Ri radio enthusiasts in World War I

Laurence Scales highlights the contribution of Ri radio enthusiasts to signals intelligence in the opening weeks of World War I.

  • Admiralty Ripley building In Whitehall

    Admiralty Ripley building In Whitehall, home of 'Room 40'

    Credit: Public domain

Radio was not new in 1914, but it was largely outside the experience of the Admiralty which administered the Royal Navy. Even at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 signal lamps and flags were still instrumental in directing (and misdirecting) operations. However, as soon as World War I started, the German subsea telegraph cables were dredged up by the British and severed, to force communications on to more easily intercepted mail and wireless. Former members of the Royal Institution (Ri) played a part in developing the Admiralty’s capacity to deal with enemy signals.

It was a reflex reaction of the authorities in Britain to ban private radio sets for fear that an army of spies would broadcast intelligence across the North Sea. In practice, the feared secret army was small, and turned to mail and secret ink rather than wireless. But that was not yet clear.

Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton (elected as Ri member in 1893 and continuing as a member through World War I) was a keen amateur radio user. Indeed, in the early years of the century he was also a pioneer of radiography and even of electronic television. He was a respected voice calling for radio amateurs to be allowed to use their skills in the national defence, in particular, to scan the airwaves for broadcasts from spies. At first, as is the way of things, his suggestion was turned down. But within a couple of months he was helping the Admiralty.

From the unpromising start of banning private radios, signals intelligence grew rapidly. Wireless enthusiast Bayntun Hippisley (elected as an Ri member in 1904), who had been a radio advisor to the War Office, knew that he could listen to wireless transmissions from ships and set off for a wireless station at Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast to listen to the transmissions from the German navy, including those that signalled the launch of Zeppelin airships to bomb the eastern counties and London. The success of this operation led to a string of similar intercept stations being established.

  • Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956). Image from Mate’s County Series (1908) and available in the public domain.

    Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956) 

    Credit: Mate’s County Series (1908), available in the public domain.

  • James A Ewing 1855-1835

    James A Ewing (1855-1835)

    Credit: Public domain

  • A radio direction finding car used by the British Post Office in 1927 to find illegal radio transmissions

    radio direction finding car used by the British Post Office in 1927 to find illegal radio transmissions

    Credit: Public domain

Bayntun Hippisley was something of a character. He was to the manor born (his Ston Easton estate is now a hotel) and following the war he somehow ended up with his own tank which, stripped of weaponry, he used for the odd spot of heavy gardening.  (Thank you to Michael Allan Hippisley Matthews for that information.)

These intelligence activities needed to be co-ordinated. In 1914, the Admiralty already had a tame scientist in physicist Alfred Ewing who had been teaching in Japan, a country which was then trying to make up for centuries of isolation from western technology. There he researched into magnetism and was responsible for coining the term ‘hysteresis’. He had been recruited by the Admiralty before the war in a bid to correct the historic isolation of officers in the Royal Navy from… western technology. With his contacts in academia he was just the man to understand the wireless war, and to recruit a team of code breakers (among them an actor and an archaeologist) which became known by its location, Room 40, at the Admiralty.

At Room 40 Ewing served the First Lord of the Admiralty. Initially this was Winston Churchill, and later Arthur Balfour (also an Ri member from 1870 and brother-in-law of the Ri’s Lord Rayleigh).

Though no cryptographer himself, Ewing’s team set to work when enemy code books were recovered from wrecked ships and airships, and cracked the coded messages used in radio and telegraph signals. Ewing returned to academia in 1916, joining the Ri in 1933, a couple of years before his death. Ewing’s Room 40 was the direct ancestor of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, establishing the practice of taking recruits from unusual backgrounds, and some of his recruits went on to serve there in World War II.

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence.  He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter:@LWalksLondon

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