Illustrated World, December, 1918, pages 488-491, 624:
SENDING the NEWS
to the SEVEN SEAS
By Donald Wilhelm
IT is a simple fact that the truth travels exactly as fast as light--300,000,000 meters, or about 185,000 miles, a second. That is quite as fast as any made-in-Germany rumor goes.
Every evening, in other words, the great high-power wireless stations of the Navy--the most powerful in the world-- publish, free, in good plain English, two kinds of Navy Press, and there is not a ship or station, on one ocean or the other, that, if it have a receiving station sensitive enough, cannot take the words out of the heavens and use them as its own.
There are two kinds of Navy Press.
There is what is commonly known throughout the Navy as the Navy Press. And now there is also trans-Atlantic service, which leaps far beyond the other, clear over the Atlantic, to England and to France, which are more than three thousand miles from Washington, and to far-away Rome, which is forty-five hundred miles.
The trans-Atlantic service is new. It has not been long that a telegrapher could press a key in America and in that second register in ancient Rome a dot or a dash. But that is done now. Every evening a digest of American news--the most important news--is handed to the Naval Communications Office by the most powerful educational institution in the world, the Committee on Public Information. Every evening, about eight o'clock, a telegrapher sits down to a machine that is for all the world like a typewriter and begins to "punch the tape", to use the Navy phrase for the process.
This means that he punches the trans-Atlantic news message on a tape a half inch wide, which winds through his typewriter automatically, from one spool to another, somewhat like a typewriter ribbon or the paper ribbon of a mechanical piano.
When he has finished, that tape resembles nothing very wonderful. You take it up and you find that it has little holes in it, the largest of which are about as large as the shank of a pin. Those holes represent dots. And on a 45-degree line with the edge of the tape there are other holes, in pair, which represent dashes. It looks very simple. It is. Yet, when that tape is put on an automatic sender, it throws its message clear across the Atlantic. It throws it very slowly-- at the rate of 15 words to a minute, with every word repeated twice.
Thus, for instance: "The the President President has has replied replied to to Germany Germany that that the the world world cannot cannot deal deal with with the the Kaiser Kaiser." It throws the message out slowly, repeating every word of it, because the Naval Communications Office knows that though the weather may be ever so fine in Washington or along the Atlantic seaboard, three thousand miles away there may be a furious storm raging. And, moreover, since it is broadcasting the truth and the light, it wants every possible ship that runs to read. There are times when the Navy operators have sent the same message by hand, which is the rule in nearly all other cases.
A curiously interesting condition exists: the sender hardly knows what he is sending. "He is interested only in getting the words across," explained an authoritative representative of the Navy. "That is, as a rule he does not know what the whole sentence means. He is interested only in the words--in seeing that they are sent accurately. He gets this habit from sending nearly everything in code, and code, of course, means nothing to him at all."
But no matter whether the trans-Atlantic "publication" is sent by hand or automatically, it leaps broadcast from a Navy wireless tower, and twenty-five hundred or forty-five hundred miles away the words drop from the sky. Far over there they are handed out. They are relayed, far and wide, by wireless, perhaps. They are used in the newspapers. They are spread and plastered on the very doors of Germany.
And while this message of fifteen hundred words, or of whatever length it may bt, is slipping silently 'round the world, whispering to everyone that all is well in America, cable messages go leaping under the seas. Some of these go to Pearl Harbor, in Honolulu, some to Cavite, and from these stations--as from one on the Isthmus--similar messages are thrown out--clear up to Alaska.
But the trans-Atlantic installation is a powerful one. The wave length is such that only the larger naval vessels can get it, as it requires specially designed equipment. Therefore, only the big battleships can receive these messages, and receive directly the Navy Press service.
The Navy Press is intended for the American family especially. Why? "Well," explained a representative of Secretary Daniels, "we want the officers and the boys in the Navy to be happy, and the way to make them happy is to supply them the normalities of their normal home existence, as far as we can." And what does that mean? "That means that, being Americans, the men on board want to know what the baseball scores are, for instance. They want to know if Jess Willard is still champion. They want to know about stocks and all sorts of things. And, of course, they want all the latest war news."
So the Navy goes about the business in a perfectly practical way. By courtesy of the news service organizations that cater to the American daily papers all the press dispatches are available. One of the Navy representatives of the Committee on Public Information each night compiles a complete summary of the most important news, including especially the things of most interest to the service. This news summary, which contains the gist of all that is in your morning paper, is then handed to the Naval Communications Office.
The Naval Communications Office passes it on to the Navy. It does not hand it to the Navy on patrol duty in the North Sea. The British Admiralty takes charge of relaying to the American forces and stations there all the news that the men are thought to have time for; inasmuch as they are particularly interested in the major American sport of hunting the submarines, they haven't an eye, or an ear, for such minor things as baseball, for instance, at least to the old extent.
But the Naval Communications Office knows that there is a big gap in the news, and a big gap in the hearts, of the men who are going over to France, for instance, and that this gap is biggest in the first thousand miles out from the American shore. So it provides this local service. It broadcasts it, with such a wave length that almost any vessel can pick it up--whether a merchant vessel, a convoy vessel or a Navy vessel or a Navy station.
This news is sent out every evening. It goes leaping all over the western Atlantic and is repeatedly relayed. Its special area is about a thousand miles out, and a thousand miles north and south--some million square miles, or so. On board ship the wireless operator is listening to take it. Soon afterward it appears in typewritten form in the captain's cabin and on the bulletin boards all over the ship. Each of the greater vessels of the Navy has its own printing press. Some of them have linotypes even. Some, thus, have been known to get out extras. For instance, "The Hatchet," which, of course, appears on the George Washington, was shouted all over decks not long ago, when the great ship was plowing eastward. "Extra!" was called, and reports have it that the sale was fine. The Navy, one may see, never loses track of what is going on ashore. It howls when Annapolis makes a "bone-head" play and loses a football game to West Point. It cheers when a Navy team "trims" some university team. And it will know, as swiftly as light travels, when the Kaiser is hammered off the field. Thus, not only, as Admiral McGowan said one day, "is the Navy the best-fed, the best-clothed body of men in the world, but, thanks to the wireless, it is about the best-informed body of men in the world." The truth, in other words, travels as fast as light to our naval men, no matter where they may be stationed.
It seems almost supernatural that dots, forming letters, and letters, forming words, and words, forming sentences, which in turn form news, should be passing through space to all parts of the world having wireless receiving stations. But it is just part of man's control over the forces of nature and when explained it is not difficult to understand.