Retrotechtacular: Air Mail For The Birds

Today, if you want to send a message to a distant location, you’ll probably send an e-mail or a text message. But it hasn’t always been that easy. Military commanders, in particular, have always needed ways to send messages and were early adopters of radio and, prior to that, schemes like semaphores, drums, horns, Aldis lamps, and even barrels of water to communicate over distances.

One of the most reliable ways to pass messages, even during the last world war, was by carrier pigeon.  Since the U.S. Army Signal Corps handled anything that included messages, it makes sense that the War Department issued TM 11-410 about how to use and care for pigeons. Think of it as the network operations guide of 1945. The practice, though, is much older. There is evidence that the Persians used pigeons in the 6th century BC, and Julius Caesar’s army also used the system.

You wouldn’t imagine that drawing an assignment in the Signal Corps might involve learning about breeding pigeons, training them, and providing them with medical attention, but that’s what some Signal Corps personnel did. The Army started experimenting with pigeons in 1878, but the Navy was the main user of the birds until World War I, when the U.S. Pigeon Intelligence Service was formed. In World War II, they saw use in situations where radio silence was important, like the D-Day invasion.

The Navy also disbanded its earlier Pigeon Messenger Service. It then returned to avian communications during the World Wars, using them to allow aviators to send messages back to base without radio traffic. The Navy had its own version of the pigeon manual.

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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.

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Retrotechtacular: Crystals Go To War

More than one of our readers suggested we highlight this beautifully-shot process documentary about the laborious and precise manufacturing of piezoelectric quartz crystals in the early 1940s. Just a few years later, Bell Labs would perfect a method of growing synthetic crystals, sending droves of brave men and daintily-handed women from the Reeves Sound Laboratories to the unemployment line.

Early radio equipment relied upon tuned or L-C circuits for clocking. These were prone to drift by a few kHz, which prompted the use of crystal oscillators for stable frequencies in the 1920s. The lives of our armed forces and those of our WWII allies depended on reliable communication equipment, so the crystal oscillators they used were top shelf, produced by hand from Brazilian crust.

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