For just a moment, stop and think about air traffic. Essentially, you have got some buildings surrounded by several strips of asphalt/concrete where hundreds of airplanes – each carrying dozens or hundreds of people – move around in flight and on the ground every day. Truly, there is no such thing as a routine or a low-stress day – the crews of air traffic control and ground control have to constantly be at the top of their game. To air traffic control, today’s word is vital, giving the personnel the point of view necessary to oversee all of the runways and incoming/outgoing flight activity around an airport. Naturally, we are talking about the tower.
Coming from the Old English torr, meaning ‘tower or watchtower’, which is itself derived from the Latin turris, meaning ‘citadel or high structure’, our word tower can simply be defined as a tall or lofty structure.
For a word that typically implies soaring into the heavens, it’s no surprise that many of the earlier usages of the term can be found in versions of the Bible. The first overall use of the term in Old English, from King Alfred’s 897 translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, writing: “Your nose is as the tower which is in Lebanon” (Ðin nosu is swelc swelce se torr on Libano ðæm munte.), which is a reference to Song of Songs 7:4. Moreover, in the 1382 Wycliffite Bible, Genesis 11:4, referring to Babel, mentions a “towr” (“Comeþ, and make we to vs a citee and a towr, whose heiȝt fulli ateyne vnto heuene.”), while, for the modern spelling, our term is first seen in the Tyndale Bible (1526), as Jesus tells the story of the rich man who planted a vineyard and…”built a tower in it, and then let it out to some vine-dressers” in Matthew 21:33.
Speaking of the heavens, this concept underlies one of the main benefits that we all consider when thinking of a constructed tower: it gives a superior vantage point, allowing us to see more and further than we can see from simply observing on the ground, which can be important in matters of defence and fortification, as can be seen in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry for 1097: “Many counties … were grievously oppressed on account of the wall that they were building about the tower”.
This idea of enhanced perspective and the ability to survey and control the surrounding area made towers ideal control centres, but, when it comes to applying towers to aviation, inspiration possibly came from a rather unlikely source: railroads. Considering the size and speed of trains as well as the importance of their cargo, proper usage of signalling control via block systems and railway signals is vital. As railway traffic became more congested, it was discovered that, by building signal boxes at height, operators would have the enhanced view to ensure safe and efficient transportation. This can be seen in the publication Everybody’s Magazine from 1909, which states: “The tower from which the traffic entering and leaving the Grand Central Station in New York city is directed, is located just outside the station itself.”
Beyond 1909, as air travel was invented and began to grow, the term, as it had been applied structurally, as a centre of control, and for overseeing transportation, was adapted, with the first usage coming from the October 21, 1920 issue of Flight International magazine, noting how: “The new lights consist of electric lamps..automatically controlled from the Central Control Tower.” Though likely referring to London’s Croydon Airport (the Heathrow of its day), which first introduced the concept of air traffic control, it’s worth noting that the first actual airport traffic control tower, which fully regulated arrivals, departures and surface movement of aircraft was constructed a decade later in Cleveland, Ohio.
Finally, the first know use of the sole word “tower” to refer specifically to the air traffic control tower can be found in British author Nevil Shute’s 1958 book, The Rainbow and the Rose, writing: “I’ll come up to the Tower when we land.” As for the shortening of “air traffic control tower” to simply “tower”, this is the product of pilot lingo, and, with pilots being exceptionally cool, people want to emulate them.