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1961: Transatlantic phone cable officially opened

The Story

The telephone rings. "Hello?" says John Diefenbaker, the gravel-voiced prime minister, surrounded by 150 eavesdropping dignitaries at an Ottawa hotel. "Are you there, Mr. Prime Minister?" responds Queen Elizabeth II from Buckingham Palace. The historic call officially opens CANTAT, the transatlantic telephone link between Canada and Britain. More of the charmingly stilted conversation is captured in this clip from a CBC Radio special broadcast marking the event. As guests press their ears to phones in the hotel convention hall, the prime minister and the monarch agree that the cable will pull Canadians and Britons even closer together. The voice, photo and teletype line is about 4,000 kilometres long, snaking from the Scottish coast to Newfoundland and then to Grosses-Roches, Que. The cable is the first section of a planned telephone network linking Commonwealth countries around the globe.

Medium: Radio
Program: Special
Broadcast Date: Dec. 19, 1961
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker, Queen Elizabeth
Host: Ken Dougan
Duration: 2:08

Did You know?

• Before the Anglo-Canadian cable, Canada had a share in another line that was primarily owned by American and British interests. On the old line, Canada had only 6.5 voice circuits; getting an open line could be difficult. The new cable increased that capacity more than ten-fold, making possible 60 or more simultaneous conversations between Canada and Britain.

• Viscount Amory, then Britain's high commissioner to Canada, told Diefenbaker and the other Ottawa dignitaries that having so many voice circuits in one coaxial cable "will border on the miraculous and fill our minds with wonder." Today, some fibre optic links can carry tens of thousands of simultaneous conversations.

• According to The Globe and Mail's account of the Ottawa ceremony, there was confusion about what to do when the Irish Guards band at Buckingham Palace began playing O Canada. "Mr. Diefenbaker stood rigidly at attention for the first half, then picked up the telephone and listened, with one arm at his side, as the others did from the start," the newspaper reported.

• Canadian households and businesses welcomed shorter waits for an open line. Even more popular were cheaper rates. The Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corp. predicted the new cable would cut the cost of transatlantic calls by as much as one-quarter. • The Canada transatlantic cable is now known as CANTAT-1 because it was followed by two others - CANTAT-2 in 1974 and the fibre optic CANTAT-3 in 1994. The first two are no longer in use.

• The very first transatlantic cables carried telegraph signals and were made obsolete by copper-based coaxial lines, such as CANTAT, that had voice circuits. Coaxial cables were in turn replaced by undersea fibre optic lines which now link every continent except Antarctica.

Also on December 19:
1813: James McGill dies in Montreal. He leaves an estate and 10,000 pounds to establish the university that bears his name.
1917: The first National Hockey League game is played. It's an exhibition game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Wanderers to benefit victims of the Halifax Explosion.
1994: The CRTC approves Rogers Communications' $3.1 billion takeover of media conglomerate Maclean Hunter.


Canada Says Hello: The First Century of the Telephone more