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Geek Trivia: A phone to pick with you

What was the method of communication originally employed by the Washington-Moscow Hotline, a historically significant telecommunications link between the United States President and Soviet Premier that -- while called The Red Phone -- wasn't originally a telephone link at all?

It's not very often that a phone line is installed for the express purpose of saving the entire human race, but that's mission profile implied by the Washington-Moscow Hotline, which was put into action 45 years ago this week. Known also as The Red Phone, the Hotline connects the President of the United States directly with the Premier of the Soviet Union so that the two can, hopefully, resolve any disputes that might otherwise devolve into a global nuclear holocaust.

The Red Phone was created by the laboriously titled "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line," which was ratified on June 20, 1963 by both the United States and the Soviet Union. That memo was one of the many political aftershocks from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw Americans and the Soviets nearly reach the nuke-launching point, in part because President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev could not reasonably exchange messages. And by reasonably, we mean it took several hours to deliver and translate communications between what were then the two most powerful political leaders on Earth.

Under those conditions, one side would still be translating an initial message by the time an abrogating follow-up was already received. The Red Phone was designed to solve the technical aspect of that problem.

The Hotline was first put to the test during the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967. While neither the United States nor the Soviets were direct combatants in the conflict, both superpowers moved naval forces -- specifically, the US 6th Fleet and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet -- into the region as a contingency. The Red Phone allowed both sides to keep each apprised of each other's movements and motivations, preventing an inadvertent sparking of U.S.-Soviet hostilities.

Since then, popular culture has often dramatized these scenes -- or allegories to them -- with images of a stern President and a stoic Premier holding direct conversations over a literal red telephone handset. There's just one problem with these notions -- the original Washington-Moscow Hotline wasn't actually a telephone connection, as it used a very different method of communication.

WHAT METHOD OF COMMUNICATION DID THE ORIGINAL U.S.-SOVIET HOTLINE EMPLOY?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

17 comments
2rs
2rs

Fascinating reading!! It is so cool to read the posts from those involved in the real deal. Thanks so much for sharing an inmportant bit of US history. when I started working in the MaBell switchrooms in the early 70's, we had some kind of emergency teletype monster - sorta KYAG if it started chattering!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Telegraph or teletype? You use the terms as if they are interchangeable, but to a communicator, they aren't. Telegraph is dots and dashes created by starting and stopping a carrier signal. Teletype used the Baudot code (among others) to represent letters and numbers and transmitted these signals by modulating an audio carrier (modem).

bowenw
bowenw

Nick, The original "Hot Line" used, on the U.S. end, a Teletype Model 28 ASR (ASR machines include a tape punch and reader, whereas KSR machines do not) baudot (ITA2 code) machine modified with the proper gearing to receive and transmit to a machine running off 50Hz power (which is what the Russians where using). The changes amounted to special gears in the selector transmission and a couple of other mods. This was the same basic machine used to provide Telex service in the US. The Model 28 was a heavy-duty machine made for 24/7 operation. Later on (not sure what year) the system was upgraded to use an ASCII link, which was better since Baudot teletype machines have a very limited character set. This newer machine was similar to the ones used for Bell System TWX service (not certain but I'd bet it was probably a Teletype Model 35 ASR, which is basically an ASCII version of the Model 28). BTW, Teletype Corp. was then a part of AT&T - it is but a memory, having gone out of business in 1990. Google the word Teletype and look at the Wikipedia page - some very interesting information.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The military still had Kleinschmidts in use as late as 1985. We had a Model 28 ASR in each radio van and since it connected to my radios, I got to work on it. I hated those things.

GoodOh
GoodOh

The original says that they installed a telegraph LINE and communicated up and down that line using teletype machines. That's an accurate description. Teletype can work over telegraph lines. But the author could have been slightly less exact and more clear by calling it a teletype line. Ref: http://onlinedictionary.datasegment.com/word/telegraph

rob
rob

I remember it as a teletype system, not a telegraph. So which one was it?

cabbott
cabbott

"Telegraph" comes from the Greek meaning "far" and "write". A telegraph could be implemented as old-style telegrams (Morse code) or newer teletype (Baudot, telex, ASCII, etc). Looks like the hot-line was originally teletype, but the article doesn't explicitely say that.

Poodoo999
Poodoo999

While stationed at the Pentagon's National Military Command Center in the late 1980's, my operations team had the opportunity to observe one of the hourly tests of the system and talk to the Air Force crew manning the hotline. They told us that it was tradition that on New Year's Eve, the messages were exchanged in rhyme-I wonder if they still do that. On July 4th the Soviets would send us a "Happy Independence Day" message, and we would do the same on their national holiday-Happy Bolshevik Revolution Day or whatever. Some of the messages were quite funny, but even though they often exchenged jokes, the crews took their jobs very, very seriously. The system at the time looked like a huge desktop computer with messages composed on keyboard and monitor before being transmitted. Of course, it's probably the size of an iPod now.

bowenw
bowenw

Poo, The machine you describe sounds like it may have been a Teletype Model 40. It was probably the last of the TTY-based systems before they went to using fax. I still have a soft spot for the old mechanical Teletype machines. For years my dad was an engineer for Teletype and Western Electric - one of my most prized pictures of him was him working on the pre-shipment checkout of the Teletype Model 28 machine that was the original Hot Line teletype. When I first got into ham radio in the '60s he helped me rebuild a WW-II vintage Model 19 ASR machine (a Model 19 was a Model 15 with all the toys built into a steel office desk) that I used for amateur teletype. Now days only the real "hard core" amateur TTY guys use mechanical machines - most just use a PC.

michael.a.buccella
michael.a.buccella

Closer to 66 words per minute, encrypted of course. I worked at the NY Tech Center that was the control site for the "Hotline". The service was provided by ITT World Communications and was the jewel of the communications services that they offered. It provided them quiet bragging rights( it was supposed to be secret) in the telecom industry and they did everything possible to keep the service operable. Great piece of trivia Jay!

hkliesner
hkliesner

Jay said three minutes per page, not three words per minute. Whatever it is, it's cool - and interesting that they test it 24/7. How would you like THAT job?

boing_hd
boing_hd

They might be bored or something and start talking about tabloid newspapers or the latest soccer scores.

MadSciGuy
MadSciGuy

I don't have the reference, but I remember reading that the teletype vs. telephone debate over the nature of the system had an element of cultural difference involved. The Americans trusted the printed word and wanted the teletype; and the Russians trusted and believed in the spoken word, oral communications, and so they wanted a telephone. Did you run across this idea in any of your research?

SuperBoy
SuperBoy

Having some issues with the comment mechanism. I'm just wondering why 'connects the US president and Primier' was not 'connected' -- half of the connection doesn't exist with the political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

gafisher
gafisher

The only recurrent problem with the Washington-Moscow fax communications system has been the incessant stream of ads for Ozero timeshares and $88 per month health insurance "approved by management." Fortunately, this has been less of an annoyance since the U.S. President and the Russian Premier set up pages on Facebook. (-: Fascinating bit of trivia, Jay, entertaining and enlightening as always.

Constantdrone
Constantdrone

It's a direct line to Tim Horton's. Thanks Jay, another "I did not know that" installment from the Trivia Geek.

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