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Robeson sings: the first transatlantic telephone cable

Published: 10 October 2018

In the Information Age, the world is smaller than perhaps ever before—and technology can take us to places we can't physically go.

We're used to the idea of using communications technology—mobile phones, video, internet messaging, social media—to make political statements and amplify marginalised voices. 

But imagine the impact when this was a brand-new possibility…

The phone call and freedom of movement

On Sunday 26 May 1957 a remarkable concert took place in London which would have an impact well beyond that one special moment. The star performer was Paul Robeson. 

But Robeson himself was not there. 

The new Atlantic telephone cable Transatlantic No. 1 (TAT-1) carried his voice to London from New York, as clearly as if a record had been playing. 

Robeson’s singing filled St Pancras Town Hall as the new cable allowed him to perform for a UK audience, despite the US government’s restrictions on his freedom of movement.

As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no-one can silence me in this.

Paul Robeson

The African-American singer had been popular in Britain since his heartfelt rendition of the song ‘Ol’ Man River’ in a 1928 West End production of Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat. The packed audience at St Pancras Town Hall were thrilled with the sound of his magnificent bass-baritone voice. 

Why was Robeson's performance so significant?

This event marked the moment when long-distance telecommunications first evaded state repression and carried messages of peace and freedom. 

Amid virulent anti-communist feeling, the US State Department had voided Robeson’s passport. They argued that his left-wing sympathies and his activism on behalf of poor, black and working-class people posed a threat to the nation. 

He found it increasingly difficult to obtain work in his home country, and his records were removed from distribution. His inability to travel severely hampered Robeson’s international work both as a singer and as a political activist.

This restraint on the liberty of a great artist caused an international outcry. The London Paul Robeson Committee organised a conference and concert to protest Robeson’s treatment by the US authorities. 

They were able to include the live performance by Robeson himself thanks to three decades of improvements in the transmission of sound through telephone cables.

Booklet publicising the Paul Robeson Conference and Concert held in 1957. Reproduced by permission of Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. Included in the papers of Clive Jenkins; document reference: MSS.79/6/CJ/3/110

Booklet publicising the Paul Robeson Conference and Concert held in 1957. It includes comments in support of the campaign from public figures including Benjamin Britten, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman.

How did transatlantic telephone calls work?

Until 1956, phone calls across the Atlantic through radio waves had been of variable quality and prohibitively expensive. From the earliest development of the telephone, long-distance calls had posed a problem as the signal tended to fade with distance. 

The most effective solution came with the development of the thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, the fundamental component of early electronic devices. 

In the 1920s, engineers developed electronic amplifiers known as repeaters to relay the signals on long-distance cables. Inserted at intervals, they enabled a long-distance call to be heard as loudly and clearly as a local call.

However, installing repeaters on an undersea cable presented a major technical challenge, as they had to be completely protected from the seawater and reliable enough not to need frequent maintenance. 

Explore the technology

Explore the technology:

Could a telephone cable be laid under the Atlantic Ocean?

The Post Office in the UK and AT&T in the USA agreed to develop the jointly-owned, high-fidelity cable TAT-1 in 1953.

They installed reliable American flexible repeaters across the Atlantic, and more advanced British rigid repeaters to cross between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where it was shallow enough to repair them if necessary. 

When TAT-1 opened for service on 25 September 1956, delighted users could make calls that were cheaper and of better sound quality than ever before.

How did activists make use of the technology?

Within the first year of the new cable's operation, the London Paul Robeson Committee had seized the opportunity it provided. Organisations in many countries were holding protest meetings and other events campaigning for the return of Robeson’s passport. 

Jean Jenkins, secretary of the London Committee, was the organiser of the St Pancras concert. She conceived the idea of purchasing time on the newly opened TAT-1, so that Robeson, in a studio in New York, could take part virtually via loudspeakers on stage.

After a few technical hiccups, everything worked.

American Telephone and Telegraph, in New York, and the General Post Office, in London, last night between them helped to make the United States Department of State look rather silly ... Last night some of [Robeson’s] words and music escaped, alive, through the new high-fidelity transatlantic telephone cable.

Manchester Guardian

What was the impact of the broadcast?

By this time, the US government was growing increasingly embarrassed by international condemnation of its restrictions on the movement in and out of the country of those with left-wing sympathies. These included many distinguished scientists and writers as well as artists such as Robeson. 

A year after his transatlantic concert, the US Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to revoke Robeson’s passport on political grounds, and the State Department allowed him to travel once more.

We have to learn the hard way that there is another way to sing.

Paul Robeson

This was the first of many times when telecommunications would play a role in upholding precious rights and freedoms. 

Technology has continued to develop rapidly, and today people all over the world use the internet rather than the telephone to promote international campaigns, highlight injustice or bear witness to oppressive regimes.