Winning Wars With Wires-and Without
Two books show how communications technology has given the U.S. a great military advantage
Elsewhere in this issue we mention that the cell-phone revolution had its roots in military technology. Ever since 490 b.c., when Pheidippides ran 26 miles, 385 yards (give or take a step or two) to tell Athenians of their hometown team’s victory over the Persians in the battle of Marathon, swift transmission of information has been a key element of warfare. A pair of recent books show how superiority in communications played a key role in deciding the two greatest wars in our nation’s history.
In Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (Collins, 227 pages, $24.95), Tom Wheeler examines the nearly 1,000 surviving telegrams sent by President Lincoln, plus some that he wrote out for transmission but decided not to send and ones received by him. Wheeler shows how Lincoln took advantage of the still-developing technology to give orders when regular mail would have been too slow and to react to developments within hours. During the Second Battle of Bull Run, for example, the President peppered Col. Herman Haupt with messages like, “What became of our forces which held the bridge till twenty minutes ago, as you say?”
The Confederacy had no such capacity for delivering up-to-the-minute news. During the war the Union, already crisscrossed by telegraph wires, built more than 15,000 miles of new lines, while the Confederacy built a mere 500 miles. Using this communication advantage, Lincoln could coordinate the movements of armies separated by hundreds of miles, cajole recalcitrant generals, and collect and forward the latest tactical and strategic information.
The author occasionally makes too much of the obvious parallels with today’s information age, and he can be too eager to apply modern business jargon (“early adopter,” “Management by Walking Around”) to Lincoln’s executive style. Still, the book provides a good, concise military history of the Civil War told from a thoroughly novel point of view.
Eight decades later, during World War II, the importance of telecommunications was taken for granted; the problem was giving the troops enough equipment. In Crystal Clear: The Struggle for Reliable Communications Technology in World War II (IEEE Press/Wiley-Interscience, 230 pages, $54.95), Richard J. Thompson, Jr., concentrates on one aspect of this problem: the effort to procure, manufacture, and distribute crystals for radio sets.
Before the war, radio crystals had been essentially a handicraft industry, with each manufacturer using its own equipment, often improvised, and guarding its trade secrets. Within two years after Pearl Harbor, the government had managed to greatly increase the procurement of raw quartz (mostly from Brazil, where peasants mined the rock with picks and shovels) and had made enormous strides in yield and quality control. By 1944 the supply was great enough to allow a wholesale change of crystals just before D-Day, foiling the Germans, who had learned to monitor the old frequencies.
One problem the armed forces encountered with their crystals was aging. In the summer and fall of 1943 headquarters started getting reports of crystals losing their ability to oscillate at the proper frequency. As a stopgap measure, the services established in-theater regrinding and polishing teams that rehabilitated worn-out crystals, often with improvised tools such as toothbrushes and grinding paste borrowed from the motor pools. Meanwhile, stateside scientists determined that the aging problem was caused by inadequately prepared surfaces. By replacing abrasives with deep chemical etching in the production process, manufacturers created smooth surfaces free from most of the defects that caused deterioration.
As had been true with Civil War telegraphy, the opposition in World War II used inferior technology, making their communications less helpful. And across the decades the result for the United States was the same: more efficient allocation of troops and resources, better strategic and tactical information, and a swifter end to a bloody conflict.
—Frederic D. Schwarz