Why Mar­coni left New­found­land

The Compass - - OPINION -

New­found­lan­ders of­ten pro­claim that Sig­nal Hill in St. John’s was the place where Guglielmo Mar­coni re­ceived the first wire­less mes­sage ever trans­mit­ted across the At­lantic Ocean. We have ev­ery right to do so, and to claim that Mar­coni’s suc­cess marked the start of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion that has done so much to shape the way ev­ery­body in the world lives and works.

The Gov­ern­ment of New­found­land and Labrador’s cel­e­bra­tion of the Mar­coni cen­ten­nial in 2001 was con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that we still take pride in his achieve­ment. But nowhere dur­ing the year-long cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tions was there any men­tion that Mar­coni left New­found­land less than a fort­night af­ter he demon­strated that wire­less mes­sages could cross oceans, and nowhere was there any men­tion of the rea­son why he did so.

Mar­coni’s story is well-known. An Ital­ian, he had long been en­tranced by the pos­si­bil­ity of send­ing mes­sages through the air rather than through gi­ant ca­bles un­der­neath the At­lantic and the world’s other great oceans. Un­able to raise suf­fi­cient money in Italy to fi­nance ex­per­i­ments to prove his the­o­ries, he went to Lon­don in 1896. There, he was able to at­tract the fund­ing he needed. ( James Candow, in his Look­out: The His­tory of Sig­nal Hill (2011) sets the amount at $10 mil­lion in to­day’s Cana­dian cur­rency).

By 1899, Mar­coni had suc­cess­fully sent wire­less mes­sages across the 51 kilo­me­tres of the English Chan­nel, be­tween Eng­land and France. Em­bold­ened by this, he set out to send them across the At­lantic Ocean.

St John’s a sec­ond choice

He be­gan by build­ing a trans­mit­ting sta­tion at Poldhu Cove, in Corn­wall on the western edge of Eng­land. His idea was to send a mes­sage to Mas­sachusetts, 5,000 kilo­me­tres away. Equip­ment fail­ure caused him to aban­don this plan, how­ever, and he then chose St. John’s, 3,425 kilo­me­tres from Poldhu, as his eastern ter­mi­nus.

With the help of New­found­land’s gover­nor and prime min­is­ter, he set up his re­ceiv­ing ap­pa­ra­tus in the aban­doned Diph­the­ria and Fever Hospi­tal in Ross’s Val­ley, just be­low Sig­nal Hill. (The com­mon be­lief that he did so at Cabot Tower is wrong.)

Mar­coni ar­rived in New­found­land’s cap­i­tal on Dec. 6, 1901. He was coy about his in­ten­tions. Candow re­ports that he told the St. John’s news­pa­pers that he was go­ing to at­tempt “to make contact with ocean lin­ers ply­ing the ship­ping lanes south of Cape Race.” He spec­u­lates that Mar­coni did this “to fore­stall po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment should the ex­per­i­ment fail.” His con­cerns were base­less, how­ever.

Be­fore leav­ing Eng­land, Mar­coni had ar­ranged to have the Morse let­ter “S” — three dots — sent west­ward from Poldhu on Wed­nes­day, Dec. 11. Shortly af­ter noon, New­found­land time, he heard the sig­nal. He passed the re­ceiver to Ge­orge Kemp, hi s as­sis­tant. He, too, heard three dots. Both men heard them again on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions later that af­ter­noon.

There were many who doubted that Mar­coni ac­tu­ally heard any­thing other than static. He knew what he was lis­ten­ing for — the three dots — and he knew when the trans­mis­sion was to be made. There is no way to set­tle the ar­gu­ment defini­tively. Candow ar­gues con­vinc­ingly, on the ba­sis of all the avail­able ev­i­dence, that the two men did in fact hear “S,” and that Mar­coni’s “ev­ery sub­se­quent word and deed in­di­cated that a mir­a­cle had oc­curred”.

The story doesn’t end there. Less than a fort­night af­ter his tri­umphant suc­cess, Mar­coni sailed away from New­found­land, never to re­turn. He went on to Nova Sco­tia in Canada, New­found­land’s neigh­bour­ing Do­min­ion. It was from there, in Glace Bay, that he sent the first mes­sage east­ward across the At­lantic to Eng­land, in De­cem­ber 1902.

Why did Mar­coni not stay in New­found­land? And why did he leave so quickly? The an­swer is that he left to avoid a law­suit. And the threat to sue him, iron­i­cally, came about be­cause New­found­land was the place where the Trans-At­lantic un­der­sea ca­ble first came ashore, at Heart’s Con­tent.

In 1854, the New­found­land leg­is­la­ture — the House of Assem­bly and the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil — had granted a mo­nop­oly on tele­graphic com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the Colony to Cyrus Field, the man who had suc­ceeded in lay­ing a ca­ble across the At­lantic from Ire­land to New­found­land. The mo­nop­oly ran for 50 years. The An­glo-Amer­i­can Tele­graph Com­pany, suc­ces­sor to Field’s com­pany, threat­ened to sue Mar­coni on the grounds that he had bro­ken it.

No­body seems to have paid any at­ten­tion to the fact that the An­glo-Amer­i­can mo­nop­oly was for trans­mis­sion by over­land ca­bles; not wire­less trans­mis­sion. (The ac­tual words of the Act were that the Com­pany had the “sole and ex­clu­sive right to build, make, oc­cupy, take or work the said line or any line of tele­graph ... be­tween any ... points on the Is­land.”

The Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties heard about the threat, and promptly in­vited Mar­coni to come to Canada. He left St. John’s on Christ­mas Eve.

The Cana­dian Mar­coni Com­pany did come to New­found­land in the end. Its most pow­er­ful sta­tion, at Cape Race, went into ser­vice in 1904, when the mo­nop­oly ex­pired. Eight years later, in April 1912, the op­er­a­tors there picked up the dis­tress sig­nals from the doomed Ti­tanic, and passed the news of the dis­as­ter to the world.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an

MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing:

ed­wardm­roberts@gmail.com

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