Military Radio and World War I

Traditional radio has become increasingly obsolete in recent years as streaming music services, satellite radio, and podcasts seek to occupy the space once filled by a box and an antenna. 100 years ago though, commercial radio was in its infancy. Before that, radio was fledgling and illegal. As the United States was thrusted into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered all privately owned radio stations to shut down or be seized for use by the U.S. government. Since radios became a tool of war communication, citizens were barred from possessing a working radio transmitter or receiver. 

In the 1910’s, radio was still a new and emerging bit of technology, so its full capabilities had yet to be realized. The first commercial radio broadcast wouldn’t even come until November 2, 1920, long after World War I had ended. However, attempts were already being made to develop and understand how radio could be used. In 1913, a radio-equipped aircraft was developed. The range maxed out at 2,000 yards, which was considered to be cutting-edge at the time. 

During the war, radio on land was volatile. At sea, however, there was more success. Before the United States joined the war, the Navy was transmitting telegrams that were sent and received by radio. The Navy had stronger signals than those on the front lines and had the capability to broadcast messages and news to other sea vessels. This era also experimented with entertaining the troops through radio broadcasts. 

The use of radio communications created new opportunities for miscommunications to spread easily through bad connections. This led to the advent of the phonetic alphabet, to remove any room for misunderstandings when broadcasting information. The phonetic alphabet was first utilized in 1913. It has gone through a series of changes before reaching the current iteration in 1957.

Undoubtedly, radio was a crucial piece of World War I communications, but even more so in the conflicts that followed. By the time World War II erupted nearly two decades later, commercial radio was ubiquitous. This led to new challenges for communicating covert messages and introduced new forces such as the legendary code talkers. For World War I though, it was a brand new technology that provided a welcome advantage in the fight.

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Posted on August 16 2021 in Blog

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