In April 1912, the sinking of the Titanic created the first ever SOS radio signal – and, through the accidental pickup of amateur radio enthusiasts, the first live broadcast news event.
Originally radio was a ‘point to point’ medium, with entrepreneurs in the USA taking a little while to pick up on its broadcasting potential (but then rapidly accelerating and creating NBC, RKO and CBS). But even as a ‘point to point’ medium it was still immediately comprehended how important it was. So important in fact that the Navy and military in the US spent a couple of decades pressuring the US government to restrict use to the armed forces. With this new medium, a commander could instantly be in touch with his units, discuss the emerging situation, and re-deploy.
And yet, throughout the First and Second World War, the most violent and destructive conflicts in man’s history, the preferred method of military communication looked like this.
This reminds me that whilst new technology creates a Jump in human behavior and psychology, it’s rarely immediate, and never comprehensive. There is little doubt that radio is a better way of communicating than a pigeon. But the people responsible for running the war(s) still stuck to pigeons for anything really important.
There are a couple of good functional reasons. One, of course, is security. Shooting down a lone pigeon over enemy lines is trickier than intercepting a radio signal. In fact I’ve seen some good arguments that the Allies’ victory in the world wars had a lot to do with superiority in encryption – the subject of a reasonably good movie (Enigma). The other is speed – a pigeon is fast than you think. In fact, in September 2009, a South African IT company pitted a pigeon with a memory stick against ADSL over a 50 mile distance to see which arrived first. By the time all information had been taken from the memory stick, ADSL was 4% of the way through…
What I find most fascinating, however, is that a big part of the attachment to pigeons was emotional, not functional. This was a communications technology that the forces and the people back home had a lot of trust and emotion tied up in. For evidence, see the aura of heroism that was built up around these noble pigeons. Take, for example, Cher Ami.
Cher Ami was one of many pigeons that was merely the greatest of a series of pigeons given medals or treated like heroes during the two World Wars – the full story is well worth reading here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cher_Ami.
So I guess one reason to use the pigeon is that you can’t imbue a radio with a sense of heroism…nor even really a radio operator. Whereas a pigeon, just about, can be anthropomorphized into a hero. Which is important in times of war I guess.
This thought and many others have been triggered by this great book, ‘Hello, Everybody!” by Anthony Rudel. It covers the early days of American radio, and is funny, interesting and revealing. Highly recommended.
It reminds me just how fundamental the early phase of the rise of radio was, representing as it does the whole invention of one-to-many live communication. It changed the way we think of news stories, like the wreck of the Titanic. It created modern politics, through the fireside chats of Silent Cal Coolidge. It generated the whole concept of celebrity, in the person of Charles Lindbergh. It is responsible for almost every form of entertainment you see on TV every night. It represented the golden age of advertising and brands. It made sportspeople like Babe Ruth globally famous for the first time.
In fact, so much happened so fast as radio emerged, that it’s like we can see reflections of that age in the 1920s everywhere around us, frozen in time. We are in the later days of the broadcasting age, when the gleeful populism of the 1920s is fading, but maybe having its final flourish. The digital age will do a lot to change all these things, and is doing so. But it won’t happen over night.
After all, sometimes people prefer to talk by pigeon…