Photographing Transatlantic Cables With Doc in the 1960s

by G. Robert Leopold

January 15, 2012

Deep-sea phone cable. © G. R. Leopold, 1961.

My memories of working with Harold Edgerton go back to the early 1960’s, when AT&T was concerned about the vulnerability of its transatlantic telephone cables to damage or breaks caused by deep sea trawlers operating over the continental shelf off Newfoundland. As an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, I was responsible for leading an “expedition” to explore the sea bottom, to locate the cables, and to determine the causes of the cable difficulties.

We chartered a Norwegian seal catcher and equipped it with the capability of handling and servicing a tethered, remotely-controlled underwater vehicle (UTV). The vehicle was equipped with a television camera that was essential for locating the cable on the sea bottom and enabling the ship’s captain to delicately maneuver his ship, the Polar Star. (The ship’s true name was modified after a barroom brawl between the Norwegian crew and some Canadian crews. It had originally been called “Polar Fahrt,” which innocently means “Polar Trip.”)

Although the television camera was essential, the only permanent
record we could obtain from it in those pre-digital days was through
photographing images from the TV screen aboard ship. We needed
something better, and that is why we met with Dr. Edgerton, who
brought his customary enthusiasm and interest to our project.
Specifically, he provided us with an underwater 35 mm camera and
strobe to be mounted alongside the TV camera. The UTV and its TV
comprised a very expensive viewfinder for the 35 mm camera. We called the 35 mm pictures “eggs,” after Edgerton Germeshausen and Grier, the firm that manufactured the equipment.

The results were well worth it, as the slides in the MIT database
show. We photographed portions of the transatlantic cable that were
suspended above the sea bottom, which made them vulnerable to bottom-dragging trawlers. As a result, future undersea cables on the continental shelf were buried, using a towed, sensor-equipped plow designed by Bell Telephone Labs.

After the expedition, Harold Edgerton invited me to visit him in at
his Cambridge apartment and later to show and discuss with a group of
his students the documentary film I had made of the expedition. I
suppose the students learned something, but what I took away was a
memory of Harold Edgerton’s warm relationship with his students. At
some point, there was guitar playing (was it Harold Edgerton who
played? I can’t remember.) and a lot of group singing. That was a
fortunate group of students and a memorable teacher of great value.

See also: H. E. Edgerton, “Electronic Flash, Strobe” (1987: MIT Press), pp. 281+ Fig. 12-12


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