The First Electronic Church of America
In the first year of the 20th century, a well-tailored young man of 27 named Guglielmo Marconi sat in a shack on a cliff in Newfoundland trying to receive a message on his new invention, the wireless telegraph. The significant thing about the message was not the message itself, but its origin. It was being sent to him all the way across the Atlantic -- on electromagnetic waves generated by one of his confederates in Cornwall, England. It was history's first long distance wireless radio communication.
Young Marconi meant business. He had borrowed more than 50,000 pounds from some of the largest banks in England in order to prove his hunch that radio was the modern miracle that could make him rich and famous. He had formed the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in London. He already had contracts with a number of shipping lines. He'd installed his wireless transmitters in the navies of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. And he had a contract to provide wireless telegraphy to the U.S. Navy. Failure now was out of the question -- despite the bad luck he was having. High winds kept blowing down the huge antennae he had constructed in England. High winds had ravaged his masts on the other side of the Atlantic, too -- on Cape Cod, sending him and his skeleton crew to Newfoundland. There, they decided to raise their antennae not on towers, but on big weather balloons and giant kites -- except that a series of stormy days in Newfoundland kept carrying off Marconi's cunning, his balloons and three of his four kites.
But, on a blustery December 12, 1901, Marconi and his assistants heard the faint transmission from across the Atlantic: dot, dot, dot. The letter S.
In the short history of electronic communications, there may have never been a more important day, or a more important discovery. The wireless telegraph was then a toddler, no more than six years old. But up until then, scientists and engineers were unanimous in their belief: you couldn't send a wireless message over the earth's horizon. Signals would just fly up into the heavens and disappear. Everyone knew that. Or thought they did.
Marconi and his men heard the signal some 25 times that day, but they made no announcements to the curious members of the press waiting in town. For three more days, they kept their windy vigil on Signal Hill. Finally, when they realized they were not likely to get any stronger signals, Marconi called for a photographer to come up and make a photographic record of the men who had made history here. On December 16, 1901, the world press headlined the scientific story of the year. Marconi had confounded the world's leading physicists. He proved that a message tapped out in Cornwall could be sent forth on an electromagnetic wave, and ride over the curving Atlantic at roughly the speed of light, curving over the sea as the earth curved.
Scientists then didn't know why that signal curved, but any physics teacher, any encyclopedia can now tell you why. It's because of something called the ionosphere.
The signals sent to Marconi followed the curvature of the earth, because the ionosphere reflects radio waves that strike it, bouncing them back to earth where they are bounced up again to the ionosphere and so on until the energy of the radiating waves dissipates. The ionosphere is a layer of ionized gas particles caused by the sun's radiation. It blankets the earth at a height of approximately 100 miles.
At first, some didn't believe Marconi hadtransmitted a wireless message all the way across the Atlantic. The man who had electrified the human voice and put it on wires way back in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell said, "I doubt Marconi did that. It's an impossibility."
Maybe Bell was skeptical because, if Marconi's wireless worked, who needed the expensive transatlantic cables that had already been laid across the ocean floor by Bell's colleagues at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company? Thomas Alva Edison, every bit the engineering equal of Mr. Bell, and more, was generous in his judgment. "I am astonished," said Edison. "I would like to meet this young man who had the monumental audacity to attempt and to succeed in jumping an electric wave clear across the Atlantic Ocean."
A reporter asked Edison if he thought Marconi was telling the truth. "Huh?" asked Edison. "What paper you with, young man? If Marconi says it's true, it's true." Edison had been reading about this young Italian genius. He knew that, six years before, late in the summer of 1895, Guglielmo Marconi made the first tentative wireless transmissions, at his family villa in Italy, and made his first public demonstration of wireless telegraphy a year after that, in 1896.
Guglielmo Marconi was only 22 years old in 1896, but he was already hard on the heels of Prof. Alexander Popov, and would soon surpass him, largely because he had better mentors and because he could pursue his dream in a more open, and frankly more capitalistic, society than Popov.
Marconi's father was a wealthy Italian businessman. And he also had an Irish mother, who had money of her own. She came from a wealthy distilling family, and she had good connections. She also had the intelligence to tutor young Billy herself, and, instead of sending her son to university, she persuaded a physics professor, Vincenzo Rosa, of a technical college near Bologna, to let her precocious son audit his classes.
Professor Rosa taught Marconi all he knew about electromagnetism -- about the mathematical proofs of James Clerk Maxwell, about experiments with electromagnetism by Heinrich Hertz, the inventions of Oliver Lodge in England, of Adolphus Slaby in Germany, of Edouard Branly in France. And then, in his third floor bedroom in the Marconi villa at Pontecchio, Marconi was soon ringing bells all over household with electromagnetic waves, by putting together elements of other men's inventions, and making improvements on them. The induction coils of Faraday, Hertz's wave emitter, Righi's spark gap, Branly's coherer, the telegraph key of Morse.
Out of these elements, Marconi was producing something new of his own, something that Popov had already done, but something, as far as we know, that Marconi had conceived independently, in his own Irish-Italian imagination. He would start doing wireless telegraphy right there in his third floor room in the Villa Grifone.
Then he moved his experiments outdoors, to see how far he could make his messages travel. He devised something he called "an antenna" and he learned that "grounding" at each end of the operation made his signals go farther. His older brother, Alphonso, was a willing assistant. Soon, young Marconi was sending wireless messages across his father's estate -- relying on his brother's flag signals to tell him when the messages were coming across. By the end of 1895, he was sending messages more than a mile away -- so far away that he could no longer see Alphonso's flags. When Alphonso got the radio message, he'd shoot off his father's shotgun.
A shotgun. It killed no one. But it heralded a new moment in the history of the world. It was aimed, significantly, into the air.
No one quite knew what to make of young Marconi's experiments. No one except Marconi's mother. She arranged for him to go to Rome, to seek some financial help from the government's Post and Telegraph Service. But the bureaucracy didn't understand, and sent him packing. "Our telegraph works," said the Italian minister of communication. "Why do we need a wireless telegraph?
Marconi's spirited Irish mom promptly decided to take Billy and his boxes of batteries and wires to England. She had friends there. She felt that someone in London would understand what Rome did not. After all, wasn't it an Englishman, William Gilbert, a physician at the court of Queen Elizabeth in the year 1600, who published the first book on electrical phenomena? Wasn't Dr. Gilbert the very first person to use the word "electricity?"
But the people in British customs didn't understand. They thought his transmitter was a bomb, and tried to smash it. When they finally figured out the contraption was harmless, they turned it back to Marconi. They said they guessed it wasn't a bomb after all. Marconi's mother, Anna, said, "Yes, it is. Just not the kind you think it is. It won't blow up the world. It will just blow down all its walls."
Young Marconi put his stuff back together. And then he paid a call on William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, and proceeded to show him what he had. By then, Marconi had already taken out a patent on his invention, and he would take out hundreds of other patents in the years to come. Soon, Marconi was giving wireless reports to the mainland from the Kingstown Regatta, from distances of 5 to 10 miles out to sea. And sending Queen Victoria reports concerning the health of her son, the Prince of Wales, who was recovering from a knee injury as he watched the regatta from the royal yacht.
In 1897, Marconi was allowed to register his Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited under the laws of England. He promptly started selling transmitters to shipping companies, and, with that, stock in the company. In October 1899, he traveled to the United States to supervise wireless reporting of the America's Cup yacht race between the 'Columbia' and the 'Shamrock' and, for that, he won a good deal of welcome attention from the press. The U.S. Navy invited him to demonstrate wireless telegraphy between the cruiser New York and the battleship Massachusetts, some 35 miles apart.
The Navy was impressed. They wanted to put his wireless systems on all Navy vessels, torpedo boats, patrols, scouts and despatch boats. They only had one problem, though. As one officer explained to Marconi: "When only one transmitter is sending, everything's just fine. When two transmitters are sending at the same time, all the receiving wires within range pick up both messages simultaneously. We can't read either one of them. How do you propose solving this, Mr. Marconi?"
Marconi said he had left the necessary equipment in England, but promised to go back and get it. He was bluffing. He had no equipment to bring any order out of the electromagnetic mess. But, after setting up a U.S. corporation, he returned to England, hoping to find an answer. If he could just get the sending station to send out a particular kind of wave, and get the receiving station to home in on the same wave.... He immediately hired England's most celebrated electronics wizard, John Ambrose Fleming, to help him, and, in 1900, he received patent # 7777, for "Improvements in Apparatus for Wireless Telegraphy" -- "to control the action so as to cause intelligible communication to be established with one or more stations only out of a group of several receiving stations."
Getting those exact numbers on his patent -- 7777 -- was a coincidence. But it was a number that was full of good omens. Marconi proposed to link his receiver and transmitter by setting up four circuits on the same wave length -- one each in the exciter and antenna of the transmitter, and one each in the detector and antenna of the receiver. Four sevens, four circuits in harmony. In other words, Marconi discovered tuning -- the radio frequency spectrum. Kilohertz. Megahertz. Gigahertz. Ghosts moving at different speeds. The actual transfer of energy from transmitter to receiver, in waves of varying lengths, having tone or color of various shades, based on some strange kind of mutual attraction between similar energy levels. Attraction. Mutual attraction.
By this time, Marconi was also attracting other assistants of high caliber, like J.A. Fleming, to work with him. He readily confessed, "I need all the help I can get. I read everything, absolutely everything I can find on telegraphy. I discount nothing. I discount no one, no idea, no matter how far fetched, no matter how simple-minded. I try it -- at least once.
Degna Marconi, Marconi's daughter by his first marriage, reported that all of her fathers assistants called him Mr. Marconi. "At the same time, they said he held himself ready to pitch in at any kind of job that needed doing. His wonderful hands were more expert than theirs. He could get the kite in the air when all of them failed."
There was no boastfulness in Marconi. He listened to praise and enjoyed it, because he was Italian. He listened to praise and forgot it, because he was also Irish. What he was was intense. He observed acutely. He had a keen ability to concentrate. And he was a hard worker. He received many honors, including a share in the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909.
As an Italian national, Marconi played an active role in World War I and represented Italy at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Although he continued to perform experiments in the new field of RADIO, which evolved from wireless telegraphy, his later efforts were mainly directed to affairs of state. When he died in Rome, he was accorded the unique tribute of a two-minute silence by all radio stations throughout the world.