In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Communications, French Revolution to the Present

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Surveys
  • At Sea
  • British and Colonial Army Signals Units
  • 19th-Century European and Colonial Military
  • US Civil War
  • Strategy and International Relations
  • Early-20th-Century Military Communications (to World War II)
  • World War II
  • Radar
  • Signals Intelligence and Detection in World War II
  • Sensors and Detection in the Cold War
  • Electronic Warfare
  • Southeast Asia
  • Military Communications and Space
  • Command, Control, and Communications in the United States in the Cold War and Beyond

Military History Communications, French Revolution to the Present
Jonathan Reed Winkler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0034


Over the past two centuries, communications has become a critical element of military affairs. Without an understanding of how information could, did, or did not move at every level from the technical/tactical to the strategic, it is impossible to evaluate what was possible and not possible for armed forces to do in war and peace. Despite this, the subject has received comparatively less attention from historians than other subjects until very recently. Historians have approached the subject by country, military service, level (tactical through strategic), time period, or any combination of these. Until the mid-nineteenth century and the dawn of the electrical age, military communications worked largely as they had for millennia. Information moved as fast as a horse could ride, a pigeon could fly, a ship could sail, sound could travel, and the eye could perceive. The electrical telegraph added a new dimension to this at the strategic and operational levels, as seen in the Crimean War, US Civil War, and the Wars of German Unification, but the older methods of signaling, such as couriers or flags, remained important. To this was added wireless by the early twentieth century, its importance made manifest during World War I. A third phase, that of electronic communications (based on vacuum tubes and then transistors), emerged from the 1920s to 1940s. This laid the foundations for the computer-based military communications utilized today. The subject is a complex one for historians because of the need to understand the technical details of the different technologies, the ways in which these technologies solved certain military problems (and created others), and the organization structures necessary to handle the flow of information. At the same time, the topic has broadened to include consideration of developments in detection, navigation, weapons control (artillery spotting, missile and bomb guidance), attempts to intercept others’ communications (signals or electronic intelligence), disrupt others’ communications (electronic warfare), and enhance the ability to command and control military forces at great distances. Though historians have recognized the importance of the subject, there has been remarkably little written in English about military communications in the non-Western world (which we might describe as Latin America, Africa, and Asia). Though some of the descriptions of various texts are brief (a consequence of an eponymous title or the great complexity of the subject), those interested in the topic will find this to be the most comprehensive guide to the literature available in English. There remains much to be explored in the field of military communications, the importance of which grows more every year.

Reference Works and Surveys

Because of the breadth and complexity of this topic, one must first start with a scholarly survey. Problematically, coverage is spotty on certain topics. Woods 1974 and Bridge and Pegg 2001 offer important starting points from the historical perspective, while Beauchamp 2001 provides a more technological perspective. Harfield 1989 reminds us to consider the place of animals as communicators, a role played until remarkably recently. Headrick 2000 contextualizes the developments in military or strategic communications with the larger period, which is essential for understanding their full implications. Scheips 1980 has collected many important individual works in one place and should be used together with Woods 1974 and Bridge and Pegg 2001. Sterling 2008 is a handy reference work, although it is heavy with Internet references. For US Army history, Raines 1996 is peerless and must be consulted.

  • Beauchamp, Ken. History of Telegraphy: Its Technology and Application. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1049/PBHT026E

    Narrative survey that looks mostly at the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with an epilogue that covers the period after 1945. Written from an engineering perspective, it is also largely Anglo-centric. Useful for cross-checking against historical perspectives.

  • Bridge, Maureen, and John Pegg, eds. Call to Arms: A History of Military Communications from the Crimean War to the Present Day. Tavistock, UK: Focus, 2001.

    A work largely done from a British perspective, it provides a useful survey from the mid-nineteenth century forward. It includes valuable discussion of the military utility of the civilian British post office.

  • Harfield, Alan, ed. Pigeon to Packhorse: The Illustrated Story of Animals in Army Communications. Chippenham, UK: Picton, 1989.

    Provides a reminder that animals have long played a key role, only until quite recently, in military communications.

  • Headrick, Daniel. When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason, 1700–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Survey of how information was gathered, stored, shared, and disseminated. Of particular importance is the wide-reaching survey chapter on postal and telegraphic systems of the early nineteenth century.

  • Raines, Rebecca R. Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1996.

    Critical thorough survey of the Signal Corps from the Civil War to the early 1990s. Starting point for any work on the US Army in this period.

  • Scheips, Paul J., ed. Military Signals Communications. 2 vols. New York: Arno, 1980.

    This is a key anthology of important articles, essays, and selections in the history of signal communications from a variety of sources reprinted here in one handy location.

  • Sterling, Christopher. Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2008.

    Alphabetically organized and with suggestions for further reading, this guide provides a brief explanation of the principal subjects and individuals. Useful place to start.

  • Woods, David L. A History of Tactical Communications Techniques. New York: Arno, 1974.

    Originally published in 1965 by the Martin-Marietta Corporation, this survey of tactical communications covers from the ancient period to the 1960s. It is unique as a survey and an important place to start, but it lacks documentation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.