The Electric Wind of Europe
Radio in the twilight of the Belle Epoque
The French Army recovered from the defeat of 1870-1871 by modernizing in its image of the German victors. That is, anything they deemed a German advantage in the previous war would become the model for new doctrine and departments built on French lines to prepare for the next war. Because the German war machine had such a “scientific” reputation, at least among French officers, it naturally followed that the revanchist armée was very interested in any promising new sciences, such as motors and smokeless gunpowder.
Just when the new had worn off the Eiffel Tower, and it became clear that electromagnetic energy could be used to transmit messages over great distances, the tallest structure in Paris was a natural choice for radio experimentation. Seen in the drawing above, the antenna remained in place until the early 1950s. No other structure from the 1886 Exhibition survived its 20-year lease. According to the official website of the Eiffel Tower, these radio experiments are the reason why the world’s most famous example of steel architecture still exists today.
On 5 November 1898, Eugène Ducretet established the very first radio contact in Morse code between the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon, four kilometers away. A transmitting station was then installed permanently on the Tower. In 1899, it enabled radio transmissions with London. At this point, military authorities became interested in this nascent radio technology. They tasked Engineering Corps Captain Gustave Ferrié, a 31-year-old graduate from the Polytechnic, to conduct experiments. Since 1897, he had been in charge of the newly founded Military Telegraphy School. In 1900, he published a reference tome on the technology and in 1903, he perfected receiving devices.
Although this early direction would lead to engineers having control of French military radio development instead of the signal corps — an unfortunate organizational decision that would last until the defeat of France in 1940 — the new technology was immediately professionalized in the most familiar style of the Third Republic. Because French radio technology developed in self-conscious parallel with Guglielmo Marconi and other early radio experimenters through an international scientific correspondence, these achievements took place at almost the same time as his breakthroughs. Both development lines were made possible through military interest. It is impossible to separate the early peaceful development of radio from its lethal uses because the technology was weaponized from the outset.
Engineering does not lie. I do not have an accurate map of the highest gain Ferrié achieved. However, when he had built his antenna and made contact with the French colonial capital of Tunisia in 1909, it would have vaguely resembled something like the crude effort you see below. He had aimed the Eiffel Tower station right at the western Mediterranean and the proudest French colonial possessions in North Africa — the primary military security areas of concern for French policy, especially regarding Italy. Coincidence? Of course not. Don’t be silly.
That same year, poet Vicente Huidobro called the Eiffel Tower antenna “Guitare du ciel / Guitar of the sky.” Using naturalistic imagery of birds and bees, he wrote of “the wind of Europe / the electric wind” to recall a springtime breeze playing over the antenna wires. All over Europe, “great powers” and would-be great powers wanted radio, needed radio. It was barely a decade old as a technology when it became essential to Europeans, a new marker of civilization. However, the electromagnetic “wind” of Europe was powering storm fronts.
In 1911, the French Army had a whole new reason for concern. After decades of diplomatic confrontation over control of Tunisia, Italy — a member of the Triple Alliance arranged against France — moved aggressively into Libya. Algeria was an incorporated part of France, yet French military power in the hinterland was almost as weak as the Italians’. In the event of war with Italy, the French Navy planned to keep the sea lanes open and close them off to the Italians. The crisis found a ready listening post aimed directly at Tripoli, where the Italian Army was sending transmissions to Rome. The Ottoman possession fell quickly and then turned into a quagmire for Italy. While France appreciated the outcome, this diversion of Italian aggression also made their strategic flank even more vulnerable.
Another strategic crisis in 1911, the so-called Agadir affair, brought German aggression back into focus as well. Le Deuxième Bureau — French military intelligence, which really meant Army intelligence — did not waste the opportunity. Until this moment, the diplomatic corps at the Quay d’Orsay had handled almost all of the cryptology in France, training a cadre of military cryptographers. Now the Army put them to work on intercepted Italian signals. Lessons learned and applied would prove useful in 1914, when the French Army needed the Eiffel Tower station as a force multiplier against Germany on the Marne. That is for another post.
By then, Italian interest in military confrontation with Paris had cooled considerably. Their navy was pitifully weak compared to the French, requiring the construction of a new class of battleships that would still not give them supremacy in the contested waters of the Mediterranean. Faraway fronts in Africa were uninviting, difficult, and prone to the odd disastrous defeat by angry, independence-minded people armed with modern rifles. Searching for nearer, easier lands to conquer, Rome looked along their periphery, saw their erstwhile Austrian ally, and audibly licked their chops. This, too, is for another post.
Our perspective looks back to the Belle Epoque, when Paree was at the center of world culture. We gaze at the lights of Europe that Sir Edward Grey saw going out in Europe as the Great War began and see other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum blazing away, for a radio war was already in progress. Like most weapons in human history, radio came into the world at inception as a dual-use technology, with peaceful and harmful uses as well as offensive and defensive ones. Huidobro’s gentle, poetic breeze was about to sweep his historical landscape clean.