The 25 billion dollar figure reaped by Twitter from its IPO has been bandied about the media as if money alone were a measure of the enduring value of this latest breaking wave of communications technology. In my view, the real value of Twitter’s torrent of one-liners won’t be properly assessed for perhaps a hundred years. Only then will it be known if the tweets actually helped historians to understand the events and personalities of our time or hindered such an effort.
I’ve spent a substantial amount of time sifting through the ancient email of the expeditions of pioneer aviator and explorer, Admiral Richard E. Byrd. This material has been of tremendous use to me. The technology derived from the discovery of what was then called the Kennelly-Heaviside layer — Arthur Kennelly was an electrical engineer, and Oliver Heaviside was a mathematician, and both worked in radio. What they separately discovered was a layer of electrically charged or “ionized” particles in the upper atmosphere. Today, we refer to it as the ionosphere. Radio waves of certain frequencies — i.e., short waves — are able to travel long distances by bouncing up to and off of this strata, kind of like stones skimming off the surface of a pond.
Short-wave radio was consequently the cutting-edge technology of the 1920s and 1930s, and Byrd made full use of it. His ships and planes all had short-wave equipment. Trail parties carried portable short-wave rigs. The Admiral’s Antarctic compound, Little America, had its own state-of-the-art short-wave radio station that maintained contact with the U.S. This medium of communication was used for all expedition business, including field messages exchanged during the most critical circumstances that arose on the ice; the ancient email I mentioned. In the parlance of the early 20th Century, it was called a radiogram, a telegram sent and received by means of short-wave.
No matter how many thousands of miles Byrd put between himself and civilization, he could nevertheless talk to his family in Boston, his business office in New York, and his sponsors and supporters around the country in this way. From Little America, he could contact his ships at sea, his shipping agents in New Zealand and his men in the field, and when he took to the air, he could remain in touch with the base. As a matter of course, field parties would check-in with the main base on a regular schedule.
One of my most significant finds was a radiogram transmitted by Byrd in 1934 to his dog and tractor teams at the outset of the 1934 Antarctic field season. It outlined the admiral’s philosophy of exploration: Big risks to achieve the ultimate objectives of an expedition were permissible, he felt, but everything up to that point had to be foolproof — an axiom explaining the approach he took throughout his career.
The radiograms also documented what happened when Byrd’s administrative assistant broke down in New Zealand under the burden of a complex re-supply operation and began abusing the system with long-winded 8, 10, and 12-page missives — all variations on the theme that no one connected with the expedition was as efficient and dedicated as he was! Byrd stretched patience to the limit in his short-wave replies, trying to counsel the guy instead of summarily relieving him of his duties.
My favorite Byrd radiogram was dispatched soon after the second Antarctic expedition reached the Ross Ice Shelf. The Admiral had brought three cows to Antarctica on that outing so that his men could have fresh milk. Dairy farming on the ice undoubtedly presented a number of unanticipated difficulties. “It is hereby directed,” Byrd radioed to one of his ships moored several miles away, “that the sailmaker immediately design and make brassieres for the cows.”
Preserve that kind of detail, Twitter, and you might be worth your 25 billion dollars.
Sheldon Bart is president and founder of Wilderness Research Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society. His most recent book, “Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole,” has just been published by Regnery History.