Franz von Ernst joined ITU on the eve of a period of war and presided during the great changes that followed. These included ITU becoming a specialized agency of the United Nations with effect from 1 January 1949. In conformity with UN practice, “Director of the ITU Bureau” was changed to “ITU Secretary-General.” Ernst was the first person to have that title.
The son of a railway stationmaster, Ernst was born in Berne in 1879. Although he gained a qualification as a lawyer, he became a political journalist with a focus on Catholic affairs. Such was his skill and reputation, he was named Chairman of the Bernese Press Association, and later Vice-Chairman of the Swiss Press Association.
Ernst took on the role of secretary to the Swiss Federal Council from 1920 until 1934, when he was named to replace Joseph Räber as Director of the ITU Bureau. He continued in the post for fifteen years until his retirement from ITU at the age of seventy.
It was a time when issues of great complexity had to be faced. Firstly, Ernst had to guide ITU through the Second World War with all its disruptions. Afterwards, he organized the first postwar International Telecommunications Conference and the International Radio Conference that took place alongside it in Atlantic City in 1947.
The 1947 conferences decided on fundamental changes to ITU’s structure and functions, and, with the new title of ITU Secretary-General, Ernst was responsible for carrying out the resulting practical arrangements, including transferring the ITU Bureau – renamed the General Secretariat – from Bern to Geneva. The expanded volume of work meant that the number of ITU’s staff grew from thirty to almost two-hundred in little more than a year. Ernst met all these challenges successfully, leading ITU into a bright future.