Ra­dio pi­o­neer

Transat­lantic mes­sage rev­o­lu­tion­ized hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Canada's History - - BOOKS - To read more of the con­ver­sa­tion with Marc Raboy, visit CanadasHis­tory.ca/Mar­coniBook.

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.

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