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Cape Cod town plays role in telecommunications history

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This summer, while on vacation at my "retreat" in Orleans, Mass., a town I have known for years, I became interested in a story that played a part in history: the laying of the transatlantic cable. Some historians say Orleans is named after the town of Orleans in France because of the help the French gave its citizens during the War of 1812.

But that is one interpretation.

The first transatlantic cable, which connected North America and Europe, made communication a matter of minutes, whereas by ship it would have taken at least 10 days.

Five attempts were made to lay cables for telegraph service, which were partially successful. These dated from 1857-66, and after much trial and error, many European countries were linked by a web of telegraphic communications.

It was Cyrus Field, born in Massachusetts, who conceived the idea of laying undersea cables for telegraphic purposes. He was the first to attempt a transatlantic telegraph cable that produced results. It was a short-lived success, however, and did much to undermine investor interest and confidence in such a project.

In the beginning, the first messages using Morse code took two minutes to transmit just one character. There were vast improvements along the way and the 20th century was to see transmission of 120 words a minute, with London becoming the world center in telecommunications.

The French Cable Station in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod, was important in World War I, for example, for Gen. John J. Pershing in France first communicated with the U.S. government through this cable station. In 1927, the message that Charles Lindbergh had landed in Paris was sent to this station from Paris before being relayed to the rest of our country.

The French Cable Station was the first direct link in communication from Europe to North America. It had started out linked in 1869 to islands off the Canadian coast, and by 1879 it was linked to Eastham, Mass., and finally to Orleans, its station and headquarters building erected in 1898.

A new cable was laid underwater, covering 3,000 miles directly to Orleans. Another linked Orleans to New York City. The French Cable Station was important during World War I, for it served also as a station that transmitted important financial and world news. During that war, linked as it was to Army headquarters in the United States and France, a contingent of Marines was assigned to guard it.

The Orleans station was closed when Germany invaded France in 1940. It eventually became obsolete and its closure was permanent in 1959.

Orleans, today, has some families descended from the early Marines and French who came to work at the station and chose to stay.

The site now is a museum featuring memorabilia, cables and their history and instruments and equipment of the past. It is a revered landmark in the Cape Cod town, dedicated to the history of the transatlantic cable.

Some may wonder how Orleans, Mass., got its name. When Orleans was chartered, pro-French sentiment in the United States was evident. French support, militarily and financially, during the Revolutionary War spurred American pro-French sentiment and the choice to honor a French hero.

It seems recent research reveals it was probably Louis Philippe Joseph, duc d'Orleans, a cousin of the French king. He was one of the richest men in France, but a friend of the common man. Orleans, despite his royalty, did not believe kings had absolute power nor rule by divine right. He took the middle ground, holding to both the merits of monarchy and rights of man.

Some Orleans fighters in the Revolution escaped from imprisonment in England and landed in France, one of whom came back to his home in what was later to be named Orleans, Mass., and may have told Orleans' story.

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