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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The mobile communications of World War One

Mark Bridge writes:

Unmanned drone aircraft are flown by pilots thousands of miles away, while hackers attempt to intercept their transmissions. Temporary WiFi connections offer internet access to soldiers working at army bases in unfamiliar countries, prompting warnings about sharing too much information on social networks. Civilians transmit live video coverage of military activity from their mobile phones, putting themselves at risk of being targeted.

It’s clear that communications technology has transformed 21st century warfare.

What may not be so obvious are the ways that wireless communications played a part in the First World War... and the concerns about security that remain with us today.

Radio had proved its worth at sea before the war when the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912. The stricken liner sent a Morse Code radio distress call that was received by RMS Carpathia. As a result, more than 700 people were rescued from the Atlantic Ocean. During WW1, all the major navies used radio equipment - and were also aware of the risks involved with wireless technology. Communications could be overheard and could even be located by the enemy. As a result, ships tended to avoid sending messages unless it was essential. Instead, radio was used mainly for receiving one-way messages. Submarines had a greater problem: they could only communicate when they were on or very near the surface, risking discovery.

And there was another issue that affected everyone using wireless during the 1914-1918 conflict. Most equipment at the beginning of the war wasn’t capable of sending voice by radio, which meant Morse or military codes needed to be ‘tapped out’ by hand and translated by radio operators.

The danger of intercepted messages wasn’t just restricted to the sea. Direction-finding receivers were also used on battlefields, causing land-based forces to be cautious as well. While messages to and from the frontline were sometimes delivered by motorcyclist dispatch riders, it wasn’t unusual to see carrier pigeons and messenger dogs being employed. Similarly, semaphore flags and lights were utilised when field telephone lines weren’t practical. But this didn’t prevent radio equipment from being carried into battle by horse-drawn vehicles or trucks on occasions.

Radio equipment was bulky, which is one of the reasons it wasn’t used much in aircraft at the start of the Great War. Antennas were long and batteries were heavy. Yet by the end of the war, wireless communications had evolved dramatically. In 1918, several hundred RAF aircraft had been fitted with two-way radios that could transmit voices, enabling an informal version of Air Traffic Control. Transmissions were used in a different way by the pilots of German Zeppelin airships; they listened to radio signals in order to track their own location as they flew towards England.

Wireless technology was in its infancy at the time of the First World War. However, the benefits and the risks were already clear to military commanders. Although the technology has developed in the past 100 years, many of those risks and benefits remain largely unchanged. It’s still a challenge to ensure your message is heard by the right people... and not overheard by the wrong ones.

Mark Bridge is a freelance copywriter who’s easily distracted by any kind of vintage wireless technology. He’s also one of the team behind The Fonecast, which produces podcasts about the UK mobile phone industry every week.
Author: The Fonecast
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