Radio’s Rise During World War I


By Jonathan H

Kahuku Marconi Wireless
The Kahuku Radio Station, as it looks today as a shrimp farm. Stay tuned for part 2, containing images from its 1914 emergency wartime inauguration.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

Dylan’s verse from “When the Ship Comes In” personifies the climate of 1914. The world’s seas were chained together by a vast network of underwater cables. The cables connected colonial satellites like never before. Telegraphy had been a boon to Britain. In concert with land-grab, colonial powers were grabbing communication rights, even if it wasn’t on their own shores. Dylan’s fourth verse, though, speaks for a more covert hostile takeover and the first of its kind: Imperialism in the airwaves.

Map of Telegraph Cables Before WWI
Map of the world’s telegraph cables prior to the rise of wireless and World War I

No longer did physical lines — susceptible to sabotage or destruction by foreign enemies — have to be laid on the bottom of the ocean. The “chains of the sea” were broken. Ships could openly communicate with each other. Because radio waves could be intercepted by any enemy, cryptography (“to get the ship confused”) soon followed and Marconi’s invention of radio telegraphy had turned into a weapon of war.

As soon as government had recognized this power, even free-market and democratic governments abandoned their laissez-faire tenets in place of eminent domain and national security. Wireless telegraphy was the origin of the military-industrial complex, and the most salient case example was in the formation of RCA, which sprouted from Marconi’s invention.

Colonial Growth of Cable (1898-1914)

In the early 1900s, Britain had a virtual monopoly over cross-continental telecommunications. More importantly, a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi had approached Britain with his new invention: wireless radio. The War Office of Britain was amused by Marconi’s contraption and fortuitously just in time for their Second Boers War. Britain’s imperial prowess in distant colonies was soon trumped by its prowess of the airwaves and land-line telegraphy. Their two-pronged system of submarine cables and transatlantic wireless communication was unparalleled, and extremely powerful in the years preceding World War I.

Despite the fact that the U.S. was far behind Britain in its adoption of Marconi’s invention, it still saw the power inherent in wireless. A victory in the Spanish-American War meant that the U.S. had to communicate with their newly acquired “protectorate” in the Phillipines. The U.S. was irked at the fact that all communique between Washington and the Phillipines had to go through a foreign cable (Britain’s), across the Atlantic, in a circuitous route through the Mediterranean and around Asia. In 1903, Commercial Pacific Cable established a direct line from San Francisco to Manila (Headrick and Griset 566).

Then, in 1904, President Roosevelt appointed a board to discuss wireless telegraphy. Already, British-owned Marconi had constructed stations across U.S. coasts. The board recommended that the Navy operate all coastal stations. Perhaps to quell any public opposition, it proposed “free commercial ship-to-shore service.” If the recommendation had gone through, the U.S. would have had a state-owned wireless monopoly. As it turned out, the press caught wind of the proposal for government-operated airwaves, and it was widely considered a “blatant attack on private enterprise” (Headrick, 125).

Stock Certificate for the American Marconi Company
The engraving for the Marconi company’s stock certificate in 1913

Corporate Wireless Property Grab

The corporations, however, took the place of government in snatching up as many stations as it could. United Fruit Company (the progenitor of Chiquita) had their Tropical Radio subsidiary for their fruit shipments from the banana republics and had captured much of the South American market. Western Union set up a wireless shop to try to capture the lucrative transatlantic market. In time, the U.S. corporations, vast and disparate, would form stations across the world, from Hawaii to China, the Dutch East Indes, Liberia, Cuba, Brazil, and far beyond — it was a type of corporate empire unseen in history and the largest ever. The government idly stood by, often ineffectually using wireless technology in Naval operations until the 1910s, yet encouraging private enterprise to build up the infrastructure.

Next week, we’ll see how the outbreak of World War I affected the United States, its tenuous ties with both the Britons and the Germans, and the beginnings of the formation of RCA, which marked the true beginnings of the military-industrial complex. Most importantly, we’ll find out what set in motion a government-controlled media enterprise unprecedented in history.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part entry on Wireless Telegraphy during World War I. Here is part two, which contains more information on the significance of the Kahuku Marconi Wireless Station (the link contains a site overview).

7 comments on “Radio’s Rise During World War I

  1. Pingback: Bearings » Blog Archive » Bearings’ Presidential Endorsement: Barack Obama

  2. Offels purfisp on said:

    thanks much, guy

  3. Pingback: Wireless Developments Circa 1917 | Casco Bay Boaters

  4. Pingback: Marconi, America, and the Monroe Doctrine - Bearings

  5. Pingback: End of World War I and the RCA Monopoly - Bearings

  6. nonfic bok on said:

    excellent post about the history of telecommunications during the war. the things we take for granted now…

  7. Larry Dighera on said:

    Full Marconi Wireless Station history is here:

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