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Londoners and New Yorkers gawk at each other through a transatlantic lens

A Victorian-era dream is reborn via fiberoptics and imagination in the 'telectroscope.'

By Brendan O'Neill, Matt Shaer / June 4, 2008

The "Telectroscope" erupts from the ground under the Brooklyn Bridge.Though it is connected to a transatlantic fiber-optic cable, the "lens"portions on either end are designed to look like a Victorian-erabrass-and-wood gadgets.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Jules Verne on the Thames?

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From a distance, it looks as if one of Jules Verne's imagined flying contraptions has crashed in to the South Bank of the Thames. Next to Tower Bridge, the massive brown-and-gold item pokes up from the walkway, like the front end of a B-movie UFO – or perhaps some part of a ship's hull from 200 years ago – winning weird looks from passers-by. Is it a plane? Is it a time machine?

No, it's the Telectroscope, the wacky, wonderful invention of British artist Paul St. George. The story: Mr. St. George happened upon a stack of dusty papers in his grandmother's attic, which revealed that his great-grandfather – an eccentric Victorian engineer – had planned to bore a 3,471-mile tunnel from London to New York, allowing us Brits to gawk at you Yanks through the world's longest telescope. Now, St. George has made his great-gramp's dream a reality.

The truth is ... Oh, who cares about the truth? The point about the Telectroscope – a Victorian-style freakish fairground attraction – is that you believe, or you don't. And as soon as I look through it, I believe. There, on the other side of the "tunnel," as clear as day and as large as life, I see real-life, real-time New Yorkers.

I write a message on one of the white boards and hold it up: "Where's Matt?"

They look around and seem to call his name. One of them holds up a sign: "No Matt here."

Matt's late.

Sprouting beneath the Brooklyn Bridge

New York is a hard place to be earnest. This is one thing newcomers learn fast, long before they've memorized the subway map or pinpointed their favorite pizzeria. The entire city – every electric, shaking, rattling square inch of it – consumes the ardent and the naive, chewing and grinding us with its big asphalt teeth, until we're all spit out together, several months later, as freshly minted cynics.

So how, exactly, to explain the appeal of the outlandish Telectroscope gadget, planted not far from the legs of the Brooklyn Bridge? Here's a toy, like Francis Drake's spyglass – studded with the odd, useless lever or meter – dropped amid the warehouses and art galleries of Brooklyn, and rimmed by a crust of rocks and debris, as if it had erupted from under the Hudson River.

Here's a device, connected to London by a fiber-optic cable running under the Atlantic, that allows New Yorkers to peer back at their British counterparts, to gawp, wave, laugh, make funny faces, and hold up white boards bearing salutations and cross cultural commentary. Here, in short, is a glorified, double-sided webcam, dressed in Victorian-era whimsy. But at the base of the Telelectroscope on the Fulton Ferry Pier in Brooklyn, dozens of adults are pressing their faces wildly against the glass, jostling for a spot at the front of the line, laughing, giggling, and shrieking.

As I dash onto the pier several minutes late and sweating under the midday sun, I see a man lift his dachshund overhead. "Here buddy," he smiles, as the dog peddles its legs anxiously. "Now you've seen the glorious shores of Jolly Old England."

In a city that prides itself on nonchalance, the Telectroscope (operating through June 15), seems to be that great leveler: a device to make giddy even the most cynical New Yorkers. And peering into St. George's toy for the first time, I find – against reason – that I feel giddy, too. It's a break in the space-time continuum; a chance to travel at the speed of light.

"Are you there, Brendan?" I say aloud, to no one in particular. "Are you there?"

The Brits' sardonic lens

This being England, there's a slightly sardonic attitude to the whole thing. "It's just a webcam," says a 30-something woman in jeans and sweat shirt. "I can hook up with New York through the webcam in my living room." Her friend shushes her, nodding toward a group of children excitedly waving to a confused-looking Brooklyn man in a gray suit. "They're loving the magic of it, so be quiet."