Electronic Communications’ Humble Beginnings

  • Published
  • By Capt. Shane Crema
  • Air Force Network Integration Center

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — When people think about the Air Force Network Integration Center, they immediately relate to their government email being migrated to the cloud or being the number one premier organization on cyber integration and standardization across the Air Force. The year 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of AFNIC. However, communications started much earlier. While communications dates back thousands of years, the effort towards electronic communications began in the mid-1800s.

It was over 180 years ago that Samuel F. B. Morse received a patent for his electromagnetic telegraph. He devised a cipher code where words were assigned three or four-digit numbers and entered them into a codebook. Morse’s now famous message from the Bible, “What hath God wrought?” was sent May 24, 1824, 41 miles from Washington to Baltimore on an experimental line.

Alfred Vail, Morse’s assistant in Baltimore, received and returned the same message that day. Vail advanced Morse’s original experiment and developed a more intricate numerical code using dots and dashes. Today, we are familiar with this as Morse code, which greatly increased the speed of deciphering messages and set the path for future electronic communications.

The military value of electronic communications was immediately evident. President Abraham Lincoln received his first telegraph message from Thaddeus S. C. Lowe’s balloon named the Enterprise, June 17, 1861. The message was delivered through a cable from the balloon to the ground, which described the city view from 500 feet above Washington, D.C.

Lowe used this eye-catching feat to convince the president that balloons combined with electronic communications would be a valuable reconnaissance tool for the military. Later that year, he proved the merit of an emerging Balloon Corps by transmitting the location of the Confederate Army and heavy artillery positions over three miles away, September 24, 1861.

The telegraph was a vital part of the Civil War’s political and military history in two key ways. The telegraph proved to be a strategic, operational and tactical communication medium that was an important contributor to the Union’s victory, and it safeguarded civilian control over the military.

Union Army commanders were able to execute real-time battlefield operations and coordinate strategy across great distances. In all, the U.S. Military Telegraph Service handled 6.5 million messages and deployed 15,000 miles of line. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, wrote and transmitted many instructions regarding strategy across these miles of line, in many cases taking several hours to deliver.

Civilian control over the military was supported when the staff assigned to military telegraph operations had to report directly to President Lincoln and the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton used the military telegraph system as a way to keep abreast of the generals’ actions across the entire span of the conflict.

This groundwork in electronic communications laid the foundation of success for the first telephone call, the next major step in communications.

The United States Patent Office issued Alexander Graham Bell a patent, March 7, 1876, for the telephone, often called the most valuable single patent in history. Bell was fascinated with transferring speech across wires between two distant locations. At the time, a disadvantage with the telegraph was that only one message could be transmitted at a time. Bell wished to create a harmonic telegraph combining existing technologies from the original telegraph and a recording device to allow people to communicate to each other, in real time, between two points.

With his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, Bell’s first prototype consisted of sound vibrations that were transferred magnetically and replicated to a receiving end. Three days later, the first intelligible message by telephone occurred between Bell and his assistant, when he shouted into the mouthpiece, "Mr. Watson, come here, I need to see you."

Guglielmo Marconi began wireless experiments in the late 1800s in an effort to free communications from wires. He was convinced that it was possible to transmit signals using electromagnetic waves to a receiving antenna wirelessly. At that time, scientists and other experts believed that these waves could only be transmitted in a straight line with no obstacle in the way. Marconi felt otherwise.

Marconi placed the transmitter near his house and a receiver, behind a hill, three kilometers away. He had an assistant on the other end who successfully received the Morse alphabet code of three dots, representing the letter S. Marconi experimented at greater distances until he reached a distance of 100 kilometers. These early experiments led to the first transatlantic wireless transmission 2,200 miles from Cornwall, England to St. John’s, Newfoundland, December 12, 1901.

Radiotelegraphy had now become a reality.

The transition from dots and dashes to voice communications began in the early 1900s. On December 23, 1900, the first radio-voice transmission was demonstrated by American physicist Reginald Fessenden. Fessenden went on to work for the United States Weather Bureau with the goal of utilizing coastal radio station towers to transmit weather information without the use of telegraph lines. With advances in receiver design, he worked to develop the audio reception of signals.

Afterwards, Fessenden’s future success consisted of barretter and electrolytic detectors that set the standard in radio reception sensitivity. This effort finally brought voice to wireless communications and could not have come at a better time as the monumental event of the world’s first powered flight on December 17, 1903 would prove the need for more advanced communication.

In 2018, AFNIC celebrates its 75th anniversary by continuing to develop communications capabilities that science fiction writers only dreamed of decades ago. Government email migrating to the cloud, global mobile communications, tablet computing, and advance satellite communications are today’s version of advancements like Morse code and radio telegraphy. The men and women of AFNIC are now writing their own chapter in the advancement of communications and continue this storied past moving forward to be the Air Force Engineering and Integration Center of Excellence. 

In celebration of its birthday, AFNIC is hosting an anniversary dinner on April 19th at the Regency Conference Center in O’Fallon, Illinois. This event is open to any from the communications, air traffic control, information technology, and cyberspace community who wish to celebrate with us. The invitation to the event is found at https://einvitations.afit.edu/inv/anim.cfm?i=380235&k=0169420B7852. For more information, contact 1st Lt. Justin Gallenstein at 618-229-6648 or by email at justin.gallenstein.1@us.af.mil.