THE BLOG

150 Years of Transatlantic Communications in Newfoundland and Labrador

12/08/2016 16:58

In this age of nigh on instantaneous global communications it's hard for us to imagine a world in which it took at least 10 days to convey messages across the Atlantic Ocean. That changed on 27 July 1866 when a transatlantic telegraph cable was landed at Heart's Content in Newfoundland and Labrador, today a province of Canada.

At 11.00am local time, the operator at the Heart's Content Cable Station sent a Morse code message to Valentia Island, off the west coast of Ireland, 3,071 kilometres away across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Precisely 150 years later--27 July 2016--the two historic telegraph stations were again in contact, via Skype, to re-enact the transmission of a message that historians see as a watershed moment in the evolution of global communications.

I was there to witness that moment, part of a week of commemorations in Heart's Content, a community with 418 inhabitants.

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A blue banner was hung on the painted red façade of the neatly maintained, brick-built cable station that is now a museum displaying instruments and information about the era of communication by telegraph. The banner informed bypassers, in the unlikely case that they did not already know, that the waterfront town played a major role in accelerating global communications a century-and-a-half ago.

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A wooden stage stood by the shoreline, enabling musicians to entertain the people gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the landing of the cable.

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Few of the places I've visited gave me the impression of enjoying live music with quite the ubiquity of Newfoundland and Labrador--perhaps only the pubs of Cork and Dublin have come close. A number of the people I spoke to from Heart's Content and nearby communities spoke with a brogue inherited from Irish ancestors. The telegraph cable running beneath the Atlantic is by no means the only connection between Ireland and Canada's most easterly province.

In some places being a stranger bearing a camera means being shunned. That was by no means the case in Newfoundland and Labrador. Locals quickly engaged me in conversation and talked of their fondness for England and of ancestors from the country's south-west. They wasted no time in inviting me to a kitchen party, the local term for a house party with live music and plentiful drinks.

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The outdoor stage was also used by actors to perform. They told the story of the short-lived transatlantic telegraph cable of 1858 and subsequent failed attempts to lay a cable in 1865--it snapped off the Newfoundland and Labrador coastline.

The lighthearted, cleverly written script made the tale accessible to a broad audience, including children. It conveyed how the SS Great Eastern, then the world's biggest ship, was converted to carry and lay the submarine telegraph cable that would eventually be landed at Heart's Content.

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The actors involved onlookers while telling a story featuring the historical figures of Ezra Weedon, who became the superintendent of the cable station, and Cyrus Field, an American businessman whose vision and stubborn determination were factors in seeing through the project successfully. Field raised capital and formed the Anglo-American Telegraph Company to finance the project of 1866.

After the cable was successfully laid the SS Great Eastern sailed eastward to recover the cable lost in 1865. It was found, spliced and connected. By early September 1866 two transatlantic telegraph cables were operating between Heart's Content and Valentia Island. More would be added in the years that followed, increasing capacity.

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I often curse the price of sending messages from my mobile phone while roaming. Yet even the steepest charge I've ever been hit with pales in comparison with the astronomical price of sending transatlantic telegrams immediately after that cable was laid. In 1866 £20 was charged to send a short message (in an age when workers, perhaps with the exception of journalists, earned far less than today). Yet the demand to communicate via telegraph was high.

Just eight words a minute could be transmitted along the cable, in marked contrast to the rapid data upload and download rates possible now.

A section of that now frayed and exposed original cable can be seen running between the stony shoreline to an embankment leading to the Heart's Content Cable Station. Stripped of its gutta-percha insulation and open to elements it is a rusted, tangible piece of history from the Victorian era.

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In 1965 Heart's Content Cable Station ceased operating. I chatted with Art Tavenor, who worked at the station until its closure, about what it was like to work at the premises and took his photograph. Within minutes I'd transmitted that image, along with several others from the day, to a news agency based in London.

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Communications technologies have changed markedly in recent years and continue to evolve. Perhaps if I hadn't been in Heart's Content I wouldn't have paused to give that even a second thought.

Further information
Heart's Content Cable Station is one of Newfoundland and Labrador's Provincial Historic Sites. The station's website holds up-to-date information regarding admission prices and opening times.

The municipality of Heart's Content is a 130-kilometre drive from downtown St. John's.

Discover more about the attractions of Newfoundland and Labrador on the province's website, www.newfoundlandlabrador.com.

Find out more about travel and tourism in Canada by looking at the www.explore-canada.co.uk website.

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Getting to Newfoundland and Labrador

Air Canada offers direct flights between London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) and St. John's International Airport (YYT). Westjet flies direct between London's Gatwick Airport (LGW) and St. John's

Outbound flights from London to St John's take approximately five hours 30 minutes. Inbound flights, from St John's to the London airports, take just five hours.

St. John's International Airport is a 15-minute drive from downtown St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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