Committed to connecting the world

Past and Present Senior Officials

​ ​ Search the History PortalClick here to search the History Portal

Emil  FREY

Director from 11 March 1897 - 1 August 1921



Taking the ITU Bureau into the twentieth century was a soldier who had fought at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, and who served two terms as president of Switzerland.

Emil Johann Rudolf Frey was born in 1838 in Arlesheim in the Swiss canton of Basel. His father (also Emil) was a liberal politician and President of the Supreme Court. At the age of 22, Frey emigrated to the United States, which plunged into civil war in 1861, just a year after he arrived.

Frey enlisted as a private in the unionist 24th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. By 1863, he had risen to become acting colonel of the 82nd Regiment, which, in July that year, fought at Gettysburg: the costliest battle in US history in terms of casualties. Although the unionist side won, Frey was taken prisoner. He was held for eighteen months until being exchanged for a confederate prisoner who had been sentenced to death. Some twenty years later, upon his return to the United States as Swiss ambassador, Frey recalled “the bloody drama” of the war, but said he was glad to see that its scars had vanished.

When the war finished in 1865, Frey went back to Switzerland to recuperate. He had intended to return to the United States and become a businessman, but instead was elected as a member of Basel’s government. Seven years later he was elected to the Swiss National Council. He was its president in 1875-1876, and again in 1894. Given his military background, he focused on defense matters, including improvements to fortifications at Gothard. The government also gave him the position of Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States, which Frey occupied for six years from 1882.

In 1897, following his retirement from his second period as a member of Switzerland’s National Council, Frey was nominated as Director of the ITU Bureau to replace Timotheus Rothen. He held the post for almost a quarter of a century and took part in the International Telegraph Conferences of 1903 in London and 1908 Lisbon. After leaving ITU in August 1921, Frey died, two months after his eighty-fifth birthday, on Christmas Eve 1922 after a long and very eventful life.