Louis Curchod played a pivotal role not only in Swiss telecommunications, but also in the creation of ITU and the administration of its earliest years.
Curchod was born in 1826, the son of a pastor in Crissier, a community of only three- or four-hundred souls in Switzerland’s canton of Vaud. But times were changing quickly as populations grew and industrialization spread. Curchod was fascinated by the new technologies of the age, and studied engineering at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, from which he graduated in 1849. For a short period he worked in railway construction; then, in 1852, he became the inspector of Lausanne’s telegraphic system.
In recognition of his talents, in 1857 the Swiss government (Federal Council) elevated Curchod to become Director of Switzerland’s Federal Administration of Telegraphs.
Curchod represented Switzerland at the first International Telegraph Conference, held in Paris in 1865, which saw the birth of ITU. The second International Telegraph Conference in 1868 decided that a permanent central secretariat for the Union should be established in Berne. Originally called the Bureau international des Administrations télégraphiques, the secretariat was placed under the supervision of the Swiss government and was to be headed by a director. Louis Curchod was the first person in that post, which he held for some twenty years until his death in 1889. The only interruption was the brief period of 1870-1873 during the tenure of Charles Lendi, when Curchod acted as director of France’s transatlantic cable project.
The ITU office in Berne started with just three members of staff, who had to turn their hands to every task. For instance, the precursor of today’s ITU News (the Journal Télégraphique) was initially produced in Curchod’s own home with the help of his household. But as technological advances appeared and ITU’s membership increased, so the work of the Bureau grew, along with Curchod’s responsibilities.
He oversaw the International Telegraph Conferences of 1871 in Rome, 1875 in St Petersburg, 1879 in London and 1885 in Berlin, during which he mediated the important discussions taking place on the growing world of telecommunications. In recognition of his work to expand those technologies, Curchod received many honours from member governments of ITU, including admittance to the French Légion d'honneur.