Arlington to Paris Wireless

As we have said in previous newsletters, history has not organised itself very well for 2015, with its surfeit of anniversaries. Amongst them has been the 100th anniversary of the first successful transatlantic wireless telephone call, which took place during World War One – in October 1915 – between the wireless towers at Arlington, Virginia, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Arlington towers, USA

The wireless towers at Arlington, Virginia, in 1916 or 1917 (Library of Congress)

London calling

In 1932, the London writer and journalist Albert Gravely Linney commented that ‘the abodes of the wealthy’ in Chelsea had ‘electric lights, frigidaires, radio gramophones, vacuum cleaners, telephones, and all the modern adjuncts of our involved civilisation!’ Electrical telegraphs (literally, ‘far-off writing’) had existed from the 1830s, transmitting written messages across wires via an electrical current. Morse code (invented in the United States) became the standard method of telegraphy,while underwater cables allowed messages to be transmitted to other continents. The first ‘speaking telegraph’ or electrical telephone was patented in 1876, and by 1915 the United States had more telephones per household than any other country. In Britain, though, most people would not have a telephone for decades to come.

Arlington calling

Experiments in the long-distance transmission of speech (rather than writing) by radio waves, with no need for wires or cables (‘wireless’), led to the experiment in October 1915 between the United States and France. Words spoken in Arlington, Virginia, were transmitted by wireless and picked up by a receiver in the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A telegram was sent to the United States to confirm that the words had been heard. It was the first time that a voice message had been transmitted by radio telephone across the Atlantic, a distance of almost 4,000 miles. This experiment was done on three separate days and was also heard at Honolulu. In Britain, The Times newspaper reported the event:

‘The Navy Department [of the USA] has successfully talked to the Eiffel Tower on the wireless telephone. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company received a telegram to that effect. The voice of the official at the Arlington (Virginia) wireless station was heard, but the Eiffel Tower was not equipped with a transmitting apparatus, and could not reply telephonically.’

The Eiffel Tower was only available for the experiment for a brief period, because France was at war with Germany and the tower was in constant use for military communications and attempts at jamming enemy radio messages. The US Navy’s wireless transmitting station towers at Arlington, erected in 1913, were similar in appearance to the Eiffel Tower, and the nation set its clocks by the Arlington Radio time signal. Although the US military was interested in the work and had allowed the station to be used for the experiment, it was actually conducted by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The Times reported the few details it had gleaned:

‘It is stated that the standard office telephone instruments were sufficient for sending and receiving, but details of other parts of the apparatus are being withheld on account of a “complicated patent situation”.’

Tower of Babel

The Eiffel Tower was originally designed and built between 1887 and 1889 as part of the Paris International Exposition (Exposition Universelle) of 1889. It was the work of three engineers – Maurice Koechlin (also involved in building the Statue of Liberty in New York), Emile Nouguier (a successful bridge engineer) and Stephen Sauvestre (head of the architectural division of the Eiffel Company). The Eiffel Company was headed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose name was linked to the tower from the outset.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

Objections were raised as soon as work began, primarily on artistic grounds. A letter from prominent French artists and authors was published in Le Temps newspaper in Paris on 14th February 1887, and the following day The Times in Britain published its view:

‘The famous Eiffel tower, nicknamed the Tower of Babel, as being likely to cause a confusion of tongues, has already produced a confusion of opinions. The most distinguished literary men and artists of France, the engineer who designed the tower [meaning Eiffel], and the Minister of Commerce [Edouard Lockroy], who presides over the Exhibition, have in turn indulged in the strangest and most fantastic reasoning.’

The Times then gave a translation of the French protest letter:

‘We come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the hitherto intact beauty of Paris, and protest with all our might and all our indignation in the name of disregarded French taste, and menaced French art and history, against the erection in the very heart of our capital of the useless and monstrous Eiffel tower which public sarcasm, so often marked by common sense and a spirit of justice, has already christened Tower of Babel. Without falling into the fanaticism of Chauvinism, we have a right to proclaim aloud that Paris is a city without a rival in the world.’

The letter went on to extol the architecture of Paris, before turning to what visitors might think:

‘Lastly, when foreigners come and visit our Exhibition they will exclaim with astonishment, “What! is this hideous thing that the French have devised in order to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?” … Imagine for a moment a dizzily ridiculous tower, overlooking Paris like a gigantic black factory chimney, overpowering with its barbarous mass Notre Dame, La Sainte Chapelle, the tower of St, Jacques, the Louvre, the Invalides Dome, and the Arc de Triomphe – all our monuments humiliated, all our architecture dwarfed, and fated to disappear in this stupefying dream. For twenty years we shall see tapering like a spot of ink over the entire city, still thrilling with the genius of so many centuries, the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet-iron.’

The legacy

Both Eiffel and Lockroy published replies to these criticisms, and nothing stopped the construction of the Eiffel Tower. At a height of 324 metres (1,063 feet), it became the tallest structure in Paris. From 1898 it became involved with radio transmissions, a function that initially saved it from demolition, having been originally designed to last for only 20 years. The Arlington towers were dismantled in 1941 as they were a hazard to aviation.

Today, a century after the landmark experiment, communications across the Atlantic are commonplace, using in particular the internet and satellites. The Eiffel Tower even has its own website and attracts 6–7 million visitors each year. Ultimately, it was Alexandre Gustave Eiffel who was proved right in his assertion that the tower would not be acclaimed for its artistic merit, but as an outstanding feat of engineering.