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Marconi and the advent of wireless technology and radio

Posted in Communications, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science on Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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This edited article about Guglielmo Marconi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 789 published on 26th February 1977.

Marconi, picture, image, illustration

The young Marconi sending the first wireless message from Newfoundland to Cornwall by Peter Jackson

Flying kites is usually a summertime hobby for young people.

But on one historic occasion, the kite flyers were men, and they were doing it in December. On a bleak headland at St. John’s, Newfoundland, the gale shrieked; and the wind, sweeping down like a solid wall, had already carried away one of the kites.

Yet another one went up in its place, and the wire that held the kite trailed off into a lower room in a deserted building. There on the table was a collection of electrical apparatus and an earphone.

One of the men picked up the headphone and listened, hoping to hear the letter “S” in Morse Code. Three dots – blip, blip, blip.

Nothing. Not a sound. Hours went by, during which the imagination could have played tricks. Even when it came at last the listener could not be sure. He passed the earphone to his companion who listened and nodded. This was it.

Why was this an historic moment? It was so because the man who first heard the signal was a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi. The date was December 12, 1901, and the signal they heard had come through the air from Poldhu, in Cornwall, roughly 2,000 miles away.

The story of wireless – and particularly that of Marconi – cannot be told without first sweeping aside the word “inventor”.

It is a misleading word, suggesting a brilliant flash of inspiration which, at one bound, gives us a great boon. It hardly ever happens. Most of the great inventions came to fruition through the workings of many minds with one man finally gathering the threads together.

In wireless, Marconi was that man.

In 1864, Clark Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, put forward a theory that electromagnetic waves could be sent through the air.

In 1888 a German, Heinrich Hertz, produced such waves.

In 1890 a Frenchman, Edouard Branly, invented the “coherer” which could detect those waves at the end of their journey.

It all began with the production of a spark, which actually sent out the waves. But the range was limited to a few yards – and what practical value was there in that?

Marconi, at the age of twenty-one, began to experiment in the garden of his father’s house at Pontecchio, using sheets of copper as aerials. He managed to send signals over a range of about half-a-mile. Then he began to wonder how he could increase the range.

He found the answer, and made his own great contribution to the future of wireless. It was so simple, yet it was the one the experts had missed.

An aerial at ground level, he decided, was no use at all. It must be high up. This seems so obvious today, but it was an absolute novelty then.

Marconi had understanding parents. His father encouraged his experiments and his Irish mother thought that he should go to London with his invention.

In England, the young Italian met a well-known engineer, Campbell Swinton, who introduced him to William Preece, Chief of the Engineering Department of the Post Office. This was lucky again – for Marconi and the world. Preece was no stuffy official tied to the past, but a man of vision.

Within a matter of days, Marconi had his aerials on the roof of the London G.P.O., flashing signals to a station on the embankment of the River Thames. Then came tests on Salisbury Plain and the signal range leapt to 4 and a half miles. In the area of the Bristol Channel the range was over eight miles.

In 1897, Marconi formed his Wireless Telegraph Company and the first stations were erected.

But Marconi’s thoughts were way out over the horizon. He believed that given enough electrical power, he could span the Atlantic. Two transmitters, a hundred times more powerful than any that had been built before, were erected at Poldhu in Cornwall, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

The aerial systems were, for those days, a fantastic sight. Twenty masts were built in a great circle, laced with 400 wires which led down to the transmitter.

Gales wrecked both the aerial arrays almost at the same time and £50,000 worth of apparatus Рa great deal of money in those days Рwas silenced just as it was about to speak.

From his shattering despair, Marconi leapt back with determination. He could not wait until the stations had been repaired. A simple fan shaped aerial between two masts was erected at Poldhu, and Marconi with two companions, Kemp and Paget, set sail for St. John’s, Newfoundland.

High on a hill, overlooking St. John’s harbour, was a disused barracks hospital, and a ground floor room was lent to Marconi to house his listening apparatus.

There was no time to erect a proper aerial system. The time had come to get results, Marconi decided. The aerial wire would be borne aloft by a balloon or a kite.

On December 9, 1901, a cable message was sent to Poldhu telling the engineers to begin transmitting continuously three short dots, the Morse Code letter S.

For two whole days Marconi tried to fly his aerial. It was taken aloft by a balloon, which was snatched away by the gale. A kite was tried, and also lost.

Then at last the aerial was up and the listening vigil began, starting with failure and ending in triumph.

When the news broke that the Atlantic had been spanned by wireless, did the world rejoice? No! It didn’t believe it.

Marconi could produce no evidence, neither could he repeat the performance, for by now the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, which had a monopoly of message-carrying in Newfoundland, threatened legal action if more experiments were made.

For two whole months the world was left in doubt, until the liner Philadelphia, on a voyage from Southampton to New York, picked up the Poldhu signals over a distance of 2,099 miles.

Ten months later, in December 1902, two-way communication was established between Poldhu and a high-power transmitting station at Glace Bay, Canada, Radio had arrived!

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