Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

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What is the meaning of the word "Cable-tow?"  What is meant by the reference to its length?

The Oxford English Dictionary contains a number of cable combinations, e.g., "cable-rope, cable-range, cable-stock," etc., but does not give "cable-tow."

The word tow has another significance, in addition to pulling or dragging, it also means the fiber of flax, or hemp, or jute.  A cable might be made of plaited wire, or of metal links, or of manmade fibers, but the combination "cable-tow" which seems to be of purely Masonic usage, implies almost certainly the natural fiber from which the rope is to be made.

The "cables length" is a unit of marine measurements, 1/10th of a sea mile, or 607.56 feet. We use the term "cables length" in two senses:

"A cables length from the shore," implying that anything buried at that distance out at sea, could never be recovered.

"If within the length of my cable-tow."  In operative times, attendance at Lodge or assembly was obligatory and there were penalties for non-attendance.  Early regulations on this point varied from 5 to 50 miles, except "in the peril of death." In effect, the length of the cable-tow implies that masons were obliged to attend, so long as it was humanly possible to do so.