Open Wire in the Military

 Open Wire in the Military


2015-10-20 12.27.58 2015-10-20 12.28.19 2015-10-20 12.28.37 2015-10-20 12.28.57

 The above photos courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa 2015.

Communications in the Great War, 1914-1918: One Hundred Year Anniversary 

Collections above from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa

While communications systems are varied by their use by Independent, RBOC, Cooperative-financed, Mutual and others, their main common ground is that they are dedicated to “civilian” use.  Obviously, these systems do carry governmental, military communications, but their ownership is primarily non-military.


The military also operates a signficant communications system, complete with copper cable, microwave, fiber, satellite, coaxial–and formerly open wire–but there are some signficant differences between the “civilian” and the “military” versions of equipment which would normally pass for “similarly employed” technology.


Companies such as Western Electric, who provided the SAGE system for the Nike Missile bases, Lenkurt of GT&E and NorTel are among other vendors who have advanced the coincidental technical causes of military and civilian communications.  There are many other examples.


However, let’s make a few distinctions between “military” and “civilian” systems.  The science and technology are largely the same, however the applications are different in many cases.  For example, if we look at commercial communications, the new technology will slowly be introduced into the existing plant systems whereby old equipment is used to its retirement date and then removed for cost accounting reasons.  Just because equipment may have the newest feature doesn’t divine the attitude: let’s immediately toss the old for the new fangled out the door!  Instead, equipment is retired when it simply is not justified to maintain itself for the expense, features or reliability.


In military systems, communications technology follows a differing philosophy for the most part.  Installing the best and the most efficient might prevent an attack, win a battle or improve the conditions of the troops.  Saving lives is always a better bargain in such conditions.  Nor in non-continental wars, is commercial communications the frequent target of damaging military attacks, unless the war is fought on American soil.


While civilian equipment is often placed in climatological extremes, the fast mobile necessity of placing and re-placing equipment in battle ground locations, or in swift mobilizations, demand that such installations be rugged, dependable and operative in tough locations.


In the early days, communications in World War I was accomplished mainly by open wire or drops laid on the ground.  Analog systems dominated.  Electronics was in its infancy.  Telephone traffic loads were limited.


2016-07-21 12.31.08Collection of military telephone and telegraph equipment at the time of The Great War, Museum of Independent Telephony Collection, Abilene, Kansas.


By World War II and after, the technological reckoning awakened all war-engaged nations.  Telephone, facsimile, wire photo traffic and cryptological cable loads were high; there were more electronic applications; carrier systems dominated long distance traffic.  By the 1950s and 1960s, military communications emerged to fully compete with its civilian counterparts, exceeding the technology introduction manyfold in immediacy of installation and application.  Furthermore, data transmission increased markedly.  Furthermore, the equipment was required in battlefield, or on aircraft transport, to be mobile!  Mechanical shock subjected equipment to further potential harm and while the military maintenance people were on hand to repair such damage, its ruggedness had to be “built-in” so that repair could be effortless, immediate and spare parts accessible.


There was the also the introduction of digital data streams, pulse-type communications.  These were associated with radar and early warning systems, not to mention the wide-slung network of ships, armies and air force details throughout the world by the United States, and in the joining of satellite receiving stations.


Where the civilian communications network relied heavily on voice channel communications systems in the 1950s, the military possessed many pulse-coded channels, which demanded a heavier load than the public type for a given number of channels.


And rearing its ugly head was the issue of economics.  For a system to perform well in the business, public and private worlds, cost effectiveness had to balance with operational efficiencies.  In the military world, stellar performance was–and is–a must under nearly all conditions.  While equipment for such use by the military has been bid to prospective contractors/suppliers on a lowest cost/best effectiveness ratio; other communications contract projects were and are bid on a “cost-plus” scale.  This latter economic consideration is probably governed by the fact that rigorous cost limitations must not negate the specialization of technological function.  The military system must have high quality built into the equipment.


For example, a 60-channel system was mounted in a special mobile shelter to permit rough handling over geographically challenging terrain for the Air Force.  Because this Lenkurt Multiplexer system in the early 1960s was built for the military, the equipment was made easily accessible for immediate installation, use, with options to quickly modification and efficiently repair it under battlefield conditions.  Typically, multiplexer units for the military incorporated features easily the envy of any I & M civilian telecom people, as such a mux would have deep racks on each bay, rollers to slide the unit for inspection to and fro, extensive series of drawers to lock, so that the unit would be stable and bottom connectors swiftly tilted to vertical, so that each unit would offer quick repair and replacement of component features. 


What was typical of our example, a Lenkurt 46A System, was this unit’s ability to  coordinate with nearly all other types of carrier systems used for long distance service, which also included such competitors as the Western Electric “L” Carrier types, so that this system could meet tough standards of mobility by the U. S. Air Force in the early 1960s.  This is only one good example.  Each communications equipment supplier involved with Defense Department contractual wins could site their own contributions.


Were you in the U. S. Army Signal Corps? Lineman for the U. S. Air Force? Did you take your U. S. Navy experience to the phone company? We want to hear about your contributions!

United States Army Communications Museum


Building 275 Kaplan Hall

Fort Monmouth, NJ 07703

Phone: (732) 532-4390

Instruction on how to erect open wire facilities in the U. S. Army Signal Corps

Recently, this author came across an excellent instructional video on You Tube regarding the placement of aerial open wire; specifically on the placement of poles, crossarms and structures.  The highlights of the video include tangent structure ground assembly, both manual and mechanized pole raising, with some significant detail accorded to special structure features: namely the alley-arm structure and the H-Fixture, with its two-pole assembly technique.  The video was produced by the U. S. Army in 1958 and features the crossarm design in vogue at the time: the W8 arm.



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An assortment of European telephone instruments on display, Museum of Independent Telephony, Abilene, Kansas.

Ten Pins in France: 1917-1918


World War I’s final American veteran, Frank Buckles, recently died at age 110 last February 27th, as reported by the national media.  National Public Radio paid a particularly engaging tribute to this last U. S. surviving veteran, in a very thoughtful and honorable way.  At his advanced age, he outlived nearly every other international veteran of The Great War, with the exception of one Florence Green, aged 110, yet living in the United Kingdom.  With him has gone our American personal connection to a major conflict which only now can only be assimilated by books, films, oral histories, or touched through photographs and past correspondence.


World War I was a momentous conflict for many societal and political conflicts arisng and the complete failure of Bismarck’s secret alliance system which had guaranteed the peace of Europe for about 30 years prior to 1914.  Material to this website regarding this conflict in Europe were stories of the many contributors by Bell System and other communications company recruits forming the basis for twelve initial battalions of 2,508 men for the United States Army.  Later that number increased when the Signal Corps added a “Research & Inspection Section” as well as two Radio Companies representing a wealth of Western Electric experience. Prior to the inclusion of these men, the Signal Corps consisted of 55 officers and 1,570 soldiers.


With the addition of these communications industry recruits, the U. S. Army Signal Corps strength increased to 2,712 officers and 53,277 soldiers.  In July 1917, the first two Bell battalions shoved off for France in order to commit building a communications infrastructure for the Allies in Europe. 


In France, particularly the need for “backbone lines of communications” for the American Expeditionary Forces, was acute.  The original plan for dedicating many construction forces included a 400-mile pole line and 265 miles of branch lines.  All materials required to construct these first lines was committed through American sources with the exception of poles, which were to be furnished locally in France. 


By extending “field lines,” overloading the existing French telephone system could be avoided and separate systems for defensive purposes could be independent.  Clearly, the French welcomed American involvement in winning the war for the Allies.  French Government officials extended every possible courtesy, including the offer of communications links on existing domestic French lines for military telephone and telegraph traffic.  Despite these courtesies, French communications media could not hope to accomodate all the telephone traffic made necessary by foreign military intervention.


Allied military and technical support staffs looked at alternative methods for allowing this increased traffic load without using overwhelmed French facilities.  Another factor was that much material required was to be imported from North America for constructing these new lines.  One factor was conductor or wire.  Because 165 mil guage wire was a dedicated part of long distance American facilities, it was a tall order to place this challenging weight on ships.  Instead, French circuits were to be constructed utilizing no larger size than 104 mils guage diameter conductor.  Telephone repeaters were to be installed instead of larger diameter wire and loading coils, thus saving significant cost and weight.


Telegraph systems to be installed and operated on these new French lines were mainly printing-type multiplex featured systems operated on 79 mil. guage lines.  Consequently, they offered much larger traffic capacity than conventional types.


Standards, too, were different in the extreme.  The French Baudot printing telegraph had few common elements to the American system of printing telegraph systems.  Very few, if any, relays were used on French telegraph systems and incompatible with the American Morse systems.  North America used the “closed circuit” system with relay applications and this caused considerable delay in getting the proper equipment to the applicable line construction being built by the Americans.


Connecting systems to one American Army and to Paris was also a major hurdle.  The geographic area covered by the British Army in France allowed for prompt and short-interval material supply, while the American Army’s offices featured distant locations and difficult terrain with poor roads to transport needed war materials–making things much more complicated.


Language also impeded the progress of design and construction as well as on-going war communications.


Improvisation was the word, when early efforts to use both French facilities and equipment by American Signal Corps members.  Being unfamiliar with these systems and the culture, it was a significant challenge to communicate with both governments and armies.  By the mid-autumn of 1917, the U. S. Army Signal Corps was operating French telegraph lines at Le Havre, Paris, Nevers, Gondrecourt, Chaumont and Tours. 


By the start of 1918, Paris became the main headquarters for central communications and new lines were built.  This is where the familiar American style crossarm debuted.  Unlike the French phantom circuit design which used the “barrel technique” of rotating the circuits from pole to pole around about in a circle, the American style was utilized with typical brackets.   At the time of their appearance, joint telephone and telegraph lines were unknown with these installations.


From January 1918 to the end of the war, France was crisscrossed by American-style ten pin arms, of which 1,724 miles were of permanently installed pole line, with 20,708 miles of aerial wire.  By adding some additional American wire to existing French lines, the total wire mileage strung by the Armistice, was 22,692 miles!  As one veteran Signal Corps member wrote later, “When the lines were finsihed, they were for all practical purposes typical Bell telephone lines, with the exception of the poles which were undersized due to the fact that it was impossible, at that time, to obtain poles of the proper size abroad.  There was nothing built in France by the American Army which was so typically American as those telephone lines withcrossarms, the mere sight of which recalled our familiar lines at home,” wrote Frank H. Fay nearly ten years later.


Since our brief commentary includes only that information pertaining to open wire in France, we’ve no doubt, omitted some very important contributions of other Signal Corps members.  The various internal central office, telephone directory division, test and maintenance as well as cable, radio and other applications also contributed heavily to make this overall system function successfully and help to bring this war to a successful peace.  In the final analysis, we recognize 84 former employees of the Bell System and other companies lie buried in French, British and Flemish cemeteries, having given their all for the military open wire and their country.  


Dr. Don Martin Salutes His

Open Wire Military Experience


. . . . but mention “transposition bracket” on a news group and somebody responded with the URL of your website.
I have long prided myself on the fact that by age 21 I had mastered two trades that were essentially obsolete by the time I was 31:  the first was as a printer, with actual type, from age 14 until graduation from high school.  The second was as an open wire telephone lineman in the U.S. Army Alaskan Communication System (ACS) from 1956-59.  My “initiation” to real line work in Alaska was to climb a pole that had been struck by a car and broken off at the ground level.  It was a corner, held in the air by the tension of the wires opposed to that of the guy.  I had to jump to get on it and ride it down as my weight pulled it that way; that stabilized the pole enough for me to get the crossarms off so a new pole could take them.  I suspect I was sent up that one to see whether the new kid could hack it. 

I loved the work and the people I worked with.  I have often said that if the Army had a regimental system, where you train and remain in the same unit, I would have made a career of it.  But the constant threat of individual transfer to someplace else to work with somebody else, along with the general attitude in the service during the days of the draft (get in, do the hitch, get out), I took the discharge.

In those years, I worked in the Anchorage area, then went on a crew from the Salcha River (where Billy Mitchell, then a lieutenant, spliced the line that brought Fairbanks in communication with the rest of the world in, IIRC, 1908) to Fairbanks, then on a crew sent to Canada to repair a contractor’s work on the line along the White Pass and Yukon Railroad (WP&Y) from Skagway to Whitehorse.  I worked the northern section based in Bennett, BC, and Carcross, YT.  (In 2008, I took a cruise to SE Alaska, and went on a WP&Y excursion to White Pass, where I saw some poles that I had probably climbed a half century before, a sad, gray, shriveled ghost line without wires.)  Following Canada, I went back to Anchorage, then out on a crew south of Tok.  I ended up on light maintenance in Tok with classmate Barry Phifer, installing the first dial system that community had ever had (they didn’t like it) and teaching myself telephone repair.  Barry had been sent away to learn telephone installation, but the Army, in its infinite wisdom, neglected to check his records:  he had red/green color blindness; no matter–it takes two to put in a phone line anyway, and he taught me when he got back.

I can still do an Alcan tie, if anyone is interested in seeing it done.

Best wishes,

Don Martin

Donald L. Martin

The U. S. Army Announces a “Wire Thrower” for Stringing Open Wire Systems (1942)


Recently, while roving through library stacks of periodicals regarding open wire construction, I came across a citation entitled, “Wire Thrower Lays Army Telephone Line” from Modern Mechanix magazine, dated July 1942.  Let me briefly quote some of the article text as it is appropriate to open wire in the military.


The article appears with two photos on the frontspiece, a large two ten-pin line tangent structure with a military vehicle and two soldiers posing by standing in the bed of this 2 1/2-ton truck.  The caption reads: “TO CLEAR OBSTACLES, wire can be thrown as high as 40 feet in the air as shown at the left.  A gasoline engine provides the power for casting out the wire.”  To the right is the second black and white illustration showing how the line wire is payed out from the reel.  A staff sergeant stands to the right of the reel with his hand on a control wheel and upon his chest sits a two-piece microphone and head phone to hear instructions.  It reads: “AT 30 MILES AN HOUR, telephone wire is laid along a roadside from the rear of a truck.  The operator of the machine talks to the driver though a breast phone.”


Essentially, the article accents need for speed in laying out one mile of aerial wire line accomplished by three men in two minutes with a special 600-lb. device.  The device can carry a reel of 5,280 feet of 109 or similar diameter line wire.  In order to relieve tension or pull slack conductor, a guide pully controls the feed.  Two rollers with a “hollow, right-angle fin guide the flow of wire eihter up or down or from one side of the road to the other.  The direction of this fin can be controlled by a wheel located next to the operator of the machine.”


The 5-hp gasoline-driven machine is started after the wire has been assembled and the truck is given the okay by the attendant to begin moving.  The wire is then wrenched from the reel and payed out with control provided by a centrifugal clutch which is speed-coordinated as the truck engine accelerates or decreases.  Most importantly, when it is critical to direct the wire to special structure construction, to halt at such locations, perhaps at a line angle or with double arming and guyed structures, the wire can be rewound on the reel, “by unthreading he ejector and running the reel backward.”


Naturally, when the wire on one vehicle runs out, a second or third can be readied to resupply to proceed from the first when each has completed its task.  The article credits a staff sergeant in the Coast Artillery for this invention.  From his idea, the machine found practicality in the Signal Corps of the U. S. Army and has been extensively used throughout the U. S. at various installations.