Science history: Joan-Eleanor, the woman who never was

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The Eleanor part of the Joan-Eleanor system was carried onboard the all-wood military aeroplane known as the de Havilland Mosquito.

Phil Whalley / 500px/Getty Images

In today’s consumer marketplace, it sometimes seems all one needs do to sell a tech product is put an “i” at the front of the name and include a USB port. 

In computer history, some of the early portable or personal computers were named for their developers, such as Adam Osborne’s Osborne 1, or Andrew Kay’s Kaypro machine.

Apple’s march to becoming a technology powerhouse gained terrific momentum with the prosaically named Macintosh computer in 1984, but before the ubiquitous Mac caught the attention of millions came the Apple Lisa. 

Officially, Lisa was an acronym for “Local Integrated Software Architecture”, but it was also the name of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ daughter.

Another device with a personalised name, but with an existence obscured by time, is the Joan-Eleanor, which played a role in shaping the outcome of the Second World War. 

Joan-Eleanor, or J-E, was a very high frequency (VHF) radio system developed beginning in late 1942 for use by Allied agents working behind enemy lines to relay information. It replaced bulky, difficult to conceal suitcase radio units and Morse code devices weighing 15 kilograms or more.

It was developed for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the United States intelligence-gathering agency during the war – the forerunner to today’s Central Intelligence Agency – by DeWitt Goddard and Lieutenant Commander Stephen Simpson, a US Navy officer. Both men, before the war, had worked as engineers with the US electronics company RCA.

The system’s unusual name, according to most accounts, came first from Goddard’s wife, Eleanor, and second from Joan, described generally as a friend of Simpson’s. 

The system comprised a pair of transceivers: a small hand-held unit, Joan, for use by an agent in the field, and Eleanor, a larger device carried on an aircraft flying high overhead at a prearranged time.{%recommended 6051%}

It used the VHF radio band because it was known that these frequencies could not be effectively monitored by the enemy. Agents were able to make their reports in plain speech, and an operator onboard the aircraft gathered the transmission on a wire recorder. 

One advantage of the system was that it eliminated the need for Morse code, meaning agents did not need to learn it, which reduced training time. Also, operators aboard the aircraft could ask for immediate clarifications if required, without the delay of encryption and decryption, or an intelligence officer aboard the circling aircraft could talk directly to the agent.

Because of the low power required to broadcast, and the unit’s limited range, the transmissions were virtually undetectable and the Germans were unaware of the system. 

One interesting sidebar to the story is that the aircraft usually used on these missions was the British-built, twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito, a fast fighter-bomber, nicknamed the Timber Terror, the Loping Lumberyard and the Wooden Wonder, because it was built mostly of wood. 

Joan, the battery-powered hand-held transceiver, was only 16.5 centimetres long and weighed less than two kilograms. It used dual triode amplifying vacuum tubes for reception, and an oscillator during transmission. It had a simple dipole antenna, attached to the top of the unit, and controls for fine-tuning the signal. 

Eleanor was powered by four six-volt wet-cell batteries. 

Although the system used commonplace radio technology, it was classified as top secret by the US military and was not declassified until 1976.

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