ITU - 125 Years Old: At the Cutting Edge of Telecommunications

By Gutestam, Monica | UN Chronicle, September 1990 | Go to article overview

ITU - 125 Years Old: At the Cutting Edge of Telecommunications


Gutestam, Monica, UN Chronicle


ITU--125 years old

In 1865, the most popular means of transportation was by horse and carriage. It was a year of many developments and changes, both in Europe and in America. In March, Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a bill subjecting slaves to military duty in his army. Free delivery of mail was provided in all United States cities with a population of 50,000 or more. In April, United States President Abraham Lincoln was shot. The year 1865 also saw the birth of the International Telegraph Union, later renamed International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The oldest intergovernmental organization in the UN system, ITU celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

When the telegraph service reached the international level at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it became necessary to regulate the use of equipment, coding and rates. A legal regime was also needed to protect telegraph wires, which by now were crossing international borders. Thus, in 1865, 20 States met in Paris to draw up the first set of telegraph regulations--the International TElegraph Convention, later to become the International Telecommunication Convention.

From the

Titanic to the

space age

After setting up headquarters in Bern, Switzerland, and hiring three employees, the Union set to work. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, it revised and redrafted international telegraph regulations, forbade telegrams "contrary to public order or decency" and tried to deal with the problem of private codes and the strain they imposed on telegraphists.

The invention of radio in 1895 and 1896 brought dramatic changes in both telecommunications and the ITU. At first regarded purely as an advanced form of telegraphy, it was soon realized that radio opened up new possibilities for quick and accurate communication.

But there were also problems with this new invention. In 1912, the Titanic sunk, claiming 1,513 victims. Many could have been saved had the Titanic's radiotelegraph operator succeeded in his frantic and repeated attempts to communicate with a ship within rescue distance. But his plea for help went unanswered. The other ship's operator had gone off duty for the night.

After the tragedy, it became clear that if radio communications were going to be used, especially at sea, international regulations regarding operation and frequency spectrums were necessary.

In the early 1920s, a new form of radio service began--broadcasting. This gave rise to a problem that still remains one of the Union's biggest tasks--how to share radio frequencies without interference between stations. Today, ITU is responsible for allocating frequency bands to all radio services, including satellite, mobile and broadcasting operations.

In 1947, two ITU conferences were held in Atlantic City, United States, to develop and modernize the Union. ITU became a specialized agency of the UN, responsible for telecommunications. The agency's headquarters was moved from Bern to the more international atmosphere of Geneva. That same year, the International Frequency Registration Board was established to manage the increasingly complex radio frequency spectrum.

In the 1960s, the "space age", with its soaring developments in telecommunication, presented ITU with new challenges. …

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