Henri Lucien Etienne was born in August 1862 in Brenets, a village in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. However, like his predecessor at ITU, Emil Frey, Etienne was a widely travelled man with particular connections to the Americas.
In 1881, Etienne enrolled in what is now the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to study engineering. After graduating he was employed as an engineer in Neuchatel, before working abroad. Etienne’s career took him to the Middle East and to the United States where, in 1886, he was engaged by a company founded by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who had developed the Suez Canal. The aim of the new venture was to create the Panama Canal.
Etienne moved on to work in Brazil, Prussia and Palestine. After returning to Switzerland, in 1893 he joined the newly formed Central Office of International Rail Transport (Office central des transports internationaux par chemins de fer) in Berne, which supervised a convention representing administrations and railway companies in seventy-eight countries. In 1912 he became Vice-Director of the organization.
This background in dealing with complex international matters was a useful preparation for Etienne’s role as Director of the ITU Bureau – a post to which he was nominated by the Swiss government in 1921. He took part in the 1925 International Telegraph Conference in Paris and the 1927 International Radiotelegraph Conference in Washington, D.C. While returning to Switzerland from this last conference, he died aboard ship on 16 December 1927.