The cable lines that delivered telephone service to the nation in the 1940s are today the backbone of our national communications network. And as the continuing development and refinement of the lashing machine that strung those cables parallels the path of development for the country and its communications systems, the lasher may indeed be the 'unsung hero' of the Information Superhighway.
" It is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid under ground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, country houses, shops, manufacturers, etc., uniting them with a main cable to a direct communication between any two places in the city. Not only so, but I believe that in the future, wires will unite the head offices of the telephone company in different cities, and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place."-- Alexander Graham Bell, 1877.
General Machine Products Co., Inc. (GMP), founded as a machine shop in Philadelphia by George M. Pfundt in 1936, was one of many jobshops serving the local Bell Telephone Company. And this started out as a nominal relationship, Nelson Pfundt, the second generation of Pfundt's to lead the company, recalls: "As my father started to do more basic machine shop work for Bell of Pennsylvania, it was suggested that we bid on jobs for Western Electric Company, in New York City. As the manufacturing and procurement arm of the entire Bell System, virtually everything for the Bell System was funneled through Western Electric."
Through this relationship, and ultimately with Bell Labs, in New Jersey, GMP would build prototypes of items under development for use in the field. During WWII, for example, Bell Labs was involved with the development of a very-low-loss transatlantic sub-marine splice to prevent telephone signals from being detectable by German submarines. GMP, and others, worked with Bell Labs to develop armored splicing cases that were not only watertight, but dissipated signal losses to prevent their detection.
It was following the war that the telephone industry experienced - as did the entire U.S. economy - a huge period of expansion, fueled by several years of pent-up demand. "As the GIs came home, they wanted to buy homes and cars, and the country grew enormously," Nelson Pfundt recalls, "and we quickly converted from wartime production to peacetime production. And with that nation-wide expansion came a growing need for installing telephone cables."
Before the Lasher - Labor, Labor, Labor!
The very earliest telephone and telegraph cable, dating to the beginning of the century and earlier, was simply open wire strung pole to pole (or rooftop-to-rooftop) and wrapped around an insulator. Then, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, things changed dramatically. Multi-pair telephone cable was developed, which was strung on support strands by rings. "They had guys in chairs or on ladders placing these wire-form, spring-loaded ring clips, which looked like shower curtain rings," recalls Nelson Pfundt. "That was a tedious job, going down just every 18 inches or so to place the rings manually onto the suspension strand, then and bringing the cable up to the strand and through the rings."
There were two major problems that led to the demise of this ring-support technique - labor and security. All that held the cable were these rings, so the weight of the cable bore down only on that point at which it contacted the ring, causing premature wear at the contact point -- a problem exacerbated on windy days that "whipped" the cable. So a more secure method of stringing the cable was needed. Also, because of the heavy demand for telephone service as communities started to sprawl out from the cities, the speed of installation was a factor. But stringing cable through rings was very slow and labor-intensive. As the industry progressed to better installation methods, much of this ring-strung cable was eventually just discarded in place - abandoned and no longer used -- and some can still seen in very old areas, particularly along railroad rights-of-way
That's when Bell Labs came up with the idea of spanning the support cable from pole to pole, and then using a machine to automatically wind - lash! -- the cable around it. The thought was that a man could pull the machine with a rope as he walked along. As the lasher rolled along the strand, the rotating drum would emit the lashing wires in a helix.
It was a good idea but, like most good ideas, it needed a practical mind to bring it to fruition. And that's where GMP comes into the picture, explains Nelson Pfundt. "During the development of many products, they'd ask my Dad about the practical aspects of manufacture. He'd look at it and say, 'How you going to put the hole back there? You can't drill there, it has to be cast' Or, 'You have to change the design.' Or he might point out a weak spot. 'This is going to break here,' Dad would point out."
There Is No "Eye Lasher"
The first lasher, introduced in 1947, was designated the "B" lasher, as it was the practice of the Bell System to designate all new products with the letter "B," perhaps for Bell. Because everything at this time was heavy-gauge, single-lash wire, spooled on a large diameter coil, the B lasher accommodated only one coil of wire.
Once the B lasher was placed in the field, there were a number of small refinements, based on input from the linemen using it: Can you make it a little smaller? Can you add a back-roll brake? But around 1949 the B lasher saw a major redesign that allowed two wires to be lashed simultaneously, and this became the C lasher - which to this day represents the basic concept of the lashing machine.
Used primarily for new installations, the C Lasher is used to lash small-diameter aerial cables to supporting strand with stainless steel lashing wire. It has just recently been upgraded to the C2 lasher, which remains one of the four basic models that serve the entire cable placing industry today.
Spin-offs continued. The D lasher, a larger version of the C lasher, could take up to a 3-inch diameter cable.
The F lasher was the first over-lashing machine. It allowed the strand lock to be removed so you could lash an additional cable to the pre-existing lash, using the same strand.
The power companies, placing cable of their own, saw advantages to being able to lash cable. But power cables are much less flexible than telephone cables, and are more difficult to lash. So the F lasher was scaled up, becoming the G lasher, to meet the demands of power companies. The G Lasher is the largest member of GMP's lasher family, and has more weight and a wider diameter, and accepts a much larger cable. Telephone companies today very rarely use the G lasher, except for installing the largest cables - such as the 4-inch diameter, 3600 pair cable. The G lasher is the only one that can handle this task.
The H lasher was nothing more than a C lasher with smaller strand drive wheels for 6.6 in. strand when it was popular in the Bell System. But that was the only change, and to this day it is still known as the C lasher outside of the Bell System.
For the record, and for what should be obvious reasons, there was never a product designation known as the "I lasher."
As telephone cable continued to span across the country in the late 1960s, early 1970s, new obstructions came into play. Installing cable in rural areas, for example, was a problem that gave birth to a new concept -- pre-lashing - and the first "pre-lasher," designated the E lasher
Pre-lashing follows the same lashing principle, but with the lasher mounted on a trailer. The cable is lashed to the support strand on the ground, and the strand and cable are placed as the truck travels down the street. This eliminated the need to lug the lasher from pole to pole. But it was an elaborate system that required a big trailer and a lot of dedicated equipment, and it, too, was adopted more by the power companies than the telephone companies.
Then, J. I. Tell (the founder of that company) got the idea of running the cable under the bucket truck - lashing it from the bucket, not the ground. The major problem with this method, aside from the capital investment required for the vehicle, was that it demands access to the right of way because the process is done while driving down the street.
Another problem posed by the urban sprawl of the late 60's was going back to run new cable where cable had already been installed. Pole space became tight, particularly when the cable TV industry came onto the scene, and was given its own real estate on the pole space (between the telephone industry's lower line and the power industry's upper line).
So the J lasher introduced a new concept -- over-lashing, which is just what it seems. By permitting the installed cable's strand lock to be removed, although in a somewhat cumbersome process, the J lasher became the first lasher that allowed the lashing of new cable directly over a previously lashed cable on the same support strand.
Over-lashing wasn't that common a practice at first, so it wasn't considered much of a nuisance to remove the strand lock. But by the late 1970s over-lashing became much more commonplace, which brought the J2 lasher, which allows over-lashing without having to remove the strand lock.
Today, the J2 is the closest relative to the original lasher. It still has about 400 parts, for example, but is much lighter. And the weight of the machine has been a lifelong design factor, says Nelson Pfundt: "Because they had to keep the machine light enough to be maneuvered 28 feet in the air, the early lashers used aircraft alloys of the day, which were pretty modern materials at the time, rather than the more common and much heavier steel forgings or cast irons."
Not Your Father's Lashing Machine!
Into the 1990s, as telephone service was made available to more remote areas and original installations saw their topographies change with the times, problems similar to those that led to the concept of pre-lashing and over-lashing came to the fore. Now, linemen needed a machine they could pull through backyards that were densely overgrown, lavishly landscaped, or guarded by dogs or fences, and across other kinds of obstacles, such as rivers and ravines, creeks and chasms. With the original lasher, you pull forward and down as you walk. Now, they needed a way to pull directly from pole to pole without walking, and without any downward pull pressure.
Linemen were also now handling new types of cable, such as bundled and fiber optic, which have to be very carefully installed. The older lashers were designed for robust lashing and to withstand all kinds of abuse in the field, but that was with copper cable or traditional cable-TV coaxial, not the high bandwidth cable designed for today's modern telecommunications systems. Now, an entirely new lashing machine was called for.
So General Machine Products re-designed the machine it helped originally design 50 years ago, creating a new lashing machine that bears very little resemblance to its predecessors - the Apollo lasher. The Apollo does not rely on strand traction for propulsion, and offers the ability to lash up to 4-inch bundles, and it is particularly designed to lash large-bandwidth coaxial cable, which cannot tolerate any bending or distortion while being lashed.
"We got away from the Bell System designation," Nelson Pfundt explains. "Our company slogan is 'tools built to go the distance' and we thought this machine is so radically different that the name Apollo evoked the Apollo space program of going the distance, to the moon and back!"
Meanwhile, like previous lashers, the Apollo continues to evolve. There have, in fact, been about 50 engineering improvements - some very subtle - to the original Apollo design, without changing its designation. And every Apollo that is sent to the company for routine maintenance is brought to current specifications at no additional cost to the customer.
Back to the Future
Today, some 30,000 lashers later, aerial cable is still being placed. The industry started out lashing lead-jacketed cable, then polyethylene jacketed cable. When the cable-TV construction came in the 70s-80s it was coaxial cable, followed by fiber optic cable in the 80s and 90s. That was soon followed by high bandwidth fiber cable in the late 90s and today even aerial duct is being lashed. Perhaps Nelson Pfundt sums it up best of all.
"In the late 1950s" says Nelson Pfundt, "it was said that all the cable was up in the air, and that the lasher was a good machine, but everything would be going underground. Well, that isn't true. And in the 60's they said everything is going to be self-support in the future, and that isn't true. And then we came up with fiber optic, and they said the lasher was a good machine, but in the future everything is going to be fiber in small cable, and now some of the fiber cable is up to an inch in diameter and we need more capacity all the time, so once again the lasher is relied upon.
"Even while the telecommunications industry and the technology it employs has changed dramatically, going from lead sheathed, heavy-gauge copper conductor to fiber and wide-bandwidth, the industry is still lashing cable. And General Machine Products is still refining and reinventing the product it built 55 years ago."So, here we are in 2002, still lashing products that are going to take us in to the future as far as we can see, and that will incorporate technology that has yet to be developed. And it's the lasher that helped make it all possible.
General Machine Products Co. 3111 Old Lincoln Highway Trevose, PA 19053-4996 USA
Tel: +1.215.357.5500 Fax: +1.215.357.6216 Email: info@GMPtools.com
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