Communications Hub of the World

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On the surface, Porthcurno looks like many other sandy beaches that dot the Cornwall peninsula. Families are playing in the sand and dipping into the frigid waters of the Atlantic. To say that one swims here is putting it too strongly. Staying in the water for any length of time requires a wet suit.

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However, just above Porthcurno beach sits an unimposing square concrete building with a sign that reads “Cable Hut.” Walking up to the open door, which is blocked with iron bars, I look in and read: Gibraltar 1, Gibraltar 2, and Gibraltar 3 on the first of 14 boxes around the wall. Each box is attached to a thick, twisted, black cable that disappears into the concrete floor. "Gibraltar" refers to that huge rock at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. I realize I’m looking at the end of a series of TransAtlantic cables that stretched under the beach and out to sea all the way to the Rock of Gibraltar. Porthcurno was once the communications center of the world.

In 1870 the Eastern Telegraph Company installed the first submarine telegraph cable, which went from this beach all the way to India, which was then a British colony. The era of instantaneous world-wide communications had begun. They chose a path through the Mediterranean Sea, The Suez, and out into the Indian Ocean—the shortest underwater route to India. The isolated beach of Porthcurno was chosen because it was far from busy shipping ports, so the cables were unlikely to be damaged by ships’ anchors.

During the twentieth century more cables were laid to many other points, and Porthcorno became the largest submarine cable station in the world. The Cable & Wireless Engineering College was established here to train the technicians and telegraph operators who were necessary to keep the lines open around the world, and tiny Porthcorno was the hub of it all.

Porthcurno quickly became a beehive of activity as students and staff swarmed in. A theater was established on the cliff side above the village, which provided entertainment and performing opportunities for the students. That theater continues even today as the world-renowned Minack Theater. At its height, the engineering college had a diverse program, including a cricket team, whose uniforms and equipment are prominently displayed in the award-winning Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.

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Marconi’s wireless radio experiments on the nearby Lizard peninsula were thought of as a threat to the undersea cable company and a sixty-meter-high mast was built on the hill above to spy on his work. Later, it was determined that the two systems were not in competition and they were combined into the Imperial and International Communications Limited, which is now Vodaphone, one of the prominent telephone systems in Europe.

You might think that the original country lanes would have been expanded as well, but that didn’t happen because the area is hemmed in by valley walls and stone hedges. The idea that one travelled to the communications center of the world on one-lane country roads is hard to imagine, but local transportation remains today nearly as it was a century ago. When we visited recently, the double decker, full-size bus we rode in was challenged to drive down the wooded lanes and into the hamlet.

During World War II a series of underground tunnels were built to protect this critical communications center from German bombs, but the center was never actually bombed. The tunnels were ideal for the sensitive equipment, and they continued to be used until the training operation was closed in 1970. Portcurno quickly returned to being the tiny hamlet it was before, and the college buildings fell into disrepair and were either removed or renovated for other purposes.

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Today Porthcurno is a sleepy village of eight elderly inhabitants and a number of tourists in high season. It is comprised of the beach, a small pub, and the excellent, interactive Telegraph Museum, which is worth a half-day visit. In the museum are examples of all sorts of electronic communications devices from the earliest telegraph to the latest fiber optics gear. Many of the devices are in working order and are demonstrated by the staff. A local group of volunteers, some of whom were trained at the Cable & Wireless Engineering College, hold a weekly meeting at the museum to show visitors what it was like in previous times. A part of the museum is housed in one of the underground tunnels, providing a vivid experience of what it would have been like to work there in WW II. The tunnel is a narrow U-shaped structure hewn out of pure granite by the Cornish tin and copper miners. It is an interesting but somewhat claustrophobic place.

I’d assumed that cable communications systems had been largely replaced by satellite systems, but I learned in the Telegraph Museum that 97% of all international communications still travel by undersea fiber optic cables, and a number of them are passing under the Porthcurno beach.

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Cable communications have moved far beyond their original telegraphy days, but the beach at Portcurno is still the landing point for several fiber optic cables that are routed to a facility in nearby Skewjack, about two miles inland. I found it mildly ironic when we visited that my cell phone had no signal at all, in spite of the world-class communications system that was passing just beneath my feet.

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