Radio on the Frontlines: WWI and WWII

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"Student aviators getting acquainted with the radio instruments." Courtesy The New York Public Library.

Radio during WWI 

At the onset of World War I, radio was still in its infancy. Army equipment was primitive, had a very short range, and often negotiated atmospheric interference. A 1913 aircraft with a radio, at the time considered cutting-edge equipment, had a maximum range of 2,000 yards. Military radio equipment also used vacuum tubes, which were heavy and bulky. As a result, the equipment was difficult to tote around on the battlefield, even on mules and horses, which were still the military’s primary mode of equipment transportation. The American army made some adaptations with the development of a "horse-pack set," which used a hand generator and was strapped to the side of a horse. The entire radio transmitter and receiver, in size and design, resembled a saddle.

Still, this did not solve all of radio’s challenges. During the First World War, radio transmissions were often less reliable than using wired telephones or telegraphs. Radio really found a foothold, however, at sea, even before the United States’ direct involvement in World War I. President Wilson’s 1914 Executive Order allowed the Navy to censor international telegrams sent or received via radio. Though many, including the Marconi Wireless Company of America, vehemently challenged the censorship ban, it stuck, and so began the Navy’s heavy involvement with wartime radio. Navy radio stations, which had higher powered signals than those sent out on the frontlines, were able to relay timely wartime news to vessels at sea. There was some experimentation with troop entertainment via radio transmission, too, with broadcasts aimed at Navy ships at sea and wounded sailors recovering in hospitals. It is telling that the U.S. Navy press sent its final dispatch of the war, announcing armistice on November 11, 1918, via radio transmission.