The Men before Marconi—A Schoolboy Inventor—Marconi’s First Aerial—His Visit to England—The First Signals across the Atlantic—Marconi’s Faith in the Future.

AT Dundee stands an obelisk to the memory of James Bowman Lindsay, who died in that city on June 29, 1862. On one of its panels you may read: "A pioneer in electrical science; foretold the application of electricity as an illuminant, a motive power to replace steam, and substitute for coal in heating. He devised an electrical telegraph in 1832; suggested welding by electricity, produced a continuous electric light in 1835; proposed a submarine telegraph in 1843; and accomplished wireless telegraphy through water in 1853."

Lindsay was one of those great men born before their time, and therefore not understood by those among whom they live. It is on record that he not only devised a method of telegraphy without wires, but in 1859 read a paper before the British Association in which he stated that, if wires were run along the coasts of Britain and America and properly charged, he could send wireless messages across the Atlantic. And this, mind you, was nearly thirty years before Professor Hertz made his great discoveries with regard to etheric waves.

After Lindsay, the next experimenter in wireless was Clerk Maxwell, who, in a lecture before the Royal Society, submitted that wireless telegraphy would be possible by means of electric magnetic waves, the velocity of which, he concluded, was the same as that of light, a conclusion subsequently proved to be correct. In 1879 Professor D. Hughes found that a microphone reproduced sound from the telephone when at some little distance from the coils through which the current was passing.

In 1885 that well-known British electrician, Sir William Preece, sent currents between two insulated squares of wire which were a quarter of a mile apart, and in the following year he sent signals between two parallel telegraph wires four and a half miles apart. It was in 1887 that Hertz made his wonderful discoveries. He transmitted wireless signals across a large room by discharging electricity from a Leyden jar; this caused a spark to pass along the terminals of another circuit which had been tuned so as to be in electrical sympathy with the first. Hertz died in 1895, and a few months after his death Sir Oliver Lodge demonstrated to a meeting of the Royal Society that wireless messages could be sent across the lecture room by means of Hertzian waves, using as a detector or receiver the "coherer" invented by a French electrician, Branly.

By this time the world of science had become much interested in the wireless waves; but the man in the street, if he had heard of them, was very far from realizing the immense difference they were to make in his daily life.

To Senatore Marconi falls the credit of being the inventor of commercial wireless, and truly he is the Edison of the wireless world. Yet it must not be forgotten that in the year 1892 Sir William Preece had already established communication between the Welsh coast and the island of Flatholm, three and a half miles away, and that without the work of Preece, Hertz, and others Marconi’s success would have been impossible. More important than all was Branly’s invention of the coherer. Branly’s discovery was simply that if a small glass tube
The Coherer
The Coherer
The first detector used by Marconi for receiving wireless signals.
loosely filled with metal filings were placed in circuit with a battery and electric bell the current would not flow through strongly enough to ring the bell. When, however, waves from a Hertzian oscillator were allowed to pass through the filings, the metal particles would cohere, and so permit current to pass and ring the bell. The coherer constituted a detector for the newly discovered waves, and enabled others to go forward in making use of them.

When Professor Hertz was making his great experiments in 1886, Guglielmo Marconi was only twelve years old, having been born on April 25, 1874. But already he was keenly interested in electricity, and, as luck had it, his teacher, Professor Righi, was carefully following all that Hertz did. He procured the necessary apparatus, and showed his pupil Hertz’s own experiments. The young Marconi was bitten with an intense desire to discover a method of wireless telegraphy, and was not yet fourteen when he had set up rough aerials on either side of his father’s garden in Italy. These aerials were simply poles, to each of which was attached a sheet of tin. To the sending aerial he connected one terminal of his induction coil, the other he grounded. Using a spark-gap resonator he was able to receive signals over a distance of about a hundred yards.

It was a great feat for a mere boy, but, as Marconi knew well, others had already done as much, and he was ambitious to do more. Then came the Branly coherer, and this Marconi substituted for his resonator; not only that but he proceeded to improve it. After many experiments he used a mixture of nickel and silver filings, closing the tube with silver plugs. He devised, also, an automatic tapper for jarring the filings apart after the passage of each wave impulse. Then he made the further discovery that the taller the aerial, the greater the range, both for sending and receiving.

Before he was grown up, the young inventor was able to send Morse signals by wireless across several miles of space. When he was twenty-one, Marconi made up his mind to go to England and demonstrate there his new invention. He was most kindly received by Sir William Preece, who himself had been working for years at the problem, and through Sir William’s influence was given permission to set up his instruments at the General Post Office in London. We can readily credit the statement that every one was astonished that thick walls and roofs made no difference to the transmission of Marconi’s signals.

Marconi’s first patent for wireless was taken out in 1896, and this brought into the field at least a dozen other claimants, all of whom vowed that they had been before him. Marconi paid no attention; he simply went on working, and in 1897 conducted new tests on Salisbury Plain; he also succeeded in sending messages across the Bristol Channel, a distance of about twenty miles. In 1899 he established communication between Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight and Bournemouth or, rather, the Haven, which is the sandy peninsula lying between Poole Harbor and the sea. Here he had a tall aerial in the grounds of the Haven Hotel, and there I often used to see the quiet, grave-faced young man with his curiously intent expression and very lustrous eyes. At that time matters in the wireless world were moving with amazing rapidity, and the papers were beginning to be full of the inventor. In the spring of 1899 Marconi communicated across the English Channel. Then the new wireless telegraph saved a ship in distress in the North Sea. This incident was widely published throughout the world and gave the new invention an amazing advertisement.

Not that Marconi needed advertisement; the British Admiralty was now thoroughly awake to the vast importance of his discovery and paid him the comfortable sum of £20,000 for the use of it in the British Navy. The commercial world had also realized the value of wireless, and Marconi’s apparatus was installed on the East Goodwin lightship, off the coast of Kent. Marconi began to amass wealth at a rate unusual for a young inventor, yet it must not be thought that all was plain sailing. He met with much opposition, and his suggestion that it would soon be possible to wireless across the Atlantic was received with jeers as bitter as those flung at the pioneers of flight. The general opinion at that time, even among men of science, was that the distance to which wireless messages could be sent must be limited by the curvature of the earth. This curvature has always prevented and always will prevent long-distance signaling by means of flash lights, the heliograph, and all visible signals, and it was believed that wireless signals traveling in a straight line would radiate out into space and be lost. But Marconi pointed out that if this opinion was well founded, the earth’s curvature between St. Catherine’s in the Isle of Wight and the Lizard would require sending and receiving poles over a mile high; whereas, with poles only three hundred feet high, messages were passing with perfect ease.

Very early in his investigations Marconi was convinced that he would succeed in wirelessing across the Atlantic, and, in spite of all doubts and difficulties, he set himself to proving that his view was correct. A site suitable for transatlantic work was found at Poldhu in Southern Cornwall, and here, at the end of 1900, Marconi began to erect a station, his principal helper being Professor J. A. Fleming. By the following November the station was nearly ready. There were twenty masts, each two hundred and ten feet high, and the current of electricity used was as much as would have provided three hundred incandescent lamps. The wave generated had a length of about one fifth of a mile and the rate of vibration was about 800,000 to the second. With this installation Marconi stated that he would be able to send a distance of

Listening-in apparatus
The listening-in apparatus at Signal Hill

twenty-one hundred miles, and the fact that very few people believed his prophecy disturbed him not at all.

On December 6, 1901, Mr. Marconi with two assistants, Mr. Kemp and Mr. Paget, landed at St. John’s, Newfoundland. No one outside his own party knew that he was now going to try to telegraph across the Atlantic, for it had been given out that he merely intended to communicate with transatlantic steamships as they passed east and west some three hundred miles away. There was no question of building a receiving tower. Marconi meant to send up his wire by means of a kite, and in three days all was ready for the experiment. On December 10 the first kite was sent up—a huge affair of bamboo and silk. But the wind was too strong; the wire snapped, and the kite was blown far out to sea. Marconi next tried a fourteen-foot balloon filled with hydrogen, and sent it upward through thick fog. It had hardly reached the limit of the line that held it before it too broke away and was never seen again.

The weather next day was too bad for kite-flying, but on Thursday, December 12, Marconi and his assistants managed to get a kite up to about four hundred feet. The wind was blowing in great gusts, but the combined strength of all three men succeeded in holding the kite, and the wire was at last in position and all was ready for the great test.

Before leaving England, Marconi had instructed his assistants that as soon as they received from him a cable stating that all was ready, they should telegraph the Morse S ( . . . ). He now cabled to Poldhu to begin sending the signals at three in the afternoon (English time), continuing until six. At noon, Marconi sat waiting, a telephone receiver at his ear, in a room of the old barracks at Signal Hill. It was a cold, raw day, with the wind blowing in great gusts and the waves thundering at the base of the cliff three hundred feet below. For nearly half an hour silence reigned in the room, then at last came one sharp click as the tapper struck against the coherer. It was not the agreed signal, merely an indication that something was coming. The inventor listened for a time, then quietly handed the receiver to Mr. Kemp. "See if you can hear anything," he said.

Mr. Kemp put the receiver to his ear, and a moment later—faint, yet perfectly distinct—came three little clicks, the letter S tapped out a fraction of a second earlier in Cornwall. Again and again it came, and although the kite was jumping madly in the gale and often far below the requisite height, yet the signals continued to come through. On Friday and again on Saturday the signals came, but even then Marconi waited until Sunday before he gave his great news to the Press, and so to the waiting world. Sir Cavendish Boyle, Governor of Newfoundland, himself reported Marconi’s success direct to King Edward; and the Cable Company, which had exclusive rights in Newfoundland, alarmed at the great achievement which seemed to threaten its very existence, demanded that Marconi should cease at once from experimenting in its territory.

I have before me a cutting from a London newspaper of December 17, 1901, which gives an interesting example of the way in which the news of Marconi’s first wireless message across the Atlantic was received by the cable companies. The head of one of the great companies, a man who had had nearly fifty years’ experience of submarine telegraphy, when asked his opinion on Marconi’s feat, replied, "I don’t believe it. The eccentricity of electric currents are such as might easily lead to a mistake in such an experiment as that of Signor Marconi. With an earth current you often get a repetition of a movement by the transmitter a second and a third time, which might pass for the three dots of an S of the Morse code. Whether Signor Marconi has been successful or not—and I don’t believe he has—his system will never have any commercial value, because of the ease with which it can be tapped and the message diverted."

Yes, there were plenty of critics, plenty of objections, plenty of sneers, but Marconi did not trouble to answer them in print. Instead, he proceeded to fit up a receiving apparatus aboard the liner Philadelphia, and in February, 1902, he sailed from Cherbourg aboard this ship.

Before leaving Poldhu he gave his operators instructions that they should send signals at stated intervals during the week of the voyage. They were to operate one hour out of six, sending messages and signals in periods of ten minutes, alternating with five-minute rest periods. The time was to be the Greenwich Standard throughout, and as the ship’s chronometers were set uniform with this it was known to a second when to expect the signals. In one of the four staterooms on the upper deck occupied by Marconi’s party was a table on which stood the receiving apparatus. This was similar to that used afterward on all transatlantic liners, but for sending purposes its radius of action was not more than one hundred and fifty miles. From the cabin one wire passed through a porthole, and was fastened to the outside of the ship, thus establishing a ground. For the aerial four parallel wires extended to the top and then over one of the ship’s masts, one hundred and fifty feet above the deck.

The Philadelphia sailed just before Saturday midnight, and on the following morning Marconi got into communication with Poldhu. At two hundred and fifty miles, messages passed freely, and when the ship was five hundred miles from Poidhu, Chief Officer Marsden happened to be in the operating room when suddenly a message began to tick out, "All in order." Mr. Marsden could hardly credit the miracle, and, running out excitedly, told his brother officers what he had heard.

"Do you think we are going to believe that?" they laughed.

"You will see and hear for yourselves," retorted Marsden. A day later the operating room was crowded. Watch in hand, Marconi opened a brake on the coil of tape, and the white strip began to unroll. "Tap, tap, tap," and Marconi, with a little smile, looked up at the circle of amazed faces. "There it comes," he remarked; and sure enough another message had recorded itself on the tape, waving through the ether from a distance of nearly a thousand miles.

On each subsequent day, at the appointed times, the messages came through. When the ship was 1551 miles from Poldhu, Marconi, with the captain beside him, watched the signals come through in unbroken sequence for ten minutes. The last set came through when the Philadelphia was 2099 miles from Poldhu, but Marconi took it all quite quietly. "I knew the signals would come up to 2100 miles," he said, "because I had fitted the instrument to work that distance."

The year 1902 saw Mr. Marconi cruising in the North Sea in a warship lent by the Italian Government, and finding that there was no more difficulty in sending messages across land than water. The whole of France and the towering Alps proved no obstacle to the keeping up of wireless communication with his Italian station. In the autumn of that year Marconi set out for Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where a big station was being erected; and before the New Year communication was thoroughly established across the Atlantic, many long messages being sent and received. The first, despatched on December 19, was received by Lord Knollys at Buckingham Palace, and ran as follows:

Upon the occasion of first wireless, telegraphic communication across the Atlantic Ocean, may I be permitted to present, by means of this wireless telegram, transmitted from Canada to England, my respectful homage to His Majesty the King?—G. MARCONI, Glace Bay

The following message was received in reply:

From H.M. King Edward VII to Signor Marconi, Canada.— I have had the honour of submitting your telegram to the King, and I am commanded to congratulate you sincerely from his Majesty on the successful issue of your endeavours to develop your important invention. The King has been much interested by your expenments, as he remembers that the initial ones were commended by you from the Royal yacht Osborne in 1898.—KNOLLYS

Since 1902 wireless telegraphy has progressed more rapidly than any other of man’s great inventions, and in 1913 began to develop in the direction of wireless telephony, of which I shall have more to say in another chapter. In 1924—1925 the biggest wireless station in the world so far constructed was erected at Hilimorton, near Rugby. There are twelve tremendous masts, each weighing three hundred tons, and standing 820 feet high—that is, more than twice the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The girth of the masts may be appreciated from the fact that each is fitted inside with a lift capable of carrying four men. The new aerial is a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, and will be capable of communicating with any part of the globe.

It is rarely given to any inventor to live to see his invention grow from infancy to stalwart manhood. Marconi began his great work when he was a mere child, and his name was known over all the world at an age when most young men are still completing their university course. Even more wonderful developments of the discovery may be confidently looked for as time goes on. He himself said in an interview which appeared in the London Magazine in March 1922: "In twenty years the mysterious, all-pervading ether will be surging with human speech conveyed by ether waves. Whispered conversation with friends in lands as remote as Australia will probably be commonplace, and science having revealed to humanity another wonder of Nature will have forged thereby a fresh link in the much-desired chain of international friendship."

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman