gregory Griffin on the history of the Key West to Havana submarine telephone cables was first published in the Fall 2009 issue of Florida Keys Sea Heritage Journal. Before coming to Key West in 1996, Mr Griffin practiced law in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The article is reproduced here by kind permission of Tom Hambright, Historian at the Key West Library; and is copyright © 2010 by J. Gregory Griffin.

--Bill Burns

The Key West to Havana Submarine Telephone Cables

By J. Gregory Griffin


The late 1800’s were a busy period in the history of American voice communications. On March 7, 1876 the United States Government granted Alexander Graham Bell patent number 174,465 for the invention of the telephone. On July 9, 1877, he established the first telephone enterprise, the Bell Telephone Company, in Boston, Massachusetts. On December 20, 1879, the principals of Bell Telephone created Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph in Atlanta, Georgia covering Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The race was on to blanket the Unites States with telephone cable usually on poles erected adjoining railroad tracks. The first transcontinental telephone service began in 1915 from New York to San Francisco. The Bell system first came to Key West around 1901. Later, on April 5, 1917 Southern Bell purchased the Automatic Telephone Company to narrow the competitive environment in Key West, Florida. Southern Bell’s first office on the island was co-located with the International Ocean Telegraph Company (IOTC), a subsidiary of Western Union Telegraph Company, at 416 Green Street. It was in this building that John W. Atkins made the first scratchy international telephone call over telegraph cable owned and operated by IOTC on December 25, 1900. The Bell Telephone Company was to become American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1899.

The Key West Western Union office staff of 1898.
Pictured include: S. Burnhart, J.W. Atkins, Cal Sawyer, J. Alleyn, H.B. Peters, C.A. Hamlton, J. Boyle, L. Warren, Latham, O.P. Lone, C. Baker, Miss Beckman, and Leo Barnes. A gift of Mrs. George A Warren.
Photo credit: Monroe County Public Library.

The First Three Cables

The three initial Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba submarine telephone cables were laid in February 1921. Messrs. Martin, Anderegg, and Kendall presented a full description of this project before a session of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City in February of 1922. The center copper conductor was insulated with gutta percha, a natural inelastic latex produced from the sap of the tree of the same name native to Southeast Asia. Outside the gutta percha was a heavy copper tape which in turn is surrounded by a covering of steel armor wires for mechanical protection. The central conductor was wrapped continuously with fine iron wire to increase inductance. This loaded inner copper wire is one conductor and the return path consisted of the outer copper tape, armor wires and the sea water.

1917 cable hut, January 2010
Photo: Bill Burns

Detail of shore-end cables
Photo: Bill Burns

Historic Marker
Photo: Richard Weil

The Cable Hut

This concrete structure was  built on the mainland and transported by Flagler’s railroad to the current location in 1917. Its purpose was to protect the connection between the land line and the 125 mile long underwater telegraph cable lines linking Key West and Havana, Cuba. The first international phone call was made through similar cables in Key West on Christmas Day, 1900. John W. Atkins called Cuba and after a long silence, Cuba answered quite simply “I don't understand you.”

-Circa 1917-

The Bell South forces constructed concrete cable huts on the seashore at both Key West and Havana. An example of a cable hut remains today just left of the Southernmost Point monument on Southard Street; however, this structure may have been used for telegraph cable as well. Special land cables with certain shielding of the pairs were provided between the cable hut and Central Office at each end—1.08 miles long in Key West and 1.13 miles long in Havana. The Key West engineers and workmen constructed a concrete submarine cable storage tanks on Mallory Dock at the foot of Whitehead Street. These tanks were filled with water and the spare repair cable submerged to cool the gutta-percha insulation surrounding the conductors to prevent melting in the humid atmosphere. Bell South personnel stored several types of marine cable in the tanks including Shore End-Type A-2 (two nautical miles), Shore End Type A (four nautical miles), Intermediate Type B (six nautical miles), and Deep Sea Type D (twenty-seven nautical miles).

Legal Matters for the Fourth Cable

President Hoover signed a permit to lay cable in the territorial waters of the United States on June 17, 1930. The Cuban-American Telephone and Telegraph Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company, accepted responsibility for the work under this permit and filed it with the State Department in Washington D.C. The Division Attorney applied for a War Department Permit on August 9, 1930. The application included nautical charts and drawings showing the route to be followed in laying the cable. The War Department issued its permit Number 2845 on September 8, 1930. Thereafter, United States Customs advised that inspections of the cable tank buildings, additional permits and the payment of duties were required in addition to a warehouse bond for the importation and storage of surplus cable. The contract between the Cuban-American Telephone Company and the Norddeutsche Seekablewerke A.G., a German manufacturer, provided for the payment of $258,100 for fabricating the cable, and $21,050 for transporting and laying it.

The cable storage tanks on Mallory Docks.
Photo credit: Monroe County Public Library.

The Fourth Cable Deployment

The cable ship Neptun transported the submarine cable from a factory at Nordenham, Germany to Key West, Florida. Norddeutsche Seekablewerke A.G. owned the Neptuwhich was rated at 6293 gross tons with a length 434.4 feet and a width of 57.3 feet. She drew 32 feet. Its master was C. Cornelius. This cable ship was fully equipped for the transporting and laying cable. While not regularly employed laying ocean cables, the

Neptun was used to transport oil from the Gulf Coast to Germany. The Neptun arrived six miles off shore from Key West at 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 13, 1930, and took various Cuban-American Telephone and Telegraph Company personnel and Bell Telephone engineers and cable splicers aboard for observing the work of laying submarine cable. The Neptun’s crew paid out the new para-gutta insulated, non-loaded, cable from December 14, 1930 to January 10, 1931. In places, the sea water reached a depth of 1,000 feet in the Straights of Florida. Mr. J.J. Gilbert, an engineer, provided a synopsis of the work accomplished including the loss and the grappling hook recovery of the cable. Major George E. Brown of the U.S. Engineering sub-office at Miami, Florida was present onboard during the laying of the cable in territorial waters and checked the course of the ship during laying operations. The Cuban-American Telephone Company accepted the submarine cables from the manufacturer on January 12, 1931. Channel 3 was placed into service on January 22, 1931. Channels 1 and 2 were placed into service on February 26, 1931. All four submarine cables were modified over the years to carry telephonic and telegraph broadband communications.

Bell South placed and activated telephone cables Five and Six between Key West and Havana in 1950. They were non-loaded and had three submarine repeaters in each to generate a stronger signal. These cables employed polyethylene insulation.

Cable Faults

Telephone operator’s station from the Greene Street Office.
Photo credit:
Monroe County Public Library.

Between 1922 and 1940 various accidents and incidents caused faults in the cables which were repaired with lengthy splices. In October of 1922, a heavily laden boat went aground on Cable Number Two approximately 2,240 feet from the Havana Cable Hut. Again on Cable Number Two, but in 1923, an anchor pulled the cable against an abrasive object 1,600 feet from the Havana Hut requiring two splices in Type A-2 cable. In October of 1934, the cable ship, Guardian, inadvertently cut Cable Number Four in connection with locating and repairing a fault in Western Union cable Number Two, thirty five nautical miles from Key West. (The International Ocean Telegraph Company, which was later acquired by The Western Union Telegraph Company, laid telegraph cable from Key West to Havana in 1867.) Approximately 2.86 nautical miles of Type D deep sea cable were added. In April 1936, the Italian SS Maddalena Odero went aground on cable Number Four, 5.82 nautical miles from the Key West Cable Hut. The cable ship John W. Atkins made the repairs with 215 feet of Type A shore end cable. In 1936, on cable Number Four, a fault resulting from a combination of physical and chemical damage in Havana Harbor required replacement of 600 feet of Type A cable. In June of 1939, theft of a section of type A-3 cable along the sea wall in Havana Harbor caused a fault. Three hundred feet of new cable was added by splice. During September of 1939, the British freighter, Coulmore, went aground on cable Number One between Channel buoy #4 and La Punta, Havana Harbor. Depth of the sea water at the fault was about thirty feet. In November of 1939 continual pounding of heavy seas caused large pieces of concrete to break and fall upon cable Number Four, which had been washed ashore to the base of the Havana Harbor sea wall which was broken for a distance of 160 feet. During January of 1940, extensive armor deterioration on the cable Number Two caused a fault to occur about 1,000 feet from the Havana Cable Hut. Splicers completed the repair using three hundred feet of Type A-2 cable from the Key West cable tank.

Politics and Economics

Bell South utilized all six cables well in the late 1950’s despite a widening political rift between the pro-Castro Cuban government and the United States. In 1959 the Castro regime quickly expropriated the assets of the Cuban-American Telephone Company on the Havana side of the cable run. Bell South continued open telephone communication with Cuba for about ten years without being paid for the service from the Cuban end. Eventually, Bell South’s management gave the order to shut down the trunk lines to Havana. Later that same day, the parties negotiated a financial settlement wherein all calls originating within Cuba had to be placed on a collect basis. That is, all calls had to be paid for in dollars inside the United States before a connection was established. Bell South finally received some return on its investment. All submarine cables from Key West to Havana ceased functioning by 1987 due to the effects of the harsh marine environment.

See also:

Tom Hambright’s article on the International Ocean Telegraph Company in Key West.

The 1921 Key West to Havana submarine telephone cables.

The 1931 para-gutta insulated, non-loaded, cable.

The 1950 Bell South cables, the first commercial system to use repeaters.

Last revised: 22 December, 2019

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