10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History

Larry Holzwarth - July 2, 2018

As nations and cultures arose throughout the world they began to develop the means of communicating with each other. One form of communication was conquest. Another was trade. Communication between tribes, which became kingdoms, which became empires, was necessary though impeded by the increasing distances which separated the seats of rulers. Even the most critical of messages traveled at the speed of camels, or horses, or the elephants which carried emissaries. Messages carried by couriers were often at peril from the lawlessness prevalent in the isolated areas through which they must travel. The dangers of weather threatened communications between nations, as did piracy, treachery, and enemy nations.

As late as the nineteenth century communications between nations, and within them, were dependent on the poor roads traversed by horseback, or the waterways and seas. Wars which could have been averted were launched because diplomatic actions which resolved the issues involved could not be communicated to the contending powers in time. Similarly bloody battles distant from the sites of treaties ending wars were fought due to the news of peace not reaching the armies or ships involved. Increasing the speed of communication became crucial as nations and their armies became industrialized, and ingenious means of doing so evolved rapidly.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Darius I of Persia meets with Scythian emissaries. Wikimedia

Here are some developments in the history of the art and science of communicating between nations.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
The Peutinger Map (Tabula Peutingeriana) is an illustrated map which depicts the cursus publicus if the Roman Empire. Wikimedia

The Cursus Publicus (The Public Way)

Established under the Emperor Augustus, and remaining in use for more than five centuries, the Cursus Publicus was the official communication and transportation system of the Roman Empire, connecting the capital with the furthest reaches in the provinces. The system was developed as a modified imitation of the system of communication used in the Persian Empire, which used a relay system transferring messages using a chain of couriers, the message being handed along between them. The Romans used a single messenger or group of messengers which traveled between stations where they changed horses, or carriages, with the messenger traveling the entire distance.

The system consisted of thousands of way stations scattered throughout the empire, at a distance of about one day’s ride from each other. Most were garrisoned with troops for the protection of magistrates or other officials traveling on the system, and all the stations were supplied with horses and draft animals. A courier or messenger carrying information to or from the Emperor would stop for the night at the stations, and continue his journey the following morning, refreshed and with a fresh mount. Officially use of the way stations required a license provided by the Emperor in the form of a certificate known as a diploma.

Magistrates, governors, and officers traveling to their posts or back to Rome used the system as well as the couriers, as authorized, but many abuses of the system by local authorities occurred since there was no official supervising authority. It was through the use of the Cursus Publicus that Vitellius was informed that the loyalty of the legions in Syria and Judea was his during the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). Since the arriving courier bearing the message had been the same man that left the region where the legions were stationed Vitellius had the opportunity of questioning him regarding conditions there, which would not have been possible had the message been delivered by the final member of a courier chain.

The use of a single courier made the method of communication slower than it would have been if the message were passed along between couriers, but the ability to question the courier was deemed more important to Augustus when he created the system. Besides being slower, the costs of maintaining the system were high, and were in some places assumed by villages which were at least nominally reimbursed by Rome. Late in the first century the cost of the entire system was absorbed by the Roman treasury. As the system matured messengers stopped at stations equipped with horses several times in the course of a day’s travel, and the repeatedly changed horses allowed him to travel at greater speeds.

Critical messages would be more likely to travel across the Mediterranean during the months when the weather was less threatening, otherwise they traveled along the Cursus Publicus at the rate of about fifty miles per day. Most of the system was canceled and the stations closed during the reign of Justinian in the Eastern Empire, other than the main road connecting the Empire with Persia. The Cursus Publicus was created to communicate with the far flung regions of the Empire and its allies, and evolved into a postal system by which people, packages, and even slaves were sent to their destinations, carrying with them news garnered along the way.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
The hydraulic telegraph allowed detailed information to be conveyed between teams of signalers. Wikimedia

The Hydraulic Telegraph

In ancient times people ranging from the American Indian tribes to the Greeks and Persians used fire and smoke to communicate over long distances. The messages which could be communicated through those means were severely limited, and had to be agreed to in advance. For example, the display of two raised torches could refer to the sighting of ships, or troops, or some other agreed message. Messengers stationed themselves as far apart from each other as possible while remaining in sight, usually on a hilltop. In some instances further inland, signal towers were erected. By establishing a chain of such posts messages, though with little detail, could be transmitted over distances faster than if carried by messengers.

The Greek writer Aeneas was a student of military history and strategy, who applied his knowledge of both to the improvement of long distance communication. Aeneas recognized the value of using a system of signals and sought a means of using them to provide more detailed messages back and forth. His study led him to develop a code in which symbols referred to various words or phrases. Each signaling station was equipped with several different encoded rods, allowing the code to cover a large number of contingencies which could be communicated between the stations. Each station was also equipped with vessels filled to a marked point with water.

The agreed upon rod was placed in the vessel, which was equipped with a drain plug. When a station wished to send a signal a torch would be raised to alert the receiving station, which acknowledged by raising a torch in reply. The sender would drop his torch and simultaneously remove the drain plug, and the receiver, seeing the torch drop, did the same. The sender would then watch the rod in his vessel until the water level revealed the message he was trying to convey, at which point the plug was inserted and the torch raised, signaling the receiver to do likewise. Both vessels were then refilled for future messages. The system required quick responsiveness, but trained operators could send more detailed messages with impressive speed.

During the first Punic War, which was fought from 264 to 241 BC, the hydraulic telegraph invented by Aeneas was used to send messages from Sicily to Carthage. It allowed the movements of enemy troops to be observed and reported far in advance of their arrival at their destination, allowing time for the preparation of an adequate defense. It also allowed for civilians to prepare themselves for pending operations in a manner which had theretofore been unheard of. Variations of the hydraulic telegraph were used by other nationalities, but the Greeks had the most success applying them as a means of long distance communication.

The hydraulic telegraph was primarily used as a weapon of war, though its significance as a means of communicating across borders did not escape its inventor nor the Greeks. Modifications to the basic operation were studied by inventors and tinkerers as a means of developing it as a communications device for non-military purposes. The need to retain line of sight between sender and receiver was an obvious shortcoming of the device, as was its limitations imposed by the weather, which could impair visibility and thus the system’s usefulness. The British explored the use of hydraulic telegraphs as late as the nineteenth century.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Long distance communication by semaphore telegraph was prevalent in Europe and North America in the early 19th century. Wikimedia

The Semaphore Telegraph

The word telegraph, which comes from Greek and means distance writing, usually raises the image of messages transmitted and received in code by electrical transmission over wires or radio waves. In fact the word was first used to describe a system developed by Claude Chappe of France during the Napoleonic Era. A system of towers scattered across the French Empire allowed messages to be transmitted from Paris to Venice, Amsterdam, Mainz, Strasbourg, and throughout metropolitan France in the shortest amount of time yet achieved, and led to other nations copying it to improve communications internally and with each other.

Throughout the French system, which consisted of 534 stations at its peak, messages could be sent and received in minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks. The system relied on visual communication between the towers on which the semaphores were installed, and were thus subject to interruption based on the weather. By 1794 the telegraph could transmit a message from Paris to Lille, a distance of over 140 miles, in just over a half hour, through fifteen stations which connected to two cities. As the French Empire grew following the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon could keep track of events in Paris and the rest of the Empire in a manner of hours.

The system used a crossbar on either end of which were attached movable wooden bars painted black. The angle of the crossbar and the corresponding changeable angles of the wooden bars determined the letter or number represented. The operator changed letters by moving the wooden bars and the angle of the crossbar in relation to the center of the tower. The transmission of a single letter required three separate movements. The first centered the black bars with the crossbar, the second displayed the letter being transmitted, and the third returned the crossbar to the center position. About three letters or numbers per minute could be transmitted.

The French system was so successful that both during and following the Napoleonic Wars other countries installed systems of their own, with modifications befitting their own needs. The first system in North America was begun in Canada in 1800. In the United States a system was built connecting Martha’s Vineyard with Boston for the purpose of transmitting shipping information. In several cities in the English speaking world, hills upon which semaphore towers were erected came to be called Telegraph Hill. France’s telegraph system became so extensive and successful that Samuel Morse was at first unsuccessful in selling his electric telegraph there.

In most countries the semaphore telegraph system came under the operation of the national postal system, and were used extensively to communicate trade news and other business considerations. In areas where there were sufficiently close islands in chains, semaphores were built to transfer information across bodies of water, such as the English Channel at the Pas de Calais, and across the Great Belt Strait in Denmark. By the mid-nineteenth century the semaphore telegraph was obsolete, unable to compete with the speed of the electric telegraph, and most of the towers were abandoned or demolished, though across Europe many remain.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Samuel Morse neither invented the telegraph nor was the first to commercialize it, but his code made it practical. Wikimedia

The Electric Telegraph

Although Samuel Morse is usually credited as the inventor of the electric telegraph, he neither invented it nor was the first to market it commercially. Numerous experimenters developed working electric telegraphs in the years before Morse, going back to the mid-eighteenth century. The first commercial electric telegraph was the Cooke and Wheatstone system, installed along the Great Western Railway from Paddington Station in London to West Drayton in 1838. As London’s rail system expanded, commercial telegraphs expanded with them. Morse did not demonstrate his system with the famous message “What hath God wrought” until 1844.

Once Morse did demonstrate his system and obtain a patent for it in the United States in 1840, followed by a contract to build a line from Washington to Baltimore over which he transmitted his 1844 message, the telegraph expanded quickly in the United States. The drive to connect cities along the coast with those of the interior led to a multitude of telegraph companies opening for business. A new feature appeared in the cities and along rural roads and railroads – overhead lines supported by poles. Communications across Europe and North America were reduced to a matter of minutes, but communications between the two was still a minimum of ten days for a one-way message.

England and France were connected by a submerged telegraph cable in 1850. Other underwater cables were used to connect islands with the mainland in several areas and by 1856 work was underway by the Atlantic Telegraph Company to install a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, connecting Ireland with Newfoundland. Several failures ensued, mostly of the cable itself, which broke on numerous occasions, but by August 1858 the cable was fully installed and connected, with the company sending test messages to configure the system. After a week of such activity the first official message was sent, from the British directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company to their American counterparts.

After the self-congratulatory message between the company officers a message from Queen Victoria was sent to President Buchanan and returned. Both heads of state lauded the achievement and the new communication link between Europe and the United States. Celebrations were held in England and America, and the use of the cable began in earnest. In England, misuse of the cable by manipulating the voltages applied during the sending of messages led to rapid deterioration of the insulation, and in less than three weeks the cable failed, after gradually taking more and more time to transmit messages across the Atlantic.

During the American Civil War several cables were laid in the Mediterranean and other large bodies of water but serious efforts to restore transatlantic communication were impeded by the war and by the lack of public confidence in the project, which hindered investment. New cables were installed successfully by 1866, capable of transmitting about eight words per minute, and as technology advanced these cables were improved upon and replaced. Transmission of long messages remained relatively slow well into the twentieth century, though obviously far faster than a ship voyage. By the 1880s London was the telecommunications center of the world.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Radio operator at work in RMS Olympic, sister ship of Titanic, in 1913. Wikimedia

Radio telegraphy

English submerged telegraph cables were pushed to the limits of the British Empire in the 1880s and 1890s, connecting the Foreign Office in London with the colonial governors in India, Africa, the Suez, and the Pacific. The wired connections allowed rapid response to situations as they arose and London was apprised of the colonial machinations of rivals Germany and France. Captains of the ships of the British Navy, formerly de facto ambassadors with extensive powers due to their isolation from the Admiralty, were able to consult with superiors while in port, rather than deal with crises on their own as had generations of their predecessors.

The British government was able to exert far more direct control over its possessions, and communicate directly with rival governments and allies. Many regions remained isolated, as connecting them to the submerged cable system was not cost effective, or they were too far away from the existing trunk lines. Many scientists and inventors studied ways of transmitting information using electricity to stations which were not connected by wires. Edison proposed a method of transmitting between ships using the water as the connecting medium. Tesla too studied wireless transmission, as did Hertz, Hughes, and Popov, but it was Guglielmo Marconi who developed, patented, and commercialized a wireless transmission of sound.

By 1898 Marconi was manufacturing radio transmitters and receivers in Chelmsford, England. His primary market was the maritime industry, equipping ships with what were called wireless sets, allowing them to communicate with each other and send and receive telegrams. Two years later a Brazilian priest first transmitted the human voice wirelessly over a distance of five miles. Rapidly developing technology, including the invention of the vacuum tube, allowed for the first commercial radio broadcast, made from the Massachusetts coast on Christmas Eve, 1906. Radio stations were born soon after.

Radio soon accommodated both radio-telegraphy and radio-telephone, allowing information to be broadcast and received in both coded messages and voice transmissions. Wireless communication crossed borders. Radio became an instrument for the spread of propaganda, news, entertainment, and culture. As technology expanded the power of transmitters, and thus the distance they could broadcast, leaders of nations could speak directly to the citizens of other nations inclined to listen. Government supervision of radio transmissions emerged in all nations, controlling who could broadcast and in some cases, including the United States, what could and could not be broadcast.

Most official government communications within themselves and between governments continued to use the submerged cables for security purposes, although wireless telegraphy of encoded messages expanded dramatically between the World Wars. The ability to intercept and decode the diplomatic and military messages of rival nations and allies became a critical aspect of national security. In 1919 the US government established the Black Chamber, the predecessor of the NSA, to monitor the diplomatic communications to and from the United States, leading Henry L. Stimson to later note with disdain that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Ships of America’s Great White Fleet lie at anchor in Sydney Harbor during their circumnavigation in 1908. Wikimedia

Projection of Power

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century a favored method of nations in communicating with each other was through the projection of power. Mobilizing an army and sending troops to mass along a rival’s border was a widely practiced method of backing up the arguments of diplomats attempting to resolve disputes. To counter the absence of a shared border with an international rival alliances were formed, and these also were a form of international communication to the rest of the world. Neutrality was an option for smaller nations not desirous of maintaining a large military, but even neutrality required treaties with stronger nations to ensure it would not be violated.

Throughout the nineteenth century and until the end of World War II the development of powerful navies was a means of international communication. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British Navy was the world’s largest and most powerful, and the British were determined that it remain so despite the growth of the United States Navy and those of its continental rivals. Navies were and remain expensive to build, maintain, and operate, and several innovations during the hundred years between the fall of Napoleon and the outbreak of World War One rendered all of the world’s warships obsolete virtually overnight, requiring them to be rebuilt.

All of the world powers used their fleets to communicate with the rest of the world. When the United States determined to open trade with Japan it did so by sending a squadron of warships, a use of what was known as gunboat diplomacy. After unification the German Kaiser built a fleet of modern ocean going vessels, anxious to challenge British superiority. The German fleet was sent on diplomatic missions to Morocco to back up German demands during the colonization of Africa. Germany built a colony and naval base in China to support its growing global presence, and to send the British the message that they weren’t the only world empire.

Admirals and captains of ships on independent duty were afforded many of the powers of ambassadors in the days before communications were improved by telegraphy and radio. During the days of sail captains of ships at sea were essentially absolute monarchs, their powers limited only by their respect for the regulations of the service. This power extended to their relations with the officials of the nations in which they entered territorial waters or anchored in their ports. The presence of a ship or squadron in a foreign port inevitably led to a flurry of diplomatic activity between the emissaries of rival and allied nations.

America’s Great White Fleet was in itself an international communication, a message to the European powers that the United States was capable of operating and maintaining a powerful naval presence anywhere on the globe. It led to a naval race between the European powers, the United States, and Japan, and to the Washington Naval Treaty which established the size of the world’s fleets in relation to each other. During the negotiations, the United States relied on decoded diplomatic documents obtained by the Black Branch to undermine the Japanese position and obtain a more favorable ratio of US battleships to Japanese.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
The famed red phone hotline was actually a teletype link, later a facsimile system, and then an email system, operated from the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. National Archives

The United States-Soviet Union Hot Line

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, messages between Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev and President John F. Kennedy were delayed in delivery due to the existing communication structure between the two nations. Official diplomatic channels slowed transmission, translation, and delivery. The Americans needed nearly twelve hours to translate Kruschev’s first offer to resolve the crisis and during the delay it was superseded by another message from the Soviets, hardening their stance. When the crisis was resolved both leaders felt that a more direct communication link would have led to a quicker resolution, or perhaps averted the crisis in the first place.

The ensuing so-called hotline – sometimes called the red phone – was never a telephone at all, nor was it on the President’s desk. The first hotline was located in the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, and was a teletype system, later converted to fax machines. Manned by teams of enlisted and commissioned officers, the link was tested on an hourly basis by transmitting excerpts from literature. The Soviets did likewise from their end. After a message was received and translated in the Pentagon both the original and the translation was sent to the White House Situation Room.

The ability to communicate official documents and authorized actions directly was opposed strenuously by the Republican Party, which made it an issue during the Presidential election campaign of 1964. The Republicans condemned the action as a concession to the Soviets, as well as a path by which further concessions could be made to the Soviets without congressional approval or intercession. They also condemned the hotline as being a direct contact with an enemy by the President, who lacked such communications capability with any American allies. The Republicans entered their objections in the party platform at the 1964 National Convention.

The first iteration of the hotline ran on telegraph cables routed through London, Scandinavia, and Moscow. A second line ran from Washington to Tangier, Morocco, before being routed to the Soviet Union. In the 1980s the system was upgraded to fax machines, connected via satellite transmissions, and the original teletype system was disconnected once the new system had demonstrated its reliability. Each upgrade was agreed to after diplomatic negotiations, and used both Soviet and American satellites. Agreements over what the system would be used for were also negotiated and signed by both parties.

The hotline was used for the first time other than testing when President Kennedy was assassinated, and was used several times since. The first official use of the system initiated by the Soviets occurred during the Six Day War in 1967. The Soviets later requested that routine messages not be sent on the system. It was also disrupted frequently during its teletype days, with the cable in Scandinavia being plowed up by farmers on at least two occasions. In another a bulldozer unearthed and cut the cable in Denmark. In 2007, the hotline became an email and chat based system, using commercially available software.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Intelsat VI photographed by the approaching space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. NASA

Communication Satellites

Wireless transmissions used electromagnetic waves as the medium for carrying information, which require direct line-of-sight paths to the receiver. Thus their use for communication is limited by a variety of factors, among them the earth’s curvature. The location of transmitters in elevated positions helped to correct for the deficiency, and higher elevation was a goal of radio transmitter designers for decades. In 1960 the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a weather balloon named Echo One, which had an aluminized reflective surface, to act as a reflector for radio signals. Echo One was an example of a passive satellite.

Passive satellites are simply reflectors, redirecting the radio signal which it receives in a designed direction. Active satellites receive and amplify the signal before sending it on to its next receiver. Active satellites are also known as relay satellites. In the early 1960s a consortium which included AT&T, Bell Laboratories, and NASA from the United States, the General Post Office of the United Kingdom (GPO), and the National Ministry for Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones (PTT) of France created Telstar. Telstar was the first active communication satellite, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. Its first publicly viewable images were relayed in July of that year.

The first televised images to be shown was the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Because the broadcast began before President Kennedy was prepared to deliver his remarks the first broadcast relayed by satellite was a part of a baseball game being played between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, used by the engineers to pass the time before the planned program began. When President Kennedy did appear, his remarks led to the overnight strengthening of the US dollar in European markets. Later that same day Telstar relayed the first satellite overseas telephone call, between the Vice President of the United States and AT&T’s chairman in France.

By 1964 geosynchronous satellites – which remain in a fixed point above the earth – were orbiting and satellites were routinely relaying telephone, telegraph, radio, television, and telefax signals around the globe. Improvements to technology improved the quality of the signals to the point that transmissions were as clear as those sent over wire and cable on earth. The speed of the signal essentially circumnavigating the globe was nearly instantaneous. True duplex communication globally became a matter of routine as the 1960s and 1970s unfolded. World events could be monitored globally in real time, as they transpired.

Over 2,000 communications satellites were orbiting the earth by the end of the twentieth century, though many were no longer functional and merely waiting for their orbit to decay to the point that they would reenter the atmosphere and be destroyed. The satellites support virtually all forms of electronic communications on earth, for government, military, and commercial operations. New types of communication satellites with ever enhanced capabilities and service lives continued to be developed into the twenty-first century. They allow for near instantaneous communication around the globe.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov prepares to sign the non-aggression pact negotiated with his German counterpart Ribbentrop. Wikimedia

Foreign Ministers

The official means used by most nations to communicate formally with each other is through their Foreign Service, or some similarly named agency. These consist for the most part of career diplomats, schooled in history, culture, and foreign affairs. Their role includes the protection of the rights of citizens of their nation when overseas, and the promotion of their national interests. This has evolved over the centuries from a time when most overseas emissaries were political appointees, selected because of their familial or business connections to the nations to which they were sent, and often little more than spies.

The first American delegation tasked with communication with a foreign nation was sent to France in 1775. They arrived in Paris intent with obtaining financial and military aid from a nation hesitant to openly twist the British lion’s tail, but covertly welcoming a British humiliation. The Americans followed the lead of Benjamin Franklin in their negotiations and though none of the delegation bore the title of ambassador, they filled the role successfully. Following the Revolutionary War John Adams, who had served as a minister in France, filled the difficult role of America’s first minister to Great Britain, presenting his credentials to the King he had done so much to depose in the United States.

In the ancient empires and even through the royal courts of Napoleonic times, emissaries dispatched to nations hostile to one another were at times in considerable personal danger. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna, which redrew the map of Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, established the concept of diplomatic immunity. Diplomatic immunity was reaffirmed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, which has been ratified by 191 nations. Among other things, the security of diplomatic communications with their home countries was affirmed, and the personal security of diplomatic couriers was established.

Although all signatory nations agreed in principle to the sanctity of both diplomatic communications and the security of embassies and consulates, nearly all have since used covert means to monitor the communications between embassies and their respective governments. Monitoring of telecommunications is an act practiced across the globe as nations spy on other’s diplomatic activities, and the presence of spies in allied nations allegedly friendly to each other is a prevalent part of international communications. One of the most damaging spies in American history was Jonathan Pollard, for example, an American who worked as a spy for the Israelis, an American ally.

Although often viewed as tedious and overly formal, diplomatic actions have in the past resulted in considerable international surprise, as they did in 1939 when the Soviet Union, widely believed to be on the verge of an alliance with Britain and France, instead announced the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR. Negotiated in secret, the pact also agreed to the German-Soviet partitioning of Poland, and led to the German invasion of that nation in September. Neither the British nor the Americans were taken completely by surprise, thanks to their extensive monitoring of the German-Soviet communications.

10 Ingenious Methods of International Communication throughout History
Early Bird, one of the Intelsat satellites used to broadcast the Our World special in 1967. NASA

Our World

On June 25, 1967 a two and one half hour special was broadcast on television live, featuring performers, artists, and celebrities from nineteen nations. It was broadcast around the world, and featured the first live performances aired in the northern hemisphere which originated in the southern hemisphere. Titled Our World, it was a program conceived by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which provided the master control room from its studios in London. The program was intended to demonstrate the power of television to link the entire globe by presenting a live program to be watched simultaneously by the peoples of countries around the world.

The program was dependent on the commercially owned communication satellites Early Bird, Lani Bird, and Canary Bird, all versions of the Intelsat satellite. Intelsat satellites were owned and operated by an intergovernmental organization which was supported by eleven countries at its founding, for the purpose of mutual use of international communication satellites. In addition to the Intelsat satellites, the NASA satellite ATS-1, which was in geosynchronous orbit over the equator, was used to feed the transmission signals to and from the southern hemisphere. ATS-1 was primarily a weather satellite which included the capability of relaying television feeds.

It took more than ten months for the preparations for the broadcast to be completed. Arrangements were made for voiceovers in the language of the viewing nation to be broadcast at the same time as the images from the broadcasting country appeared on the screen. Local broadcasters appeared as announcers for each country, and the appearances of artists and performers had to be completely live, with no taped segments or miming to prerecorded songs. Political figures were not allowed to appear. Fourteen countries participated in the actual production, which required the support of more than 10,000 technicians and interpreters.

The Russians were not among them. One week before the program was scheduled to be broadcast the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries behind the Iron Curtain announced that they were withdrawing from the broadcast and that they would not allow the broadcast within their respective countries. The withdrawal was in protest to the Six Day War, which led the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc to sever diplomatic ties with Israel. Nonetheless the broadcast went forward as scheduled. Critics found the program to be less than entertaining, too long, and other than the technical achievement it reflected, of little interest.

The broadcast is chiefly remembered as being the last live performance of The Beatles, until their performance on the roof of Abbey Road Studios, an appearance which was filmed. The Beatles performed All You Need is Love, written especially for their appearance, and supported by many of the London pop and rock stars of the day. Originally broadcast in black and white, their performance was later colorized. Snippets of the entire broadcast are available for viewing on internet archive sites. It was the first time the entire world could watch the same programming simultaneously, an activity which by the 21st century had become commonplace.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Sophisticated postal service existed in ancient Rome”, by Joan Brown Wettingfeld, Queens Time-Ledger, July 20, 2012

“Yakety-yak, How Do We Talk Back: The Hydraulic Telegraph of Aeneas – Long-distance Communication of Antiquity”, by M.R. Reese, AntiquityNow.org

“How Napoleon’s semaphore telegraph changed the world”, by Hugh Schofield, BBC News, June 17, 2013

“History of Telegraphy”, by Ken Beauchamp, 2001

“History of Wireless”, by T.K. Sarkar and D.C. Baker, 2006

“Theodore Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet: American Sea Power Comes of Age”, by Kenneth Wimmel, 1998

“There Never Was Such a Thing as a Red Phone in the White House”, by Tom Clavin, Smithsonian Magazine, June 19, 2013

“Communication Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible”, by David J. Whalen, NASA, online

“British Diplomats and Diplomacy”, by Jeremy Black, 2001