Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 38 (2013) 379-395
©2013 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation 

Logistical Media: Fragments from Radar’s Prehistory

Judd A. Case

Manchester University

Judd A. Case is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Manchester University, 604 E. College Avenue, North Manchester, IN 46962, USA. Email: .

ABSTRACT  Fragments from the prehistory of radar are analyzed to advance a notion of logistical media. Logistical media order and arrange people and objects and subtly influence our experiences of space and time (Case, 2010). Logistical media emphasize logistics, feedback, and remote control in communication. They gesture to the work of Innis (1951, 1972), Wiener (1948/1961, 1954), Carey (1988), Mumford (1964), and Virilio (1989, 1994), and to the transmission model of communication. This article considers the torpedo, searchlight, war horn, and death ray logistically and as they prefigure radar. The analysis of other logistical media is suggested.

KEYWORDS  Logistical media; Radar; History; Toronto School; Cybernetics

RÉSUMÉ  Dans cet article, nous analysons certains éléments de la préhistoire du radar pour souligner l’idée de médias logistiques. Ces derniers ordonnent et arrangent les gens et objets et influencent de manière subtile nos expériences de l’espace et du temps. Ils mettent l’accent sur la logistique, la rétroaction et le contrôle à distance en communication. Ils évoquent en outre l’œuvre d’Harold Innis, Norbert Wiener, James W. Carey, Lewis Mumford et Paul Virilio, ainsi que le modèle transitif de la communication. Cet article considère la torpille, le projecteur, le cor de guerre et le rayon de la mort d’un point de vue logistique, en tant que précurseurs du radar. Il propose par la suite l’analyse d’autres médias logistiques.

MOTS CLÉS  Médias logistiques; Radar; Histoire; École de Toronto; Cybernétique

Radar, like radio, was developed at sea before it took to the air. In this article, I present fragments from radar’s prehistory that first locate it in the watery—rather than in the ethereal—domain. I consider torpedoes, searchlights, war horns, death rays, and related technologies. I draw on documents from MIT’s Radiation Lab and on other sources derived from those documents. My intent is to consider issues of logistics, feedback, and remote control and to advance a notion of logistical media. Formally, I address the questions “What are logistical media?” “How is radar a logistical medium?” and especially, “How do fragments from radar’s prehistory inform an understanding of logistical media?” In conclusion, I suggest the analysis of other logistical media.1

In simple terms, logistical media are media of orientation. They order and arrange people and objects. Case (2010) writes that logistical media

intrude, almost imperceptibly, on our experiences of space and time, even as they represent them. They are devices of cognitive, social, and political coordination that are so fundamentally communications media that they intersect and envelop much of our lives without conscious awareness. Lighthouses, clocks, global positioning systems, temples, maps, calendars, telescopes, and highways are just a few of them. In modern terms logistical media are at once bureaucratic and militaristic. They intersect issues of social organization, power, and economics. (p. 1)

Logistical media gesture to the roots of the transmission model of communication—the sender-message-channel-receiver-feedback model—to the foundational work in military science, network theory, telecommunications, and cybernetics that preoccupied thinkers such as Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, Warren Weaver, and Pyotr Anokhin. Logistical media are not usually considered in terms of Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding thesis, and are not necessarily concerned with issues of cultural representation. Instead, when logistical media are considered in terms of sender, message, channel, receiver, and feedback, location, movement, angle, force, and acceleration leap to the fore.

Logistical media share a grid-like functioning that gestures to theorists of media and technology such as Harold Innis, James Carey, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Virilio. These theorists elucidate points of view, lines of communication and transportation, and movements of centralization and decentralization. In short, logistical media affirm Carey’s (1988) observation that “the grid is the geometry of empire” (p. 225).

Radar, or acronymically, Radio Detection and Ranging, exemplifies the transmission model of communication, including its notion of feedback (Shannon & Weaver, 1949; Wiener, 1961). Radar projects electromagnetic waves, receives those waves that hit reflective objects, measures wavelength and frequency, and uses such measurements to calculate the speed, range, altitude, and acceleration of objects. In a sense, a radar transmitter resembles a tuning fork. If a tuning fork is stricken, it vibrates and sound waves radiate from it. When a radar transmitter is stricken by an alternating current of electricity, it emanates electromagnetic radiation.

Radar’s measurement of feedback, of the diminished waves that bounce off objects, is both necessary and useful. Case (2010) observes:

Because the speed of electromagnetic waves is known (in a vacuum, they travel at exactly 299, 792, 458 meters per second) the time between transmission and reception provides the range (or distance) from the object to the transmitter. Moreover, an object’s (or target’s, as the terms are interchangeable in radar parlance) location in angle to the transmitter can be learned by pointing the transmitter and receiver (often they are the same antenna) at different angles and observing which angle produces the strongest echo, the echo with the least frequency loss. Once the distance and angle are known, speed, azimuth, altitude, and even acceleration can be measured by repeatedly hitting the object with waves. Not all of the waves bounce back to the receiver (in fact, only a tiny fraction of them do), and those that don’t are clutter, or noise, in the system. (p. 34)

Radar uses feedback to increase remote control, to collect information, and to order and arrange objects at a distance. Media, and technologies generally, have been considered in terms of logistics and remote control by various theorists—Mumford (1964), Carey (1988), and Virilio (1989, 1994), among them—but most usefully, in terms of radar, by Innis (1951, 1972) and Wiener (1954, 1961). Innis discusses how, on the level of governance, forms of communication remotely order and arrange people and objects. He is concerned with the time-bias or space bias of particular media, and with their cultural, economic, and political consequences. In his terms, radar’s ephemeral, high-speed transmissions of information contribute to a glut of space-biased media that further colossal, centre-heavy, and unstable governance. He writes that because of this glut, “The balance between time and space has been seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to Western civilization” (1951, p. 76).

Water and the movement of objects—fur, money, timber, fish, industrial commodities, and people, for example—are integral to Innis’ approach to communication and governance. Empire and Communications (1972) elaborates how Egyptian space formed around the Nile, how objects flowed through Egypt, and how the empire’s governmental, military, and religious structures took shape. The Bias of Communication (1951) depicts media as points for the collection and dispersal of information, wealth, and power. For Innis, information, wealth, and power pile up at ports, fly from radio towers, and move from forests to mills to the folds of newspapers. His early work The Fur Trade in Canada (1977) is replete with descriptions of water’s mediations of movement, power, and the flow of people and goods. In many ways, Innis’ watery logistics prefigure my discussion of radar’s development at sea.

Wiener (1954, 1961) was contributing to the development of radar when he articulated his notion of feedback, and when he subsequently fitted it into Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) transmission model of communication. Wiener was fascinated by technologies’ capacity to order and arrange humanity. He understood that radar systems were fundamentally concerned with communication. He observed that

[t]he technique of radar used the same modalities as the existing technique of radio besides inventing new ones of its own. It was thus natural to consider radar as a branch of communication theory. Besides finding airplanes by radar it was necessary to shoot them down. (p. 148)

The processes of remotely detecting, ordering, and controlling movement that support Wiener’s descriptions of “finding” and “shooting” are central to logistical media.

Consistent with Innis’ discussions of space, order, and governance, and with Wiener’s descriptions of information transmission, torpedoes, searchlights, and war horns are logistical media that use feedback to remotely control people and objects in space. They are detectors, orderers, and arrangers. They establish points of view, become collection points for information, reinforce and extend nation-states’ borders, and prefigure radar as a logistical medium.

The MIT Rad Lab documents stored at the New England branch of the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, are the basis of my effort. The Rad Lab, which was founded in November 1940 and which produced working radars in 1941, relied on the experimental, haphazard efforts of the Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Signal Corps, efforts that stretched back to the early 1920s. Because of this reliance, the Rad Lab established a Historian’s Office to preserve the collective effort, and Record Group 227, which I have delved into, is the result. The Rad Lab grew immensely with the entrance of the United States into World War II, developing from a small, experimental operation of “less than 50 workers with 10,000 [square] feet of space in the Electrical Engineering Department in November, 1940, to a labyrinthine ‘skunk works’ of nearly 3,000 workers and almost 500,000 square feet of space in 1943” (Guerlac, 1945, as cited in Case, 2010, p. 114). Rad Lab historian Henry Guerlac’s description of the sea-, ground-, and air-based logistics performed by the Rad Lab’s radars gives a sense of the varieties of orderings and arrangements. Guerlac (1945) recorded:

The Laboratory has developed, with the approval and sometimes the insistence of the Services, airborne interception equipment for night fighters, airborne radar for the detection of surface craft, as well as radar for early warning against aircraft, for height-finding and ground control of aircraft, for harbor defense, for the direction of guided missiles, for anti-aircraft fire control with automatic following of the target, for blind landing of aircraft, for low- and high-altitude bombing through overcast, for navigational aids. (p. 2)

Despite the sweeping logistics that Guerlac evokes, practical concerns prevent me from weaving a contextually nuanced narrative. Instead, I have analyzed the sparest of fragments of radar’s prehistory. My approach is not novel, though. As Lotringer suggested during his interview of the logistically minded Virilio, so it is here: “Your approach … is resolutely telescopic. As soon as you hook something, you let it go, you jump aside instead of saturating the area you had invested. It’s a whole politics of writing” (Virilio & Lotringer, 1997, p. 44). In the spirit of quick movements and momentary orientations, my aim is to sketch logistical media’s “points” and “lines,” or as Virilio says, to “reach the tendency” (p. 44).

There is, however, a logical flow to my analysis. I discuss torpedoes, searchlights, war horns, and death rays in terms of logistics, feedback, and remote control, and do so with an eye for radar. I analyze the nineteenth-century torpedo as a cybernetic device that exploited the feedback systems of the time, extended nation-states, accelerated the technological race, impacted logistics, and eventually created a need for radar. I describe how searchlights emerged as feedback systems to warn of torpedoes, lacked channel control, and were deployed in conjunction with war horns. I present war horns as macrophones that did not provide range information, had unique noise problems, incorporated their function into their architecture, and suggested issues of weather and the natural world. I consider death rays as destructive transmissions and as a failed hope through which, in some measure, radar emerged. Along the way I also briefly consider other media and technologies.

The locomotive torpedo and searchlight

Since at least the days when signal fires, church steeples, and lighthouses were the predominant optical telegraphs, nation-states have used logistical media. Nevertheless, by 1805, the advance of explosive, tide-driven naval vessels called torpedoes would forever change how nation-states understand and extend themselves through space. As Smart (1959) notes:

In 1805, Robert Fulton, in an experiment before ranking members of the British Admiralty, proved the practicability of submerged explosions by blowing up the Brig DOROTHEA.… Two “torpedoes” were armed and tied to 80 foot lengths of line trailing from small [dinghies]. “Each boat having a torpedo in the stern, they started from the shore about a mile from the brig, and rowed down [toward] her; the uniting line of the torpedoes being stretched to the full extent, the two boats were distant from each other seventy feet.… As soon as the connecting line of the torpedoes passed the buoy of the brig, they were thrown into the water and carried on by the tide.” Contemporary accounts report DOROTHEA was raised bodily into the air and broken in two. (p. 97)

The tide was no longer the means of delivery when in 1860, Giovanni Lupis, a captain in the Austro-Hungarian Navy, demonstrated the first locomotive torpedo, a remotely controlled, cybernetic device that touched off unparalleled orderings and arrangements, and eventually, created a need for radar. Lupis’ torpedo was simple: he attached steering ropes and a clockwork engine to a boat with triggers on the bow, mast, and sides, and then filled the stern with explosives (Routledge, 1903). At only a knot or two, Lupis’ device was a deadly marionette, but one that would never hit enemy ships that saw it coming. Naval vessels of the day could easily outrun it, and reloading the launching apparatus required an inordinate amount of time. The Lupis torpedo was most effective at night, when the sight, hearing, and diligence of enemy sailors were at their worst, and when ships were often anchored. Considering the shortcomings of Lupis’ torpedo, “the Austrian authorities felt that the system of guidance was impractical and that the methods of obtaining motive power, by clockwork or steam power, were objectionable” (Burns, 1988, p. 3). Lupis’ torpedo was too slow and awkward a logistical medium; it failed to effectively extend Austro-Hungarian space.

But it was a logistical medium, and one that disrupted enemy traffic formations such as commute (convoy), gridlock (blockade), collision (ramming and bombardment), and parking (station keeping).2 As a literal, physical extension of Lupis’ arms the torpedo was an armament; the steering ropes gave him control that became more remote and tenuous as the torpedo became increasingly distant. Lupis used his eyes to see the torpedo and target, and his muscles to channel the torpedo through the waves and currents as a form of telecommunication. Lupis’ torpedo was force in the sense mentioned by Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and militarist: it exerted force on the ocean as it displaced water and on its target through collision and explosion (Steele & Dorland, 2005). Subtexts of nationalism, militarism, and economics (e.g., “I can destroy your expensive capital ship with a torpedo that costs pennies on the dollar!”) can also be part of torpedoes’ transmissions.

Still, despite his government’s rejection, Lupis’ torpedo was not quite dead in the water. In the early 1860s Lupis met Robert Whitehead, a British engineer with access to sophisticated production facilities. With Whitehead’s innovations Lupis’ torpedo was soon faster, submersible, and self-steering. It could be launched quickly from ship or shore and was a candidate for large-scale production and distribution. By 1876, torpedoes travelled at 18 knots and the British Admiralty was buying the rights to manufacture them by the thousands. An 1873 report from the British Torpedo Committee declared that “any maritime nation failing to provide itself with submarine locomotive torpedoes would be neglecting a great source of power, both for offence and defence” (Burns, 1988, p. 3). Any nation-state that failed to use torpedoes would neglect the potential to buttress its border and compromise others’ borders.

The arrival of the Lupis torpedo accelerated the technological race. Thereafter, inexpensive, low-profile torpedo boats were designed and built, destroyers were made to take out the torpedo boats, and torpedo nets were manufactured to protect ships at anchor. Nineteenth-century torpedo nets were made of steel rings and extended to more than 20 feet below the surface of the water; like Victorian hoop skirts they kept untoward advances at a distance, but also slowed vessels. Naval historian Russell Burns observes that “the relatively small size of torpedo boats, apart from leading to low construction costs, made them difficult targets to observe at night. Torpedo nets could be used by ships at anchor, and until about 1880 they were the principle means of defence against nighttime torpedo attacks” (Burns, 1988, p. 5). With the nets out, the ships of 1880 only moved at about three knots, and their ability to manoeuvre, remain in formation, and keep up with a convoy was hampered (Watts, 1971). Torpedo nets, while protecting individual water craft and the sailors in them, compromise a battle group’s orderliness and effectiveness. The mere possibility of a torpedo launch wreaks havoc with naval logistics. For potential targets, the point of view created by the lighthouse, spyglass, and lookout post is no longer adequate. Threats can emerge quickly, with torpedoes unknown until after their detonations.

Still, the view through the looking glass serves modern attackers. It encourages psychological distance from acts of destruction and killing, distance that was difficult to maintain in the swashbuckling days of ramming and boarding, and even of simple gunfire. Cannons and deck guns are a step in the direction of torpedoes in their assembly line operation: they divide the labour of loading, aiming, and firing, and hence the cannonball always arrives, step by step, on the enemy’s deck without singular responsibility. But cannons and deck guns are aimed at persons as well as vessels, and retain the trappings of interpersonal warfare. Torpedoes are aimed at masses, at ships themselves, and enemy sailors become ill-defined occupants of targets (Brown, 1999). Consider German lieutenant Otto Weddigen’s (1914) account of the first U-boat ambush of a British convoy:

When I first sighted them they were near enough for torpedo work, but I wanted to make my aim sure, so I went down and in on them. I had taken the position of the three ships before submerging, and I succeeded in getting another flash through my periscope before I began action. I soon reached what I regarded as a good shooting point. Then I loosed one of my torpedoes at the middle ship. I was then about twelve feet under water, and got the shot off in good shape, my men handling the boat as if she had been a skiff. I climbed to the surface to get a sight through my tube of the effect, and discovered that the shot had gone straight and true, striking the ship, which I later learned was the Aboukir, under one of her magazines, which in exploding helped the torpedo’s work of destruction.… But soon the other two English cruisers learned what had brought about the destruction so suddenly. As I reached my torpedo depth I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue. The English were playing my game… (p. 1)

Weddigen observed and fired on the ships. His men loaded, aimed, and launched the torpedoes, but he had the thrill of command. He looked for feedback from a distance, for the effect of his transmission. He enjoyed his “game.” Weddigen exemplified remote-controlled warfare, warfare that would soon progress beyond the U-boat captain’s quick look at a greyish, blob-like enemy to a blip on a radar screen.

To reduce the power of torpedoes’ transmissions, lookouts needed to see torpedoes before they arrived. In logistical terms, lookouts needed quick, efficient ways to predict torpedoes’ movements. Turn-of-the-century militarists considered searchlights just the thing; unlike lighthouses they were mobile, could be enclosed in directional hoods, swiveled about, focused, angled, and otherwise adjusted (Hezlet, 1975). They weren’t (and aren’t) particularly useful for seeing torpedoes arriving underwater—that is, for seeing them advance through space—but searchlights were able to spot torpedo boats, which helped forecast torpedoes. The notion that searchlights were first conceived to help locate sailors thrown overboard during rough seas does not hold up under investigation. Searchlights increased the speed and reliability of feedback for lookouts and were the business end of early warning systems. They were also, as Burns (1988) notes, a crucial link in the development of radar:

The searchlight detection and location system has some similarities to a radar surveillance system, viz: a) the use of electromagnetic radiation and a powerful radiation source; b) the utilization of means to focus the radiation in a narrow beam to increase the radiation flux in a given direction and hence increase the detection range of the system; c) the employment of a mounting which allows the beam to be swept over a given region and which enables the bearing of an object to be determined; d) the incorporation of a sub-system within the overall system, able to detect and track a given object. (p. 6)

However, the limitations of searchlights are legion. As logistical media they are mostly useful during nighttime or inclement weather. Moreover, bright, sweeping lights tell an enemy fleet exactly where to aim. If the lights are placed too low, their ranges are shortened. If too high, there is a risk of passing above torpedo boats and failing to detect them. In rough seas a ship rolls and lists, making the ideal position of searchlights anything but fixed. As a logistical medium, the naval searchlight tries to arrange objects in space so that torpedo boats remain at a maximum distance. This allows ships to react to torpedo attacks, but at the same time makes ships sitting ducks. The point of view established by the searchlight becomes an obvious point for attack. The searchlight lacks 24-hour utility and channel control (or privacy)—most anyone can receive and interpret its transmissions.

Radar, being outside the spectrum of visible light, remedies this situation. Just like Bentham’s Panopticon that Foucault employed, radar unfastens seeing from being seen, an unfastening that, in Innis’ formulation of space-biased media, can contribute to centre-heavy governance. There is a loss of privacy for people who do not know they are being observed and whose movements can be measured and recorded in a government’s or military’s database.

The war horn

The interim between searchlights and effective radar (a period from approximately the early 1880s to 1941, in the U.S.) was filled with attempts to improve the former via powerful listening devices, what are alternately referred to as war horns, acoustic locators, orthophones, sound mirrors, static dishes, or static walls (Scarth, 1999). Each of these was developed and deployed according to a naval logic—but was also tasked with atmospheric responsibilities.

In 1880, Scientific American (“Navigation in Fogs”) featured Alfred Mayer’s topophone (or “sound placer”). Mayer’s contraption looked like a stethoscope with two reflectors mounted on an undersized ox collar (see Figure 1). Shortly thereafter, large devices with ranges of 20 to 30 miles were placed on the decks of ships and along coastlines so that the direction of emergency whistles could be ascertained in dense fog, icebergs and other navigational obstacles could be heard in time for course correction, and searchlights could be aimed tactically and intermittently at enemies. A chronicle of radar’s prehistory details the development and abilities of these listening devices:

Acoustical sound detectors, giving a rough indication of direction by means of applying the binaural principle seems to have begun, at least on the allied side, with the orthophone, an extremely simple device used in the French Army in 1917. At roughly the same time an experimental acoustical detector of the reflector type was produced in England by the Anti-Aircraft Section (under A.V. Hill) of the Munitions Invention Department.… Despite their intrinsic weaknesses these devices were brought to a high pitch of perfection just before [World War II]. In 1936 an error of only a quarter degree was claimed on fixed sounds, and for an airplane flying at “reasonable” heights all sound locator manufacturers quoted two-degree accuracies. (“The Origins of Radar,” 1945, p. 3)

Figure 1: The sound placer

 Figure 1: The sound placer

Source: Scientific American (1880, July 3), p. 8

War horns, developed in at least one instance by a Munitions Invention Department, were passively logistical. They detected sound waves, but didn’t project them. They made their operators collection points for information, and often, the decision-making processors who joined two otherwise distinct media—sound detectors and searchlights. But in another way they were active: they made previously unheard sounds receivable, and in so doing made the producers of the sounds unwitting—and unwilling—providers of feedback. War horns left eavesdropping a silent, controlled, and coordinated form of large-scale information gathering, with the whisperings of motors, cries of migrating birds, and rumblings of icebergs the content. World War I’s air battles rendered sound detection even more important, as the speed of warfare complicated early warning, and as war itself became remote from its coordinators. A Rad Lab historian observed:

Although from the point of view of the present war [World War II] aircraft played a wholly auxiliary role in the last war [World War I], its potentialities having been scarcely exploited, this threat had given rise to methods of detection that depended upon tell-tale information emanating from the plane itself. Apart from visual spotting and telephonic reporting, the chief methods depended upon the detection and amplification of information involuntarily supplied by the approaching plane. These were detection and location by means of 1) the sound of the aircraft engine, and 2) electromagnetic radiation having its source in the plane. (“The Origins of Radar,” 1945, pp. 2–3)

War horns upgraded searchlights, a necessity as war accelerated. They relied on sound, on feedback not compromised by the presence of the sun, and so they were equally useful day and night. When employed in conjunction with war horns, searchlights flared with a speed approaching that of a volley of musket fire, and with about the same danger of giving away a ship’s position. War horn–steered searchlights popped on and off like extended flashbulbs, giving snapshots of a target’s location moments before gunfire arrived. In a sense, the war horn, searchlight, and deck gun are synchronized extensions of their operators’ ears, eyes, and hands, respectively. They extend nation-states’ capacities for surveillance, eavesdropping, and the projection of force.

But while war horns were useful 24 hours a day, improved the efficiency of searchlights, and did not give away ships’ positions, they had their own problems. Put simply, war horns of the 1930s and 1940s “gave no range information; their performance depended on the wind, and they were quite unreliable on gusty days; and lastly their range was so short … that with the high speed of modern planes” they were too slow and limited for practical use (“The Origins of Radar,” 1945, p. 3). War horns extended the ears of their operators, but the points of listening they established lacked some of the grid-making qualities of searchlights’ points of view. War horns, like compasses, discerned direction but not distance. They presumed a grid whereon objects were logistically significant, but the distance between objects remained unknown and unknowable.

They also expanded the logistical role of wind. No longer would commanders only verify that enemy troops were downwind from discharging mustard gas, or have snipers compensate for crosswinds before shooting. The development of war horns and other acoustic locators fostered hope that technologies would be developed that could minimize wind’s significance as a source of noise. In the meantime, weather forecasting was important. In the 1930s weather reports were, more than ever, factored into decisions about the movements of military ships and planes. During war, blustery days increased the likelihood of sneak attacks and therefore demanded increased readiness (Scarth, 1999). I can only guess what might have happened if someone had adapted the wind machine—the silk-covered, slatted, rotating drum that Richard Strauss used for his 1897 symphony, Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character—to turn-of-the-century warfare (one thing is certain: the military would have been literally tilting with a wind machine).

In the 1930s, hopes for acoustic location were such that massive acoustic locators, static walls, and sound mirrors were built on the English coast (Scarth, 1999). They had greater range than war horns (perhaps exempting the Japanese war tubas, the large, powerful war horns deployed to protect their home islands), because they effectively received longer wavelengths and were fitted with state-of-the-art microphones that were wired to listening stations. Amplifying the detected sounds and sending them to remote listeners allowed eavesdropping networks to form, even as it isolated eavesdroppers from the spaces they monitored. Static walls and sound mirrors were architectural demarcations of the soils of nation-states—of secure homelands—but like the medieval ramparts that preceded them, they were also architectures of advance. The keep’s territory extended to the range of bowshots, catapults, and spyglasses; media with greater ranges mean more controllable territory. Static walls, with their connections to searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, merely incorporated detection into the physical barriers themselves.

War horns and static walls did not live up to expectations. In 1934, Britain conducted a now infamous test of its air defence capabilities, a test conducted in the face of growing anxiety over Nazi Germany (Batt, 1991). Following the test, Air Ministry official H. E. Wimperis wanted to halt the acoustic detection program. According to radar historian Penley (2002):

To give time for their guns to engage enemy aircraft as they came over, the Army was experimenting with the sound detection of aircraft by using massive concrete acoustic mirrors with microphones at their focal points. Dr. H.E. Wimperis, the Director of Scientific Research for the Air Ministry, and his assistant, Mr. A.P. Rowe, arranged for Air Marshall Dowding to visit the Army site on the Romney Marshes to see a demonstration. On the morning of the test the experiment was completely wrecked by a milk cart rattling by. Rowe was so concerned by this failure that he gathered up all the Air Ministry files on the subject of Air Defence. He was so appalled that he wrote formally to Wimperis to say that if we were involved in a major war we would lose it unless something new could be discovered to change the situation. (p. 1)

At the same time, American researchers were not only trying to refine war horns, they were also attempting thermal and electromagnetic detection. In the mid-1930s, “both thermal detection and microwave radio experiments” were being conducted at the Army Signal Corps laboratories in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (“The Signal Corps. Development of U.S. Army Radar Development Part I,” n.d., p. 3). In 1938 a thermal detector was installed in a truck and was field tested. Its performance was underwhelming. The official report found:

With thermal detector, day and night range on the plane … was about 4,000 yards … for commercial ships leaving New York Harbor, about 8,000 yards. Angular accuracy seemed to be about two degrees on ships, not above 10,000 yards. Beyond about 7,000 yards the impression was that the response was not entirely certain and positive, although more experience and training might improve the impression. (Hulburt, 1938, p. 1)

This performance led the official observer to conclude:

Sensitivity has been sacrificed to speed of response … a better detector for ships could be devised … [I think the] Army will not entertain further development of thermal devices for airplane location because of the better promise of radio devices and because the thermal radiations from airplanes can be screened, if necessary … (Hulburt, 1938, p. 1)

Hulburt’s prediction notwithstanding, acoustic and thermal feedback systems have since been deployed as foils for one another. In an effort to eavesdrop on slower, more sedentary violations of national space, micro war horns—microphones—have been placed, for example, in the nostril of a wooden eagle outside the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia (Wallace, Melton, & Schlesinger, 2008), stationed near national borders and drug trafficking routes (Eldridge, Ginsburg, Hempel, Kephart, & Moore, 2004; Pomfret & Farah, 1998), and used to monitor conversations and international telephone calls (Risen, 2005). The macrophones of war preceded the microphones of espionage and national security.

The death ray

In casual discourse, Guglielmo Marconi is often considered the inventor of radio, as though it sprang from him fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Such consideration fails to account for the complex interweaving of economic, technological, and social forces that enmesh all inventors, and perpetuates a complacent acceptance of technologies as applied. In Marconi’s case, the focus on him as a creator-genius minimizes the fact that he plays an important role in the industrialization of invention, the adaptation of the assembly line to production, the struggles for patents and national privilege, and the rise of Mussolini’s fascism.4

In the tradition of optical telegraphy, after which the telegraph and beacon hills of many cities are named, Marconi ascended hills to avoid their interfering with his transmissions. That interference could be feedback, could be used to calculate speed, range, altitude, and acceleration, was only important to him later in life. In a speech to the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1922 he stated:

As was first shown by Hertz, electric waves can be completely reflected by conducting bodies. In some of my tests, I have noticed the effects of reflection and deflection of these waves by metallic objects miles away. It seems to me that it should be possible to design apparatus by means of which a ship could radiate or project a divergent beam of these rays in any desired direction, which rays, if coming across a metallic object, such as another steamer or ship, would be reflected back to a receiver screened from the local transmitter on the sending ship, and thereby immediately reveal the presence and bearing of the other ship in fog or thick weather. One further great advantage of such an arrangement would be that it would be able to give warning of the presence and bearing of ships, even should these ships be unprovided with any kind of radio. I have brought these results and ideas to your notice as I feel—and perhaps you will agree with me—that the study of short electric waves, although sadly neglected practically all through the history of wireless, is still likely to develop in many unexpected directions, and open up new fields of profitable research. (p. 237)

In the age of the airplane, Marconi’s observations are still “out to sea”—he’s thinking of naval feedback and remote control. Nevertheless, Marconi does pull together his rivals’ earlier, disparate ruminations. Some of his rivals, and especially Lee De Forest and Nicola Tesla, had been holding forth publicly on electromagnetic detection and remote control as early as the turn of the century. They had even noted that the difference between a detector and a destructor is one of frequency and amplitude.5 When the French battleship Iena exploded in 1907, electromagnetic waves were considered a possible cause. De Forest thought this unlikely, but not impossible. According to the New York Times (1907):

[De Forest] recalled the experiments of Nicola Tesla with a dirigible torpedo about the time of the Spanish-American war. Tesla then considered the problem of the use of wireless telegraphy for directing torpedoes and discharging them. It was Tesla’s theory that a torpedo’s movements could be controlled by means of waves of electrical energy, and he made many experiments to this end, but with no practical results. At that time Tesla made the statement that in the same manner he could project a wave of sufficient intensity to cause a spark in a ship’s magazine and explode it. (“Wireless Caused Irena Disaster?”)

Tesla’s (1907) estimation of his own successes and intentions was different. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, written the day of (and published the day after) De Forest’s comments, he argued:

A report in the Times of this morning says that I have attained no practical results with my dirigible wireless torpedo. I have constructed such machines, and shown them in operation on frequent occasions. They have worked perfectly and everybody who saw them was amazed at their performance. It is true that my efforts to have this novel means for attack and defense adopted by our Government have been unsuccessful, but this is no discredit to my invention.… The time is not yet ripe for the telautomatic art. If its possibilities were appreciated the nations would not be building large battleships. Such a floating fortress may be safe against an ordinary torpedo, but would be helpless in a battle with a machine which carries twenty tons of explosive, moves swiftly underwater, and is controlled with precision by an operator beyond the range of the largest gun. As to projecting wave-energy to any particular region of the globe, I have given a clear description of the means in technical publications. Not only can this be done by the means of my devices, but the spot at which the desired effect is to be produced can be calculated very closely… (n.p.)

Beyond the fact that it is difficult to know when electromagnetic feedback systems were operational through the words of Marconi, Tesla, and De Forest, the differences between searchlights and radar have immense logistical importance. Radar equipment serves 24 hours a day and without the fatigue of human sight. Enemies could not detect its use without comparable equipment and, at least in the early years, would find the task difficult even if they had such equipment. Radar extended combat beyond the range of guns and natural sight. With sufficient power it extended a nation-state’s reach anywhere in the world.

Amidst the fallout of World War I, the Western powers were taken with airplanes’ transformation of the nation-state’s reach and with the means of controlling and destroying airplanes. As would-be electromagnetic weapons capable of destroying airplanes, death rays are important to radar’s prehistory. “The inventors of a ‘death ray’ multiply every day,” says the May 29, 1924, New York Times (“The ‘Death Ray’ Rivals”), with scientists from the U.S., Britain, Germany, and Russia all claiming to have developed devices that would “bring down airplanes, stop tank engines, and ‘spread a curtain of death’ ” (p. A4). Public fascination with death rays was drummed up by high-profile, crackpot inventors (and later by Boris Karloff in the film The Invisible Ray). But the horrors of trench warfare fomented genuine enthusiasm for remote, high-speed transmission weapons. Military officials with bloated post-war budgets were looking for clean killing through unproven devices. The U.S. Navy was interested in inventor Grindell Matthews’ death ray (“U.S. Navy Enters Race of Nations for Death Ray,” 1924). The U.S. Army made inquiries of a German scientist who had developed “a method of producing invisible rays capable of stopping airplanes in midair and automobiles” (“American Army Offered Death Ray, He Asserts,” 1924). German general Freiherr Von Schoenich fantasized about death rays and other remote weapons. According to the New York Times (1924):

General Freiherr Von Schoenich has issued a book, “The War of 1930,” in which he describes how a third war between France and Germany will be carried on.… German death ray machines will be uncovered on the whole French border. … Thousands of French airplanes will try to fly to Germany, but most of them will be destroyed by the death ray. (“Fierce War of 1930 Pictured by German”)

Von Schoenich sees death rays as besting the airplane’s speedy, border-compromising, remote attacks. Death rays’ post-war allure was more than public obsession with scientific whimsy or hoped-for telautomatic art. Legitimate organizations like the U.S.’ Committee for Scientific Survey for Air Defense put time and resources into developing an electromagnetic death ray that could “be used to strengthen present methods of defense against hostile aircraft” (Minutes of the Meetings of the Committee for Scientific Survey for Air Defense, 1935, p. 1).

Still, not everyone was enthralled with death rays, with transmission-as-destruction; many researchers concerned with logistics were developing radar. In the U.S., the Naval Research Laboratory conducted radar experiments as early as 1922, and that year pioneered the first radar-based speed trap when its antennas detected a moving truck some 70 metres distant (“The Origins of Radar,” 1945). In Britain, physicist-meteorologist Robert Watson-Watt was convinced that “radio-destruction” systems were not feasible. Burns (1988) writes, “[o]n the question of whether rapidly moving targets could be immobilized, Watson-Watt assumed that bombing aircraft of the ‘immediate’ future would be all-metal monoplanes with cowled engines and screened ignition systems” (p. 123). With World War II looming, Watson-Watt believed “the most attractive scheme” to project Britain into the atmosphere “was that in which zones of short-wave radio illumination were set up through which an approaching airplane had to fly” (Burns, 1988, p. 123). His efforts led to 20 CH (Chain Home) radar stations on the British coast by the spring of 1939. These stations were the first large-scale, working radar network in the world (Allison, 1984).


My rapid-fire descriptions of mostly forgotten instances and events, of fragments from the development of the torpedo, searchlight, war horn, and death ray, have suggested the otherwise unremarked significance of radar’s prehistory. I have intended these fragments from MIT’s Rad Lab, and from the fragments that expanded from them, to facilitate an understanding of logistical media that is relevant in today’s drone-patrolled, highly technological world where radar itself seems to be old technology. If torpedoes, war horns, and death rays no longer seem to be forgotten artifacts of the watery domain, or of the early days of the ethereal domain, if they seem connected to the radar systems that today are deployed to detect underground tunnels between Egypt and Israel and between Mexico and the United States, then my efforts have had the desired effect (“Lockheed Martin Developing Ground Penetrating Radar for Tunnel Finding,” 2009).

I have also intended to contribute to an understanding of the transmission model of communication, including feedback, remote control, and the grid-like functioning of logistical media. Innis’ theorizations of the relationship between media, governance, and the movement of people and objects have aided my understanding of these concepts, as has Wiener’s application of feedback to anticipate and coordinate movement—and even artillery fire. Together, these two theorists, along with the others I have cited, marshal the orderings and arrangements that define logistical media. They do this even though I have only broadly sketched the necessary “points” and “lines.”

The upshot of my fragmented approach is that, with the essential concepts in place, other logistical media can be analyzed within a more contextualized framework. We need not replicate Innis’ (1977) descriptions of the fur trade in Canada or charge singularly into Wiener’s (1961) theorizations of radar, but the military, industrial mining, the aerospace industry, port security, weather bureaus, sonar, and petroleum companies are just a few sites that evoke, through a logistical lens, issues that keep those early studies pertinent. The ordering and arrangement of people and objects through feedback, remote control, and technological grids ties otherwise disparate activities together, and does so in a way that helps us understand both history and the present day. I hope that this article orients us to the logistical task at hand.


1. Portions of this article have been excerpted and revised from Case (2010).

2. There was at least one instance in which the torpedo prefigured the automobile. Kirby (1999) wrote that “Mr. Cunningham, an American shoemaker, built rocket torpedoes and once celebrated the 4th of July by setting off one of his torpedoes up the town’s main street. It shot off at high speed scaring old ladies and horses and finally came to rest in the butcher’s shop where it set fire to the icebox” (p. 9).

3. This is further evidenced by a comprehensive report on the U.S. Army’s attempts to develop detection technologies in the 1930s.

“Both thermal detection and microwave radio experiments were at this time carried on by the Laboratories Sound and Light Section, which also was entrusted with visual signal lamps, underwater sound ranging and Field Artillery sound ranging” (“The Signal Corps. Development of U.S. Army Radar Development Part I,” n.d., p. 3).

4. See Douglas (1989) and Aitken (1976) for a treatment of Marconi and the military’s influence on the development of radio.

5. Tesla entertained the possibilities of electromagnetic detection and destruction as early as November 21, 1898. In his letter to the New York Sun, he talked about a “self-propelling machine, the motions of which are governed by impressions received through the eye.” This “controlling device” could potentially make guns obsolete.


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