Mapping European Radiotelegraphy, 1912-1927

Maria Rikitianskaia Università della Svizzera italiana

My dissertation studies the transformation of European radiotelegraphy from 1912 to 1927. In that period, the development of radio experienced a drastic turn that led to the birth of radio broadcasting. The scholars frequently explain this transformation with the political, social and technological consequences of World War I (Barnard, 2000; Hilmes, 2012; Hugill, 1999; Volmar, 2014). However, the scholarship still lacks the comprehensive study on the transformations of radio in Europe, as most of the studies are based upon the American case (e.g., Körner, 1963; Lommers, 2012).

The important difference between this research and others written on radio history constitutes in approaching the subject of the study from a transnational perspective. This research focuses on transnational networks, interactions, flows, and actors in radio development following many scholars that have acknowledged the necessity of looking beyond the national frameworks when researching media (Badenoch & Fickers, 2010b; Christensen, 2013; Fickers & Johnson, 2010; Ribeiro & Seul, 2017; Van der Vleuten & Feys, 2016). Technologically, the radio waves could hardly be restricted to national boundaries as they naturally transcend national spaces. The World War I was a transnational event that accelerated processes beyond national frameworks and reinforced collaborations and conflicts between nations. The research limits itself to the radio development around the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is considered a key transnational actor in the arena of telecommunications on the European level (Aznavour, 2014; Badenoch & Fickers, 2010a; Balbi, Fari, Richeri, & Calvo, 2014). Therefore, this thesis forms a transnational perspective by looking at an inherently transnational subject (radio) in a transnational setting (war) with the particular focus on the negotiations and regulations developed around the key transnational actor (ITU).

In order to capture the war period with its premises and aftermath, the research centres on the period from the 1912 international conference on radiotelegraphy in London (which established the major rules of the international use of this medium) to the Washington conference of 1927 (that dealt with the consequences of the war and regulated radio broadcasting). The archival research focused on the interaction of the ITU with the networks of experts and users of radio through the regulations, correspondence, and publications. This approach determined the collection of a combination of different sources on an international and national level. It included four main categories of archival sources: the documents of the ITU Library and Archives in Geneva, national sources preserved in numerous national archives and libraries, documents of other international organisations that dealt with direct and indirect regulation of radio, and, finally, notes, letters, and articles published in radio amateurs’ journals.

On this seminar, I would like to present a particular historical source: a map of radio communication. The critical research on maps, primarily based on the work of J.B. Harley, has rethought maps as a politically engaged document (Harley, 1989). As historians of technologies showed, the maps represent a crucial source of information, as they form the part of the infrastructural network (Plaiss, 2012). As Badenoch noted, “the network maps act as important mediators within and between the material, institutional and discursive frames of European infrastructures” (Badenoch, 2010, p. 49). Maps maintain the status quo of the network because they imply the idea of its sustainability (Harley, 1988, p. 282). In media studies, however, maps are most often used as an illustration of the collected data (Björnsson, 1981), with rare exceptions of in-depth analysis (Parks, 2013; Plantin, 2018). This thesis seeks to explore the maps as a social construction of knowledge; in particular, the analysis of this source combines research into the creation of the map with the interpretation of the visual information.

The radiotelegraphic maps began to appear from the very beginning of radio development, but remained courtesy of particular companies, institutions, and states, until the 1910s. In 1911, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy approached the ITU to provide the maps of radiotelegraphic stations (ITU Archives, 1911, D. 23. N. 1, N.3, N.9, N. 18). However, the ITU did not have any maps, even though it published and regularly distributed the list of the radio stations. On the following London 1912 conference it was decided to oblige the ITU to produce and publish the radio communication maps. The first draft was ready on 13th January of 1914. However, because of the war and the continuous change of the political landscape, the publication of the map was deferred. The first maps of radio communication were published only after World War I: in 1922/1923, with the second edition following in 1925/1926. Those were a result of long-lasting negotiations and modifications that had to be incorporated into the 1910s drafts. Some information did not even fit the existing template, so the first two maps came with the supplement of all the modifications in textual format. They quickly became subject to critique and necessitated to redraw the map entirely, which have not happened up until 1927. The third map of the ITU, issued in 1927, differed quite significantly from any previous maps (see Figure 1).

In contrast to previous maps that were composed of four or five sheets plus textual comments, the map of 1927 became the first internationally approved map that fitted all radiotelegraphic network on one sheet only. This meant, that in order to capture this developed network, it had to omit some information. In this visual image, the ITU made the understanding of radio more simple and accessible, by connecting it to the physical reality. There are three most important issues for this map: the design, the connections, and the nations.

Firstly, the design of the map addresses an essential question of depicting the invisibility of radio waves. As any visualisation, such as cartoons or illustrations, maps had to depict the radio waves on the flat surface of the paper, taking into account their absolute invisibility and intangibility. The wireless nature of radio and its invisibility made it problematic to imagine the radio waves in their relation to the physical space. One choice was to depict radiotelegraphic stations as simple small dotes on the map, such as was already done by other companies and in the 1922 and 1925 ITU maps. This method reflected the physical reality accurately, as the radiotelegraphic stations were indeed seen only the small dots from a bird’s eye view, but the downside was that it did not give any sense of the magnitude of the radio station. The 1927 map presented radio differently: it depicted all radiotelegraphic connections with lines. In fact, the name of the map – Map of communication channels via radiotelegraphy – already shows that it depicted the invisible flows rather the visible radio transmitters. That was an important shift in understanding radiotelegraphy: from a map of visible stations to the map of invisible communication channels. It revealed the invisible infrastructure, as any infrastructure, as Paul Edwards argued, tends to be concealed (Edwards, 2017).

Secondly, the 1927 map emphasised the connections between the land stations, rather then between them and sea vessels. This represents an essential turn for radiotelegraphy after the war period: from the sea to the land. Previously, radiotelegraphy was seen as a tool for the sea navigation, and the maps of radiotelegraphy featured the most of the regular maritime routes around the globe. The 1912 Convention even obliged the ITU to put on the map the principal lines of sea navigation (ITU Archives, 1912, p. 577). The 1927 map, on the contrary, shows the connection between the cities and the towns that were not necessarily harbours, but rather important national centres.

Furthermore, the map also emphasized the nations. The scholars have noted that the history of the cartography is linked to the rise of the nation-state in the modern world, and a map, historically, always depicted world through the national perspective, and shaped the idea of a national community (e.g., Sparke, 2005; Wintle, 1999). Even global and seemingly “neutral” maps intended for the international audience have their national preferences and accents. Because of its international status, the International Telecommunication Union had to provide with the international “neutral” vision on the radio, but this general character was determined by the state-members, and was mostly European. The map featured many European capitals, such as London, Berlin, and Paris. Those represented a centre of communication, as they were a starting point for most of the lines of radiotelegraphy. Moreover, some of the lines were depicted with arrows, coming from European empires to their colonies, such as one from Paris to Dakar. As J.B. Harley noted, “cartography deploys its vocabulary accordingly so that it embodies a systematic social inequality” (Harley, 1989, p. 6). Through the maps, elite and powerful groups promoted a particular vision of the world to the weaker (Harley, 1988), emphasising the power of Europe. In fact, the 1927 map emphasised only long communication channels, not even paying attention to the close cross-border exchange. As Badenoch suggested, this could be interpreted in both ways: not only Europe was presented as a centre of the space of uniform and interconnected communication network, but Europe is “where the network is” (Badenoch, 2010, p. 53)

Overall, this 1927 map envisioned the world through the lens of a global connectivity and asserted the coherence and centralized character of the infrastructural network. It embedded ideas of radiotelegraphic networks as a global communication system, and asserted coherence and unity of all connections even where it was not present. Harley asserted that maps create myths (Harley, 1988, p. 300). Combining scattered fragments of the radiotelegraphic networks, the ITU sustained a myth of a transnational network of radiotelegraphy, in its uniformity and global spread with Europe as a central hub.



Aznavour, K. (2014). The Price of Order: Technology, Diplomacy and the Formation of the International Telegraph Union (ITU). Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

Badenoch, A. (2010). Myths of the European Network: Construction of Cohesion in Infrastructure Maps. In Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (pp. 47–77). Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Badenoch, A., & Fickers, A. (2010a). Introduction: Europe Materializing? Toward a Transnational History of European Infrastructures. In Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (pp. 1–26). Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Badenoch, A., & Fickers, A. (Eds.). (2010b). Materializing Europe: transnational infrastructures and the Project of Europe. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Balbi, G., Fari, S., Richeri, G., & Calvo, S. (2014). Network neutrality: Switzerland’s role in the genesis of the Telegraph Union, 1855-1875. Bern: Peter Lang.

Barnard, S. (2000). Studying Radio. London: Oxford University Press.

Björnsson, H. (1981). Radio-Echo Sounding Maps of Storglaciären, Isfallsglaciären and Rabots Glaciär, Northern Sweden. Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography, 63(3/4), 225.

Christensen, M. (2013). TransNational Media Flows : Some Key Questions and Debates. International Journal of Communication, 7, 2400–2418.

Edwards, P. N. (2017). The mechanics of invisibility: On habit and routine as elements of infrastructure. (I. Ruby & A. Ruby, Eds.), Infrastructure Space. Berlin: Ruby Press.

Fickers, A., & Johnson, C. (2010). Transnational Television History: A comparative approach. Media History, 16(1), 1–11.

Harley, J. B. (1988). Maps, knowledge, and power. In The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments (pp. 277–313). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harley, J. B. (1989). Deconstructing the Map. Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization, 26(2), 1–20.

Hilmes, M. (2012). Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting. New York, Abingdon: Routledge.

Hugill, P. J. (1999). Global communications since 1844: Geopolitics and technology. Baltimore, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

ITU Archives. (1911). Registres de correspondance: radiotélégraphie, 1911.

ITU Archives. (1912). International Radiotelegraph Convention (London, 1912).

ITU Archives. (1927). Carte des voies de communication par TSF entre points fixes. Geneva: Bureau International de l’Union Télégraphique.

Körner, W. F. (1963). Geschichte des Amateurfunks: seine Anfänge (1909-1963). Hamburg: FT-Verlag Rojahn and Kraft.

Lommers, S. (2012). Europe – on Air: Interwar Projects for Radio Broadcasting. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Parks, L. (2013). Earth Observation and Signal Territories: Studying U.S. Broadcast Infrastructure through Historical Network Maps, Google Earth, and Fieldwork. Canadian Journal of Communication, 38, 285–307.

Plaiss, A. (2012). Who gets to draw the map? The contentious creation of the American road/map system, 1917–1926. History and Technology, 28(1), 3–24.

Plantin, J.-C. (2018). Google Maps as Cartographic Infrastructure: From Participatory Mapmaking to Database Maintenance. International Journal of Communication, 12, 489–506.

Ribeiro, N., & Seul, S. (Eds.). (2017). Revisiting transnational broadcasting: the BBC’s foreign-language services during the Second World War. London, New York: Routledge.

Sparke, M. (2005). In the space of theory : postfoundational geographies of the nation-state. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Van der Vleuten, E., & Feys, T. (2016). Borders and Frontiers in Global and Transnational history. Introduction. Journal of Modern European History, 14(January), 29–34.

Volmar, A. (2014). In Storms of Steel: The Soundscape of World War I and its Impact on Auditory Media Culture during the Weimar Period. In D. Morat (Ed.), Sounds of Modern History. Auditory Cultures in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe (pp. 227–255). Berghahn, New York.

Wintle, M. (1999). Renaissance maps and the construction of the idea of Europe. Journal of Historical Geography, 25(2), 137–165.

Leave a Reply