ORLEANS — An international assemblage gathered at the French Cable Station Museum Sept. 6 to hail Le Direct, the first direct transatlantic telegraph connection.
“It was a vital communication link,” said James Jefferies, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), before presenting the Milestone Achievement Award. In 1898, the cable was “the best available technology (and used) the best operating (principles).”
IEEE, which has nearly 420,000 members in 160 countries, traces its origins back to Benjamin Franklin's experiments with electricity and has given 191 Milestone awards. Previous salutes have been rendered to the first wearable pacemaker and first compact disc. The connecting theme, Jefferies said, is “to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.”
Rene Garello, past president of IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society, brought greetings from France, where his house is a mile from the cable's European terminal in Brest. The link, which stretched for 3,174 nautical miles under the sea, was in service until 1940, and back in operation after the war and recovery from the early 1950s until 1959. It's thought that the German U-boat attack in Orleans 100 years ago during World War I was prompted by orders to destroy the cable, which carried military information to and from the European battlefield; the cable survived.
Garello gave a history of earlier transatlantic telegraph attempts, including an indirect route from Best to St. Pierre (near Newfoundland) to Duxbury. He noted that news by ship had taken two weeks to pass between the continents. The cable made communication a matter of words per minute, “and the world started to shrink.”
Today's “digital world is still using cable,” Garello said, estimating there are as many as 300 below-surface cables carrying messages and data around the world. “There are one million kilometers of cables,” he said with a smile. “That's more impressive than saying 600,000 miles. Le Direct was a pioneer.”
Another speaker was a descendant of an Orleans station worker. Ron Brown, IEEE's Region 1 historian, said his great uncle Raymond Nickerson was an operator, and that his grandmother was another kind of operator (telephone) in Orleans as well.
Rob Munier, vice president for marine facilities and operations at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, surveyed the contemporary undersea cable scene, which includes service to offshore oil drilling mega-platforms and ocean life observation systems.
Standing beneath the Stars and Stripes and the French Tricolour, Jefferies and French Cable Station Museum President Joseph Manas unveiled French and English plaques detailing the “remarkable feat of oceanic engineering.” The plaques were separated not by a vast sea but just the door to the museum, where tours are given of preserved equipment and other artifacts.