The interwar internet

Sometimes I wonder how I'd react if I was perusing an early-twentieth century newspaper and came across a URL in an advertisement. Maybe or I mean, there's no physical reason why this couldn't happen -- all those characters existed back then. It's just that arranging them in such a way would have made no sense whatsoever to anyone living at the time. So I'll never see one, which is probably good for my sanity.

But I do occasionally see something reminiscent of some of our idiosyncratic online protocols: telegraphic addresses. They were the functional equivalent of postal addresses, of course: they allowed the rapid routing of a message to a physical location on the surface of the Earth. But what I find interesting about them is that they were evidently arbitrary: a person or organisation could choose its own address (apart from the geographical bit). This means that telegraphic addresses reflected something of their character -- much like personal email addresses today often do, or even more so, like an organisation's domain name does. They also often had something of the cramped style, the abrvs and runtogetherwords, of modern txtspk, which must come from a similar desire to save characters (since the longer the addresses were, the more keypresses and time it took the Morse operator, and ultimately pence it cost the sender). And this is true even of government bureaucracies like the RAF. Here are some telegraphic addresses culled from the Air Force List for January 1922.

Some are self-explanatory, such Airministry, London. Aircivil, Airministry, London is also pretty obvious, if you are aware of the existence of the Civil Aviation Department, Air Ministry. (The way the addresses are nested here is reminiscent of a subdomain, or perhaps of the old percent hack for forwarding mail from ARPANET to another network.) Airships, Bedford is the Airship Constructional Station (which must be Cardington), and Scientist, London is the Air Ministry Laboratory. Cranwell, including RAF HQ and the nascent RAF College, could be reached at Aircoll, Sleaford, though for some reason the Boys' Wing had a separate address, Avion, Sleaford.

Others require a bit more work to puzzle out. Ok, so Imwarmus, Crystal, London is the Imperial War Museum (RAF Section) at its temporary home at the Crystal Palace and Judvocate, London is the Judge Advocate General. And Cenrafhos Finch, London is the Central RAF Hospital -- but what's the Finch bit refer to? Paynavator, Westrand, London is the General Services Pay Officer, which explains 'pay', but what's a 'navator'? (Westrand = west Strand?) I think I've worked out Airgenarch, Kincross, London, the address of the Coastal Area HQ (Kincross being King's Cross): 'genarch' is an archaic word for the head of a family (as in patriarch or matriarch). Inland Area HQ could also be reached by Airgenarch, Uxbridge. Then there's Prinpustor, Watloo, London, which was the Air Ministry Publications Department. Hmm ... PRINcipal PUblications STORe, maybe? (And Watloo would be Waterloo.)

A group of meteorological addresses stand out, including Weather, London, the Air Ministry Meteorological Department (Forecasts); Meteorology, Southkens, London, a, or the, Meteorological Office (at South Kensington); Barometer, Edinburgh, another Meteorological Office; Meteorite, Liverpool for the Port Meteorological Officer there; and Meteor Experiments, Shoeburyness, a Meteorological Station. I suspect these are addresses inherited when the Air Ministry took over what is today known as the Met Office, in 1920 -- they're just a bit too inconsistent and whimsical to be part of a RAF naming scheme. Another legacy address is Ballooning, South Farnborough, for the Royal Aircraft Establishment -- which had its earliest incarnation at that location in 1905 as His Majesty's Balloon Factory.

The default address for a RAF station in Britain was Aeronautics -- so, Aeronautics, Biggin Hill or Aeronautics, London (not an aerodrome but the Central Medical Board, among other things). Aeronautics was also used for government-owned civil aerodromes such as Croydon. Ocredep was another very common one. All seventeen RAF recruiting offices used it. Officer Commanding, REcruiting DEPot?

The RAF overseas did its own thing. In fact, the address for HQ Mediterranean Group is Rafos, Malta, which could be derived from RAF OverSeas. Maybe. Some wag thought up the addresses for HQ Middle East Area, Perardua, Cairo, and its subordinate group HQs for Egypt and Palestine, Adastra, Cairo and Ismailia. Per ardua ad astra, get it? (But, for some reason, HQ Mesopotamian Group is Aviation, Baghdad.) Otherwise it's mostly a descriptive name with the prefix air-, for example Airengine, Abbassia for HQ Engine Repair Depot. Airsquad 70, Heliopolis is the address for 70 Squadron. The Base Pay Office in Egypt is Airpay, Cairo, but the one in Iraq is Paycash, Baghdad. In India, there's more uniformity. Aeronautics, Ambala for HQ RAF India, and Astral, Ambala or Peshawar, for Wing HQs. Then Aviation and a number for squadrons, e.g. Aviation 5, Quetta for 5 Squadron. And finally, Airskool, Ambala, for the RAF School (India), is so 21st-century in its use of an incorrect spelling just to save a single character that it is, in fact, quite oldskool.

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4 thoughts on “The interwar internet

  1. Alison Smith

    I cannot find any reference to RAF Central Hospital in the archives but I do know that my grandparents were resident in an RAF Hospital in October 1918 - she was a nurse and he was a patient. Their address "Central RAF Hospital, Hampstead". Does this make any sense to anyone; Finchley or Hamstead or neither?

  2. Post author

    A good place to look would be the Monthly Air Force List (usually just called Air Force List) for October 1918. I've got a partial copy of the one for December 1918 but not the pages covering hospitals, unfortunately. However, I note that while the January 1922 issue has the Central RAF Hospital at Finchley, the Central Medical Board was then at Holly Hill, Hampstead. So that suggests a medical connection; maybe the hospital and medical board were there initially and the hospital moved to Finchley later?

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