Heart's Content Cable Station

Copyright © 2006 Dave Whitmore

In July 2006 Jane and I visited Newfoundland and Labrador. One of the places I really wanted to see was the location of the first successful transatlantic cable landfall in 1866. This is in the little town of Heart's Content, Newfoundland. The cable station was active until 1965 and is now a museum. If you don't know Newfoundland grab an atlas and find Heart's Content. It's pretty remote!

The engineering that went into this project is mind-boggling, even by today's standards. It's the 19th century technology equivalent of walking on the moon.

The story of this project has been covered in a number of very good books.

John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean, Walker and Co., 2002.

Gillian Cookson, The Cable: The Wire That Changed the World, Tempus Publishing, 2003. There are a number of excellent color reproductions of contemporary pictures of the cable laying operations. These appeared in the popular press at the time the cables were laid.

D. R. Tarrant, Atlantic Sentinel: Newfoundland's Role in Transatlantic Cable Communications, Flanker Press Ltd., 1999. This book has excellent detail on cable operations in Newfoundland.

Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, Berkeley Books, 1998. This book is less about cable technology than the impact of telegraphy on business and society. The telegraph was touted as ending war, improving personal relationships, fostering commerce, etc., just like the Internet of today.

Click on any of the thumbnail images below to see a larger picture. I've left these at high resolution and you should be able to zoom in to see details. Please ask for permission to republish these images.

There were several stages of building on the Heart's Content site. The red brick building was constructed around 1873 and has a lot of architectural detail for what was basically a Victorian industrial building. The addition on the right was probably constructed around 1950. At it's peak the cable company employed about 600 people. By all accounts the employees were treated very well. There was good company housing, a library, and recreational opportunities. Note the submarine cables which are still there but inactive.

The interior is very neat and clean with good signage. Unfortunately the docents didn't know a whole lot about the technology so you're pretty much on your own. There are several sections to the museum. First, there's a section devoted to daily life in the 19th century at Heart's Content. Next, there's an exhibit devoted to the cable laying operation. This includes a lot of the prints that are in the Cookson book. There is an adjacent area with some artifacts from cable operations. Finally, there's the operations area as it looked when operations ceased in 1965. This latter space is truly remarkable. It looks and smells like a Bell System facility. (Don't get me wrong: that odor of electronic gear from that era is just wonderful and brings back happy memories for many of us!)

An apology: Some of these pictures are not as clear as I would have hoped. They looked OK on the screen of the digital camera but under closer scrutiny (several hundred miles away) they appeared less than terrific.

Let's start with the museum exhibits. The harmonium was used in a celebratory service when the cable was landed. The two middle shots are a simulated cable operations office along with some artifacts. The last two images are architectural details. The last one is in the men's room. That's 1910 era brass and oak. Looks brand new! (By the way, the plumbing is late 20th century. It was nice they preserved this bit of architectural detail when they updated the building.)

The operations area reflects the state of things in 1965. There's a lot of tube gear and things are built to Bell System standards. Wiring is neat, there are cable raceways, and equipment is in pretty good shape. First stop is the cable entrance and patch panel. The submarine and landline cables were terminated in the building and then were routed to a very elaborate patch pane shown on the left. This panel is a wonderful piece of work: There's a lot of brass, oak, and glass.

Nobody is too particular about touching things and we did open a few doors to get a better look.

The oscillograph is an early device for copying the Morse code. The transmission speed through the cable was very slow and the difference between dots and dashes was hard to discern. To solve this problem the output of the cable was put on photographic paper. The paper was developed and a visual inspection was done to recover the message.

Next you'll see some of the Western Electric multiplexing and test gear from the 1960's. If you look closely you'll see some vacuum tubes. There were some signs on the exhibits describing what the gear did but there was no technical overview of how things operated in the 1960's.

Newfoundland is certainly not on the usual tourist routes but it's worth the trouble to get there and to explore.

More Telecommunications History

There are other sites on the island that are historic telecommunications sites. For example, Signal Hill in St. John's is the site of Marconi's first transatlantic radio communication. On December 12, 1901 he was successful in receiving "S" in Morse code sent from Poldhu, England. Here is a view of the Signal Hill building and the ham radio station VO1AA. Note St. John's harbor to the right. Incidentally Signal Hill started out using flags to announce the arrival of ships. Merchants in St. John's would watch for flags and would be prepared for the arrival of their ships in St. John's harbor.

Thanks to Brian, VO1MOO ("cow man") for the station visit.

Not far from St. John's is the Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl. This place sounds like it should be devoted to navy items but it's actually about 90% communications. The museum is on the site of a Marconi station that was constructed in 1915 for the British Admiralty (hence the name of the museum). It was used for ship-to-shore communications, iceberg alerts and for WWI intercept operations of German radio traffic.

This was an impressive installation as you can see from a section of the iron mast that supported the antenna farm. These towers were 305 feet tall! Amateur radio station VO1BZM is on site and is quite active. Thanks to Alasdair Black for the personal tour.

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