Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Telecommunications in World War I 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Telecommunications in World War I 1

Article excerpt


I would like to thank the American Philosophical Society for the honor of this opportunity to address it. The subject of World War I is an enormous one, and I trust that the presentations this morning will whet your appetite to learn more about it.

Let me begin, however unexpectedly, with Benjamin Franklin. The founder of this society, Franklin also served as an essential diplomat for the colonies during the Revolutionary War. One of the challenges Franklin confronted in France was the need to maintain a semblance of secure, reliable communications with the Continental Congress. He needed to protect the information acquired through the negotiations with the French court and get it to Philadelphia as quickly as possible without it falling into British hands. As we know, Franklin brought his grandson Temple along as secretary in part because he could trust him; however, Franklin erred when he also relied on Dr. Edward Bancroft as secretary and interpreter. A scholar and a spy for the colonists, Bancroft was also a double agent, a spy working for the British. Through Bancroft, the British knew within days of the signing of the treaties with France in 1778. Still, despite gaining this information, they could not act on it faster than Franklin could dispatch it back to Philadelphia. Having pushed the colonists too far, they could not avert a widening of the war.2

The problems of time and distance, as well as the dangers that the words would not arrive in time or that the other side would read them first, were certainly not new when Franklin confronted them. Although it would have astonished Franklin, the global communications grid that evolved through the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth mitigated some of these problems, but it also created new ones. At no time was this fact more evident to the Great Powers than during World War I.

The central focus of the current article is telecommunications in World War I. Specifically, I wish to address this subject at the strategic level, where the Great Powers saw the international telecommunications systems and networks as key elements in being a Great Power. I will not address tactical or operational matters, although these are indeed important, nor will I address propaganda or mass communications. The information that the Great Powers worried about first and foremost were the messages moving around the globe relating to diplomacy, military strategy, finance, and logistics. Without this information, the war could not happen nor unfold in the manner they wished.

The subject of telecommunications in wartime has received comparatively less attention over the years by historians of World War I. However, the concerns of our generation have helped to trigger new questions about the past, and the answers to those questions merit close attention in our time. I have explored this topic further in my own research, in both Nexus and my current book projects.3 It is a complex topic, but in the interests of simplicity and understanding, I want to suggest the following three perspectives on telecommunications in World War I: (a) telecommunications as a strategic tool, (b) telecommunications as a strategic target, and (c) telecommunications as a strategic vulnerability.


Why and how did the Great Powers consider telecommunications such a valuable strategic tool? The global submarine telegraph cable network, developed gradually from 1872-1914, linked all inhabited continents by the eve of war. Together with the domestic telegraph lines, information could move around the world within the space of 30 minutes to 1 hour. By the final decade before World War I, the art and science of wireless had progressed to the point that ship-to-shore traffic and intercontinental radio transmissions were becoming reliable, if not especially rapid.4

The effects of these developments for the Great Powers were multiple and significant. …

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