Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century

Simon Forge (SCF Associates Ltd)


ISSN: 1463-6697

Article publication date: 9 May 2008



Forge, S. (2008), "Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century", info, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 73-74.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

From Hedy Lamarr to Moon phases

The subtitle gives it all away – “from ancient times to the 21st century” is the real substance of this book. This is an encyclopaedia of the history of military communications, in all forms, from timing simultaneous attacks by the phases of the moon (clever tactics by North American Indians to synchronise widely dispersed attack groups against colonial invaders, while avoiding betrayal by any communications signalling) to who headed up the US army signal corps at the end of the nineteenth century. The role of signalling media other than radio is carefully described including flag systems, flares, semaphore arms, lights, pigeons, the US Civil War's flying telegraph and rockets. Smoke signals were used on the Great Wall of China as well as by native Americans. Roman and Greek systems of bonfire signal relays and torches were combined with time measurements, as tokens for specific pre‐agreed messages.

The book assembles over 300 articles by 40 subject‐matter experts, organised as an encyclopaedia, from Air Force Communications Agency to Zygalski sheets (an aid to deciphering German Enigma code invented by the Polish Cipher Bureau in 1938), via Maori fire arrows, Norway's 1809 Chappe coastal semaphore networks, tropospheric scatter and meteor burst radio reflection systems. We have detailed coverage of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as well as of Navajo code talkers who could speak in clear without fear of interception during the Pacific campaigns of WWII. Totally riveting.

Really this a great history book, useful for the military historian with most material being on the US armed forces up to the present day. The fascinating factoids are legion – for instance that there were experiments with bouncing radio signals off the moon in the 1940s. Inevitably one would like more on certain subjects – but that is the dilemma of the military historian, and particularly acute in communications. So much is still classified, especially in some areas of radio communications, where some certain major subjects have been classified perhaps since the 1920s and still are not open to public knowledge let alone commercial uses and patents. Overall this means that the nineteenth century and before is well covered here, both in the USA and elsewhere, especially the ancient world. However, sometimes we come across surprising detail on the latest developments. For instance, theatre communications systems for the Iraq war inside the Pentagon are well covered. Sections on China and Russia also give a glimpse of how other countries have developed military communications over the past century and more recently.

But generally any author writing on modern military communications or even that stretching back 70 years will be hobbled by secrecy. Researching a subject that is too often still regarded as largely secret in some way means that many subjects are taboo or the information is carefully attenuated. For instance, the British GC&CS decryption work on enemy Geheimschreiber and other ciphers at Bletchley Park was not revealed in any way until F.W. Winterbotham's book in 1974 confirmed at least some of it, 34 years later. Moreover one of the latest of the many tomes on this centre of wartime decryption, which describes its most important computer development (Gannon, 2006), Colossus, still has no meaningful functional schematics of the real machine, despite 562 pages on the subject. And much of its content is based on material only released publicly in 2002; furthermore there is much documentation on Colossus still to be released.

This is a shame. Much of our radio science and signal processing research over the next few decades will be concentrating on rediscovering military communications theory developed over the past 50, or even 90 years, in some cases, and never released publicly. For instance, CDMA mobile systems are based on some limited elements of military communications technology. Thus the history of military communications is more than an academic subject. It could prove vital for future consumer technologies, especially when deployed on the kind of computing power available for under 20 Euros or Dollars in any smartphone. That is why certain parts of the subjects mentioned in these pages are just tantalisingly out of reach, from the mythical lost papers that the FBI may have confiscated from Tesla in 1942, to the latest research on cognitive radio. And why Hedy Lamarr? – read the book to find out.


Gannon, P. (2006), Colossus, Bletchley Park's Greatest Secret, Atlantic Books London.

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