Friday, July 8, 2011

The Eight Day Cable Caper

Don't let it get tangled!
It's 1917, and your Aunt Hattie in Nyack, New York wants to phone you to remind you to bring your Creamed Bean Surprise for Thanksgiving dinner. But you are living over in Tarrytown - on the other side of the Hudson River (about 25 miles north of New York City). What to do?

Fortunately, that was the year that the largest, heaviest submarine telephone cable in the world (to date) was laid under the Hudson. It was almost 15,000 feet long and weighed almost 90 tons. Imagine making sure that that didn't get tangled up like giant spaghetti.

Now, almost 100 years ago, cables were not the sleek and relatively light things that they are today. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, had experimented with submarine cables as early as 1842, when he covered a wire in a mixture of tarred hemp and India rubber -  for waterproofing - and lowered it into New York Harbor. The first working underwater cable line - copper wire coated with gutta percha - was laid across the English Channel in 1850. And from then on, submarine cables were being laid in all sorts of places.

The Nyack-Tarrytown job took 8 days, several tug boats and scows, and a great many anxious-looking telephone company gentlemen - each in a natty bowler hat or flat cap. It took 2 days alone to put some of the cable, wound on a huge reel, onto a tug boat. The rest was put onto a scow (I don't know how many days that took).

Telephone men in bowler hats and caps
One end of the cable was "chained" to the land on the Tarrytown side. Then the tug went over to the Nyack side and repeated the process. Red and yellow striped "targets" had already been set up so they would know where to put the cable (good idea). The cable was chained to the river bed with what one can only hope were extremely heavy chains.

Did you have any idea about this sort of thing - about just how difficult it was to deal with cables back then? I didn't.

Thank goodness that today, there are great places like Optimized Cable Company where you can find all sorts of sleek, easy to use cables - in some lovely colors, too. And don't forget that things like Ethernet cable allow you to simply e mail Aunt Hattie to let her know you lost that Creamed Bean Surprise recipe and are bringing  brownies instead.

Another good thing? You don't need to load a tugboat with tons of huge cables while wearing a bowler hat.

[The photos and information are from "World's Biggest Telephone Cable Laid Under the Hudson," Popular Mechanics, June 1917.]


vanilla said...

Interesting. So "laying cable" underwater was more than just dropping it in and watching it sink!

Shieldmaiden96 said...

Strangely enough this is not the first time I've seen information about this; I have a co-worker who worked for AT & T for 17 years and he was telling me about the summers he worked on the ships that followed, pulled up, and repaired sections of transatlantic cable. It was fascinating and something I'd simply never thought about before.