In late 1941, the race was on to advance and develop radar, sonar, radio and other technologies, as the global conflict that would define the “greatest generation” evolved. More than 50 countries would be involved in battles on air, sea and land on six continents, and Napoleon’s maxim that “the secret of war lies in the communications” would hold true. The IBM ® Radiotype would enable the United States Army to send written messages at e-mail speed—30 years before the invention of e-mail.
Walter S. Lemmon, a pioneering radio inventor and president of Radio Industries Corporation, had built a prototype with two associates in 1931. Two typewriters communicated via shortwave—an operator could enter a message on the transmitting typewriter, and the keystrokes, including backspacing and shifting, were replicated on the receiving typewriter on the other end. IBM President Thomas J. Watson Sr. convinced Lemmon and his associates to join his company, and IBM acquired the rights to the Radiotype in 1933, the same year it entered the typewriter business by purchasing the Electromatic Typewriter Corporation of Rochester, New York.
By 1935, IBM’s Radiotype division had a satisfactory working model. It was intended for business use, for communication between office buildings or departments, factories and home offices, or different branches in different regions. When Admiral Richard Byrd sent the Radiotype message “WATSON” 11,000 miles from his Little America exploration base in Antarctica to Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1935, it proved that the signal could make it much further than office to office.
The Radiotype, because of its ability to make transcontinental communication possible, was a component of Watson’s vision of “world peace through world trade.” The IBM president believed that better communication between the countries of the world would help eliminate conflict. The Radiotype was just one of the product lines that IBM acquired or developed to further that vision.
In 1941, as US involvement in World War II seemed imminent, IBM loaned several Radiotype units to the US Army Signal Corps for communications between the Corps’ headquarters. The US Army Signal Corps could move a message literally around the world in four minutes. At peak usage, the units were transmitting 50 million words per day. This capability proved distinctly advantageous for a US military effort involving millions of personnel spread throughout the Pacific, European and Mediterranean theaters.
At the end of the war, the military returned its Radiotype units to IBM. Despite its success in the war effort—one lieutenant called the Radiotype “one of the most impressive developments” of all the information products created for World War II—IBM chose not to produce the Radiotype for civilian use. IBM President Thomas J. Watson Sr. realized that the Radiotype would be direct competition to the teletype, a product sold by AT&T, one of IBM’s biggest customers. The Radiotype division was sold to Globe Wireless in 1945, and the world had to wait for e-mail to come along in 1971.
“Stop for a moment, and imagine somebody else coming along with something that will increase the speed of what machines do by 300 percent. You fellows would all be in my office with tears in your eyes. That is something. Now, we just take that in our stride. We’ve got to get excited about that one. I dare not start on what I see as possibilities for the future. My horizon for that machine goes so far out, I don’t dare to stop to think about it.”
Quoted in Maney, Kevin. The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson Sr. and the Making of IBM2003
“Every phase of our war effort was affected by your equipment. The setting up of overseas as well as domestic wireless circuits with Radiotype, which sent and received messages automatically and typed them out on the typewriter, was one of the most important contributions.”
Quoted in Pugh, Emerson W. Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technology1995
“The newly developed radiotype (sic) machine of the International Business Machines Corporation was used yesterday to record automatically the speeches at The Herald Tribune Forum as they were broadcast over an NBC coast-to-coast network. From electrical recordings stenographers typed the addresses on the radiotype (sic), which flashed them back to the press room at the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria within ten minutes after their delivery. … The machine was used to demonstrate its usefulness to high-speed news transmission of the future. It will be exhibited at the World’s Fair of 1939.”
“New Radiotype Device Flashes Text of Talks,” New York TimesOctober 26, 1938
Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:
- Walt Lemmon General Manager of IBM Radiotype division
- Stephen Dunwell Product planner
- Robert Paulsen IBM Radiotype operator and installer