Transatlantic message revolutionized human communications.
In his latest book, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, Marc Raboy explores the life and discoveries of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian electrical engineer who transmitted a signal across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland in 1901. Raboy is a professor in the Department of Art History & Communications Studies at McGill University in Montreal and the Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications. He spoke with Canada’s History publisher Melony Ward.
Marconi was a giant in telecommunications history. What exactly did he invent?
Marconi developed the first practical system for using radio waves to communicate. That’s the simplest way to put it. Basically, he was working as a young man in his parents’ attic in Bologna, Italy, in the early 1890s, just a few years after the German physicist Heinrich Hertz had announced the discovery of radio waves.
Once radio waves were actually discovered in a laboratory, there were all kinds of people trying to find different uses — scientists, theoretical physicists, and so on. Marconi’s idea was telegraphy without wires. He was interested in communication and began experimenting with radio waves to send Morse code signals from
one point to another — across a room basically. When he found that he could do this, he had the intuition, the notion, that it should be possible to use radio waves to send a signal from any point to any other point. And that is basically what he continued working on for the rest of his life.
In the first years, the initial attraction of wireless telegraphy was that you would be able to communicate between places where wires couldn’t go — for example, between ships at sea or to remote islands, where it was difficult to lay cables. It was interesting for commercial applications because the most advanced form of travel at the time was by ship. It also had very important military applications, because on a battlefield you couldn’t easily lay wires to send signals. Especially if your troops are moving around.
Yes, exactly. When he first developed this, he was advised by family members and friends of his family to patent his — I call it a system, rather than an invention — because he developed a piece of apparatus using components that were already around, that were in some cases associated with other inventors. But what he did was put these together in such a way that he could send wireless signals; he developed something new. After patenting it, he formed a company that had a single asset, which was his patent. And it proceeded to extend the patent worldwide.
What was the impact of the Marconi installation at the Strait of Belle Isle, between Labrador and Newfoundland? One of the first widespread uses of Marconi’s system was the creation of shore stations at the Strait of Belle Isle. There would have been a receiving station, which would have been able to receive signals from a passing ship once the ship came within a certain distance. The effective distance that the transmitter was able to operate was about forty or fifty miles [ about seventy- five kilometres]. When the ship came within that distance of the
shore station, there was the chance to exchange messages. … What was important in terms of transatlantic travel was that the ship was still a couple of days away from New York, and it was able to have contact early on.
Why did Marconi set up equipment on what is now the east coast of Canada? Once he created his company, and the company marketed the system in various ways, Marconi personally continued his research, trying to perfect the system. His main goal was increasing the distance. By early 1901, he was able to send signals from the west coast of England to Ireland, which was a distance of 225 miles [360 kilometres] — the longest distance then achieved.
He realized that the next step was to send the signal across the Atlantic and began looking for a shore station on the Atlantic coast of North America that would be close enough to England to receive the message. He decided to create a station at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and was working towards that goal, but then in September 1901 the station blew down in a gale. It took months to construct the receiving station, because you had to put up a mast that was two hundred feet [sixty metres] high. Marconi decided he didn’t want to wait any longer, because there were rivals trying to do the same thing. So he decided to set up a temporary receiving station in Newfoundland, which was substantially closer to Europe.
And not windy at all….
Yes! So what he did, believe it or not, talking about wind — he arrives in Newfoundland in December and goes up to Signal Hill [at St. John’s]. And he has this system that had been developed during the South African war by the one of the Baden-Powells, a brother of the famous Robert Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts. It involved raising a wire by kites. Marconi didn’t have the time and the resources to put up a permanent receiving mast, but he used Baden-Powell kites to lift the wire substantially high enough to receive the signal from England. And that was the first transatlantic message.
Guglielmo Marconi (left) and his assistants hoist a kite-aerial at Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland, during a re-enactment of the first transatlantic transmission on December 17, 1901.