C4I in 1776

Imagine you are a frigate captain in 1776 for either the Continental or Royal Navy and once you opened your sailing orders, you were on your own. You could be at sea and not know a war has started or ended.

Back in 1776, there were no smart phones or computers. The internet didn’t exist. Ships didn’t have radar, radios, GPS or satellite phones or linked together in a global telecommunications and intelligence network.

The ship’s primary sensor was the Mark 1 eyeball and on a good day, a sharp lookout from a platform a hundred feet above the water could spot another ship fifteen miles away. Encounters at sea were more by chance than intelligence which is why the Brits favored blockades.  By stationing  ships off enemy ports, they knew where the enemy was (or wasn’t) and if they came home or tried to go to sea, they could be engaged.

So why my interest?  Researching events from the Revolutionary War period for an Age of Sail novel is again reminding me of the independence ship, fleet and army commanders were given by their national leaders. Their freedom of action was a far cry from today’s world of satellite sensors and communications and drones in networked C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) systems that enable and generals and admirals in D.C. to approve the release of a bomb from an airplane flying in the Middle East in real time.

The technology revolution of the past thirty years has not only changed the pace of life, but how we communicate with our loved ones on the battlefield. In 1776, it took three weeks for a letter to be carried east across the Atlantic and four to come back not including the time it took to be delivered to the recipient received who quickly wrote a response. In those days, two months was a realistic cycle time for transatlantic correspondence.

Fast forward to Vietnam, my wife and I communicated via letters and cassette tapes. In the seventies, it took less than a week to go from the Gulf of Tonkin to the U.S.  The cycle time was two weeks.  During Desert Shield and Storm in the nineties, we were able to use cell phones to call home.  Email and texting, as we know it today, didn’t exist.

Today, our servicemen can call home, Skype or Facetime a loved one from the battlefield. The pace of life was slower in the sixties and seventies and even slower during the Revolutionary War. Most Americans don’t know it took nine years to win our independence.

Writing novel that takes place during the Revolutionary War also reminds me of how much technology has changed our lives since the Internet became practical. Some days, I long for the days when we didn’t have instant communication and everyone didn’t have to be “connected.” Research meant going to a library, using the Dewey Decimal system to find books that had the necessary source material and either check them out or take notes.  Writing a manuscript meant using a typewriter (maybe one with erasing features) and feeding it paper, sheet by sheet.  Changes and editing, that’s another subject for another post.

Marc Liebman

November 2019

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.