Book Summary: “Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945” by Daniel Headrick

Invisible Weapon

Title: Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945
Author: Daniel Headrick
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Headrick explores the ability of the European empires in the 19th and 20th Centuries to use communications technology to conquer and consolidate their hold over the rest of the world.

Key Take-aways

  • Empires require communications technologies to maintain control over their territory.
  • The telegraph enabled the British and French to centralize control over their empires. Local governors now had far less flexibility.
  • Britain’s early lead in the telegraph and underwater cable technology enabled them gain large advantages over the other European nations overseas.
  • The United States quickly took the lead in radio technology in the early 20th Century. This helped it greatly in the two world wars.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

“The means of communication—messengers on horseback—had not improved since Roman times.”

“By the late 1840s, webs of telegraph wires were beginning to cover Britain, France, Germany, and the eastern United States, and were appearing in Italy, Austria, and even further afield.”

“By 1866 telegraph engineers and entrepreneurs had learned much from two decades of experimentation and failure. They were ready to build a system that would dominate international communications for half a century. Until World War I the technology of telegraphs settled into a comfortable maturity, not yet challenged by long-distance telephony, radio, or airmail. Once cables could be made reliable and efficient, the network expanded until it reached almost every part of the world.”

“In 1887 Britain owned 70 percent of the world’s cables; from 1894 to 1901, it still retained a 63 percent share. More important, Britain’s share of the world’s cables included the trunk lines to India, East Asia, Australasia, Africa, and the Americas. Though other countries had feeder cables, most of the world’s important business traffic traveled over British lines. The period from 1866 to 1895 was one of British hegemony in international communications.”

“two-thirds of the world’s cables were British, and 45.7 percent belonged to one group: the Eastern and Associated Companies, the greatest multinational corporation of the nineteenth century.”

“It was the events of the years 1898–1902 that changed the perceptions of the press and the politicians. It was then that the world learned that control over cables meant access to information, and that control over information was another form of political and military power. This revelation was the result of three events: the Spanish-American War, the Fashoda incident, and the Boer War.”

“In the Atlantic, as in the Pacific, the United States government stayed out of the cable business and let private enterprise operate on its own. The result was a tremendous expansion of American cables at the expense of British interests.”

“Two characteristics of radiotelegraphy (or wireless as it was then known) were apparent from the start. It could communicate with ships and other vehicles that had been incommunicado in the age of the telegraph, and it sprayed its messages in all directions and crossed national boundaries with impunity, making it far less secure than cables.”

“In radio technology, as in many other fields, the United States was fast becoming a center of innovation and industry in the first decade of this century.”

“Only after months of war did the belligerents realize that the most important, information was not what spies might steal but what each side gave away free. The culprit was radio. Before radio the channels of communication were physical—letters, wires—and could be guarded. Radio released information from its physical bonds and sent it out into the ether in all directions. Hence the importance of tapping enemy communications and extracting information from it, even at the expense of giving up some of one’s own. As secret interception and code-breaking were added to the arsenal of the warring powers, a new weapon was forged: communications intelligence… In this field, Great Britain was the clear winner, a position it kept in both world wars”

“This was the first war in which communications were sufficiently powerful for central headquarters to command an entire theater of war at once with knowledge gleaned from myriad sources, including radio interception.”

“The 1920s were an era of tremendous creativity in communications, witnessing four major advances in rapid succession. The best known is broadcasting, which revolutionized public information and entertainment, but had little impact on international relations. More significant for our purposes was the development of longwave radiotelegraphy, which finally became efficient and reliable on a global scale. In reaction to this challenge, cable technology improved more radically than it had since the 1870s. No sooner did these two technologies reach a rough balance than a third one, shortwave, upset all calculations and threw the global communications industry into disarray.”

“In radio there was no contest. By the end of World War I, the United States was well ahead of the rest of the world both in advanced technology and in the financial power to invest in new equipment.”

“Within two years the new technology of shortwave made the huge longwave stations obsolete.”

“By the mid-1920s, cables and radio had reached a rough equilibrium. High-powered radio stations, though costly, were less expensive than laying new intercontinental cables; however, the demand for long-distance telegraphy was growing so fast that radio stations could be built all over the world without threatening the profitability and political value of cables.”

“There is a general trend in technology towards greater size, complexity, and cost, for instance when ocean liners replaced sailing ships or jets replaced propeller planes. For twenty-five years, long-distance radio had been following this trend towards ever larger, more powerful, and more expensive equipment concentrated in the hands of a few giant companies. Shortwave broke this cycle, making global communications simple and cheap, and threatening to make all previous telecommunications systems obsolete in short order. This was not just a technical innovation; it also promised some major political repercussions”

“Because it was a small-scale, low-cost technology, shortwave radio had a double impact. On the one hand, it made long-distance communication affordable even to the poorest and most remote regions that had previously depended on the major cable and longwave companies, or had done without. On the other hand, the new technology caused an upheaval in the communications industry, especially in Great Britain.”

“The real victims of shortwave were the cable companies.”

“[World War 2] was also a war of movement, in contrast to the trench warfare of World War I. Both aspects required communications technologies on a scale never seen before.

These technologies were of two kinds. One was radio, and particularly shortwave radio. So small and inexpensive were transceivers that they could be installed in trucks and tanks and airplanes and submarines. Indeed, without small transceivers there would have been no Blitzkrieg, no U-boat tactics, no massive bombing raids and fighter defenses. The very nature of warfare had changed. ”

“the major powers turned to another invention, electromechanical cipher machines.”

“Communications intelligence, it turns out, was as important in the course of the war as any other weapons system, and more important than most generals.

Here, too, there are similarities with the First World War. While the technology had changed dramatically, the balance of power between the nations had not. Through a combination of tradition, motivation, and skill, the British retained their mastery of communications even when they were closest to defeat, while the Germans, masters of warfare, lost the battle of information.”

“If interception was the beginning of communications intelligence, cryptanalysis was the middle. After that came translation, then analysis. Unlike the German system, which separated these functions, Bletchley Park handled most of them in house. The interaction between cryptanalysts, translators, and intelligence analysts enhanced the effectiveness of all three and was one of the great strengths of British communications intelligence in World War II, in contrast to the situation in World War I.”

“The Battle of the Atlantic hinged on many weapons systems working together: on the German side, submarines and cryptanalysis; on the Anglo-American side, convoys, destroyers, HF/DF, radar, and cryptanalysis as well”

“All three aspects of electronic warfare—radar, direction-finding, and cryptology—became more powerful and sophisticated. And all three favored the Allies: radar and direction-finding from 1940–41 on, and the secret war of codes and ciphers after 1943. It is astonishing that Germany held its own so long against such unfavorable odds.”

“Communications had a greater impact on the course of World War II than on any previous event in history. The very nature of that war—massive and motorized— demanded continuous, instant, and secure communications. Victory did not smile upon the boldest nations, as the Axis leaders believed, but upon the best informed.

The Allied advantage had an element of luck, but it was largely the result of a seventy-five-year-long British experience with global telecommunications. During those years, Britain had learned better than other nations how to safeguard its own secrets and how to penetrate those of its enemies.”

“While so many technologies of the same era, such as railroads, automobiles, and mass production, seem to have reached a plateau after spectacular beginnings, telecommunications have never ceased improving and the future promises miracles as astonishing as those our forefathers marveled at.”

“While many nations played a part in the development of the telegraph and of radio, none contributed as much as Britain. For that reason, the history of global telecommunications is closely tied to the growth and decline of the British Empire. In the 1860s, when submarine cables became reliable, only Britain had sufficient industry and finance to create a world network and sufficient trade to warrant the investment. From the 1870s on, the British Empire was increasingly bound together by strands of copper. Thanks to its cable network, Great Britain possessed the power to control the global flow of information at a time when information was becoming increasingly vital to great-power status and to economic prosperity.”

“The year 1956 saw the first transatlantic cable to be laid in thirty years, a telephone cable that made the old telegraph cables obsolete overnight. Shortly thereafter, in the 1960s, the era of telecommunications satellites began, only to be followed, twenty years later, by fiber-optic cables that are making the older telephone cables and even some satellites obsolete in turn.”

If you would like to learn more about technology in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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