Retrotechtacular: Wire Splicing The Army Way

For those of us who started experimenting with electricity when we were very young, one of the essential first skills was learning how to twist wires together. It seems like there’s not much to learn, but after a few failed attempts with nothing but your fingers, you learned a few tricks that are probably still with you to this day. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s an official US Army way to twist wires together, as this Signal Corps training film from 1941 shows.

Considering that the Signal Corps had nearly 80 years of experience with wiring battlefield communications at the outbreak of World War II, their methods were pretty solid, as were their materials. The film mainly concerns the splicing together of rolls of type W110-B field wire, used by the Signal Corps to connect command posts to forward positions, observation posts, and the rear echelons. More often than not laid directly upon the ground, the wire had to be tough, waterproof, and conductive enough that field telephone gear would still work over long loop lengths. As such, the steel-reinforced, rubber-and-fabric clad cable was not the easiest stuff to splice. Where we might cringe at the stresses introduced by literally tying a conductor in knots, it was all part of the job for the wire-laying teams that did the job as quickly as possible, often while taking enemy fire.

The film also has a section on splicing a new line into an existing, in-service circuit, using a T-splice and paying careful attention to the topology of the knots used, lest they come undone under stress. It’s fascinating how much thought was put into something as mundane as twisting wires, but given the stakes, we can appreciate the attention to detail.

31 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Wire Splicing The Army Way

    1. “Periscope Films” on YouTube is very dangerous. When I first noticed that channel it cost me at least 50 hours. I just could not stop watching. Instantly hooked I was.

  1. Since an army, especially a conscript army, can get all kinds of people in it’s ranks from geni to ignorami they have to gear their training to teaching monkeys how to play concertos, so it tends to be good.

    1. You could have an army of nobel prize winners and you would still have to train them on the “army way”. it is not a question of intelligence, it is a question of coordination and uniformity. In theory people can fix and repair things “as they see fit” but this equipment must be maintained by others so it is vital to fix things in a prescribed manner. This is life-and-death equipment, your comparison to playing music is comical.

      1. You’re right. A genius could figure out how to do something but if nobody else knows how he did it or how to repair it it is pretty useless to a large organization.

        1. The point is, there are often many different ways to accomplish a given task, but there is only one correct way to accomplish it. The Army way.

          There are reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that you may not be alive to explain to the next guy what your novel solution is or how to PMCS it. Figuring out what the last guy did takes time, that time can get you or others killed.

    2. Smarts does not often mean mechanical smarts. I remember being in Grad school with a control systems genius who could barely turn a wrench so to speak. Both of us got ME degrees.

      1. Yes, absolutely. Beware the engineer who harbors a delusion of generalized expertise and intelligence. The one who thinks that since he’s very smart in one field, he knows the best solutions in all fields. That man will fix essential systems with the most awful, ignorant kludges imaginable and what’s worse, he won’t recognize them as kludges at all. He’ll put lives in danger everywhere he goes. It’s closely related to the engineer-as-savior syndrome.

        1. From my expirience IT engineers, lawyers and doctors are worst at this. They are usually very smart people with impressive loads of knowledge in their fields but dear god have mercy when they step outside of their fields.

      1. Yeah, underrated and genius move right there. I felt like that was a golden moment of the video for anyone who didn’t already know to do that. It’s sure nice to work with copper most of the time, but same experiences here with Bowden cables (and not the 3d printer kind!). Sometimes a freshly-snipped steel braid can really get you. Ooof, right up under the nail bed. It’ll teach a lesson that will live for a long time. Builds character, but it’s better to just learn proper technique :)

    1. Yup. Even more fun is what happens when you put your hand down on the trimmings, if you’re fast enough it’ll fishhook on you. I did it once in a scramble to get out of a shelter truck. Hours of entertainment.

  2. splicing wire is serious when some grunt is going to be pulling on it with all their strength to lay it down or roll it back up. making a good electrical connection is easy, making it mechanically strong at the same time is harder.

    1. You forgot to mention when they go out of their way to drive an LMTV over it. No matter how careful you are, no matter how well you secure it, some idiot is gonna find a way to park something on top of it. Wire is magic that way.

  3. If someone has to risk their life to go splice a wire that got broken in combat, you *really* need to be sure it’s as strong and functional as the original, undamaged wire. Having to do it twice is not good.

    1. And here I am now imagining what it would be like to get sent up over the trenches or whatnot and find a wire that had just come undone from a lazy splice, courtesy of the last lineman. Oooo that would get me boiling mad…

      But knowing the way things work in the field, more often than not people probably looked out for their fellows even better than they’d look after themselves. I always remember the story of trench foot in the first world war. How people would be so tired and shell-shocked that they’d fall asleep without taking off their boots and damp socks in the bottom of a muddy, half-flooded trench for weeks on end, causing them to get gangrene and their legs would rot off. The military would try again and again to teach people the dangers and how to properly avoid it, but nothing stuck because they were just so dead-tired and traumatized that a leg rotting off just wasn’t high up on the mental priority list.

      So eventually somebody had the genius idea of not telling soldiers to look after their own feet at all. They had the responsibility to look after the feet of the guy next to them instead. And would you believe it—trench foot, as a condition, disappeared overnight. Cases went to zero. Bam. Turns out people really are inherently good and care more about their brethren than their own life and limb. People can seem mean and selfish in our mundane, safe, daily lives… But when it really counts, humans come together and pull through gloriously. It’s one of the most inspiring and morale-boosting stories I’ve ever heard, but maybe it’s just me. And this is coming from a hard-core cynic, by the way. I guess pessimism really is just optimism scorned. But people are certainly good at the end of the day. I truly believe it.

      1. >Turns out people really are inherently good and care more about their brethren than their own life

        Not so for the general public who don’t go to the same intensive training to build a team. It’s a life or death situation, but there are selfish idiots break rules for social distancing and not wearing a mask.

    1. Dunk it in a solder pot and you’ve got a NASA splice. I once worked for this guy who forbade any of his underlings from using opaque heat-shrink, so nobody could hide their shame. I still kind of prefer clear heat-shrink for that reason. It’s nice to see what’s going on in there. And electrical tape holds a place of deep hatred in my heart if it’s used anywhere other than nipples. I will throw a motorcycle wiring harness wrapped end-to-end in electrical tape straight into the trash rather than try to reverse-engineer it and build my own electrical system from the ground up instead. Damn them to hell.

  4. That’s a trait I’ve found frequently in certain professional fields. They’ve received training in the aspects of IT that are relevant to their profession, such as medical diagnostics, avionics, industrial control systems, etc. Expert training. Detailed training. They’re also highly competent and skilled in those areas.

    They are not highly trained, skilled, or experts outside their specialty, or in IT generally. But some of them like to think they are, and it’s irritating to have to re-educate them.

  5. That reminds me of a fellow I knew many years ago. He’d bought a Ducati 450 single from a guy in the RAAF. Said previous owner had replaced the wiring harness, but not with colour-coded wiring. He’d replaced it with Air Force wiring, which (at that time, at least) was all white, with number coding.

    He had to re-replace the harness with the correct colour coded wiring, to match the wiring diagram in the manual

  6. The Navajo Code Talkers were also trained as signal corp. They laid the lines down in battle. Iwo Jima was particularly brutal – most of the fighting was within 100 yards or closer. They had to constantly shift position, thus had to move the forward posts each time.

    Imagine making these splices in battle, lying on the ground, in the mud, with all of the noise and chaos of battle. I assume the training included that kind of experience to prepare the men. Those conditions were nothing like the ones in the training movie. Add to that if it was cold, like the Marines at the Frozen Chosin. Wearing gloves would add to the effort.

    Can some of the posters above elaborate? The comments by some tell me they did this in the Army or other branches.

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