Guglielmo Marconi was born in 1874 into a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy,
and educated by private tutors. He developed an interest in science,
particularly the work of German physicist Heinrich Hertz on the transmission
of electromagnetic waves through the air. Though he failed the entrance exam
at the University of Bologna, Marconi began experimenting with wireless
telegraphy on his own in 1894. He discovered that by connecting his
transmitter and receiver to the earth (grounding them), and then increasing
the height of the antenna, he could extend the range of the signal. Despite
this important technical breakthrough, the Italian government declined to
sponsor his work.
Marconi moved to Great Britain where his work received greater support. In
1896 he patented his first device for wireless telegraphy and in 1897 found
investors for his Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, which began
manufacturing radio sets that were able to transmit and receive messages
in Morse Code.
||Guglielmo Marconi, n.d.
Marconi began experimenting with wireless
telegraphy on his own in 1894.
From J.A. Cochrane, The Story of Newfoundland
(Montreal: Ginn and Company, 1938) 210.
Telegraph companies still all but monopolized the transmission of messages
through their systems of cables, but the potential of wireless telegraphy to
ships at sea was apparent. The Royal Navy, which for centuries had relied on
signal flags and lights to communicate between ships at sea, equipped three
warships with Marconi sets in 1899. Privately-owned commercial ships soon
followed. Marconi demonstrated the effectiveness of the system in coastal
waters by sending a wireless message across the English Channel to France.
It remained unclear how far a radio wave could travel. Many scientists
understood that a radio wave, as with the part of the electromagnetic
spectrum we see as light, travels only in a straight line from the point
at which it was produced. They doubted whether radio waves could bend around
the curvature of the earth and thus be received over the horizon.
Marconi believed that radio waves would follow the earth's curvature,
making communication to ships at sea feasible, and designed an experiment
to prove his contention. If successful, the experiment would also provide
a "stunt" that would give the relatively new technology, and Marconi's
company, world-wide publicity. This was to be the transmission of a wireless
message across the Atlantic.
Marconi constructed a transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, in the west of
England and another at Cape Cod in Massachusetts. When a storm damaged the
Poldhu antenna, and it had to be replaced by a smaller one, Marconi decided
to change the North American destination to St. John's Newfoundland. In any
event, the Cape Cod station was itself destroyed in a storm.
In December 1901 Marconi assembled his receiver at Signal Hill, St. John's,
nearly the closest point to Europe in North America. He set up his receiving
apparatus in an abandoned hospital that
straddled the cliff facing Europe on the top of Signal Hill. After
unsuccessful attempts to keep an antenna aloft with balloons and kites,
because of the high winds, he eventually managed to raise an antenna with
a kite for a short period of time for each of a few days. Accounts vary, but
Marconi's notes indicate that the transatlantic message was received via this
|Kite Aerial, Signal Hill.
A drawing of the kite aerial used at Signal Hill for reception of the first
Transatlantic wireless signal, 12th December 1901.
Artist unknown. From Marconi Company, Marconi Jubilee 1897-1947
(Chelmsford, England: Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company Limited, 1947)
At the appointed time each day his staff in Poldhu transmitted the Morse
code letter "s" - three dots. This signal had been chosen as the most easily
distinguished. On the 12 December Marconi pressed his ear to the telephone
headset of his rudimentary receiver and successfully heard "pip, pip, pip"
- 1700 miles from the transmitter. This demonstrated that transatlantic
wireless communication was possible. While "ground waves" followed the
curvature of the earth for only a short distance over the horizon, "sky waves" also bounced off the ionosphere in the upper atmosphere and returned
to earth, which although unknown at the time, had allowed Marconi to
demonstrate that radio communication over great distances was possible.
||Guglielmo Marconi, December 1901.
Marconi at Signal Hill with instruments used to receive
the first Transatlantic signals.
From Marconi Company, Marconi Jubilee 1897-1947
(Chelmsford, England: Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company Limited, 1947)
Through the cables of the telegraph companies, the news of Marconi's feat
spread throughout North America and Europe. The potential of wireless
telegraphy was immediately apparent, and Newfoundlanders seized the potential
for their country, which could be at the forefront of a new industry. Marconi
was interested in the commercial potential of wireless telegraphy, and the
Newfoundland government encouraged him to construct a wireless station at
Cape Spear, the easternmost point in Newfoundland and Labrador.
But the new technology faced resistance from those who owned the
transatlantic telegraph cables. The telegraph industry had invested a great
deal of money in laying cables, and did not intend to allow a competitor to
enter the business without a fight. In 1854 the Newfoundland government had
granted Anglo-American Telegraph Company a 50 year monopoly upon telegraphic
communication, in exchange for their laying a cable from St. John's to the
island's west coast and across the Cabot Strait to the rest of North America.
The terms of the act included a guarantee no other company would establish
facilities in the colony for telegraphic communication though wires or any
other means. This did not expire until 1904. Marconi knew of the monopoly, and
to avoid Anglo-American blocking his experiment he deceived the press as to
his real purpose in Newfoundland, claiming that he was experimentally
communicating with ships at sea. This deception also avoided embarrassment
if the attempt failed. Within days of Marconi's
successful reception of the first signal, lawyers for Anglo-American served
notice that they would sue for damages if Marconi persisted in receiving
telegraphic messages in Newfoundland. Marconi immediately replied that even
before hearing from Anglo-American's lawyers he had decided against
establishing a wireless telegraphy station in Newfoundland, and promised
to cease his experimentation. As a result, Marconi could not repeat the
transmission for the many government officials and excited members of the
public who wanted to see a demonstration for themselves. They were treated
to a lecture on the theory of wireless transmission, and a demonstration of
how an apparatus could ring a bell at one end of the room by an operator
pressing a switch at the other end.
Whether Marconi intended to establish a wireless telegraphy station in
Newfoundland before Anglo-American threatened to sue for damages is unclear.
The Newfoundland government and public were excited by the possibility that
he would. The local newspapers bristled with letters objecting to
Anglo-American's position, but public opinion mattered little. Regardless of
Marconi's earlier intentions, when faced with the possibility of a protracted
legal battle with a well-financed commercial rival, or having to delay the
construction of his station for three years, he left Newfoundland to find
another site. Sensing an opportunity, the Canadian government was quick to
offer Marconi a suitable site for one of his wireless telegraphy stations,
and he soon constructed his station at Glace Bay on Cape Breton Island, where
no legal monopoly over telegraphy existed.
The difficulties with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company was not the end
of Marconi's association with Newfoundland. He returned to the island in 1904
to install a wireless station at Cape Race, the station that was later to
receive the SOS message from the Titanic in 1912, and in 1920 he was
on Signal Hill to test a long-range transmitter and receiver. In another
dramatic stunt, the S.S. Victorian sailed from England toward
Newfoundland to see at what distance the wireless transmission of the
human voice could be distinguished. Initial contact occurred when the ship
was about 1200 miles from St. John's, and reception improved as the ship
Marconi continued to experiment with long-wave and short-wave transmission
as well as to manage his business interests until his death in 1937. His work,
and that of other scientists and inventors, had revolutionized communications
at sea and on land and had created whole new industries, such as radio
broadcasting. Marconi's patents and investments made him wealthy and his
scientific achievements led to his sharing the Nobel Prize for Physics in
1909. But he is primarily remembered for his reception of the first wireless
signal across the Atlantic Ocean at Signal Hill.
© 2001, Jeff Webb
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