The origins of Marconi and wireless

Emerson chose Bologna to launch their Smart Wireless system in Europe, in homage to Marconi: reviewing the reports from attendees, Processingtalk suggests some other links with Marconi and wireless

Eoin O Riain of the Read-out website in Ireland opened his report on last week’s Emerson launch of their “Smart Wireless” products into Europe with the following paragraph.

”The Emerson launch of their Wireless Offering in Europe was held in the historic city of Bologna, a most significant place to launch such a product and concept as it is the birthplace of Marconi, discoverer of wireless communications: Indeed the editors and representatives of 60 or so European publications, including Read-out, were treated to the unique experience of a tour of the Villa Griffone, his childhood home, and where in his teenage years he started his experimenting”.

See the full text of his report on his own page http://read-out.net/me/070111epm.html.

Similarly Andrew Bond reported on the event in his Industrial Automation Insider newsletter, January issue, http://www.iainsider.co.uk, as follows.

”Emerson brought its in-plant wireless technology to Europe, by summoning the European press to Bologna, the birthplace of Guglielmo Marconi.

Perhaps aware that they may have put some European [Editor’s] noses out of joint by launching Smart Wireless in North America – and actively trying to prevent the European press from reporting it – they wheeled out an arsenal of North American and European big guns from the Emerson management.

There was not a whole lot more in the main Bologna presentations that had not been seen in Nashville conference at the Emerson Exchange in Orlando 12 months earlier”.

This had been the subject of several previous reports from Andrew in his Insider newsletter.

So did Emerson get it right by taking 60 Editors to Bologna, to pay homage to the place where Marconi started his wireless communications career? Certainly Marconi grew up in Bologna, where his interest in the subject of wireless took off in 1894, after the death of Hertz, and he worked at home.

But he was quoted as finding little interest in his work in Italy: remember he was only 20 years old at the time, and in modern parlance might have been called a technology nerd.

He moved to London with his mother in 1895.

Eoin at Read-out reminds us (all the time) that Marconi’s mother was born Anne Jameson, of the Irish (Whiskey) Distillery family, so no doubt she had considerable influence in London Society in these Victorian times.

Somehow, Marconi gained the interest and support of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, and demonstrated wireless transmissions on Salisbury Plain and across the Severn Estuary.

He presented lectures in London, such as “Telegraphy without Wires” at the Toynbee Hall in December 1896, and “Signalling through Space without Wires”, given to the Royal Institute in June 1897.

As a result of this work in England, his first Patent, a UK Patent, was filed June 1896, and granted in July 1897, (which is 110 years ago).

1897 was a very busy time for Marconi.

Not without sound financial backing, presumably from his family, he founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in London, and soon changed the company name to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company.

He had turned down an immediate British Post Office offer to buy his company.

He did demonstrate his wireless technology in La Spezia back in Italy, but in November, 1897, Marconi’s first permanent transmitting station was erected at The Needles, near Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight in the south of England.

The next year saw the opening of the world’s first “wireless telegraph” factory, the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, England, employing around 50 people.

One of the first marketing objectives and targets for his venture was to transmit wireless messages to transatlantic ships, which is why the Isle of Wight was chosen for the first transmitter.

Sending messages across the Channel and to ships passing up and down the Channel were routine.

For the record, Marconi also demonstrated his wireless transmissions in Ireland, with a test for Lloyds taking place in May 1898, transmitting between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island.

One of the major technology developments and high-tech discussion topics in Victorian times was the world wide web network – of submarine telegraph cables that is.

They were the boom business of the era, transmitting messages, using morse signals, all around the world.

One of the major processors and terminals for this web was in Cornwall, where the cables came ashore from under the various Oceans at Porthcurno, on the West side of Mount’s Bay.

The first cable had been laid from Porthcurno in 1872, linking to India, a colony at the time.

This ‘Victorian Internet’ is explained in a book of that name by Tom Standage, see http://www.tomstandage.com, and he explains the problems with hackers, chat-rooms and information overload, which have parallels in current times.

Marconi had his sights set on jumping on this web-based growth market, and competing with the Eastern Telegraph Company at Porthcurno by winning their transatlantic traffic for his wireless system.

Marconi bought a site on the opposite side of Mount’s Bay, at Poldhu, in 1900, and established a radio station there.

In January 1901 the station at Poldhu was set up and received their first radio message from the Isle of Wight, operating at 1.7MHz.

The first transatlantic morse message by radio was claimed to be transmitted in December 1901 from Poldhu, to St John’s in Newfoundland, 2100miles away, where Marconi claimed to have heard the signal using a kite-supported 400foot receiver antenna.

It was a repeated “S”, 3 dots in morse code, in the daytime, not independently verified, and very similar to the static noise.

There was some scepticism over his claim! To provide verification, Marconi sailed from the UK to the USA on the SS Philadelphia in 1902, recording signals sent from the Poldhu station.

Signals were received at up to 2099miles, but only at night, when the reception was much better: in the daytime 700miles was the maximum range achieved.

A signal was sent across the Atlantic in the reverse direction much later, in December 1902 from Nova Scotia in Canada.

Later, a message from Roosevelt to King Edward VII was reputed to be the first message transmitted from the USA to Europe, sent to Poldhu in January 1903, but although a regular transatlantic telegraph service did start in 1907, it was very intermittent.

This delay of over a year in wireless messages coming back to Europe out of America is interesting: there’s a parallel there with another part of this story! Meanwhile, Europe had been getting on with applying the wireless technology.

The Marconi Station at Poldhu is no longer there: the original Hotel built for the workers is now a retirement home.

Further inland in that same Lizard Peninsula, are the Goonhilly Downs, which is where the Goonhilly satellite telephone communications UK base station is situated.

Goonhilly still handles a lot of traffic across the Atlantic – around 10 million telephone calls a week, computer data, fax, video conferencing, and telex from the Atlantic and Indian Ocean areas.

Goonhilly is now also the terminal for the fibre optic transatlantic cables that have replaced the original wire based telegraph cables of the 1800s.

In modern internet parlance Goonhilly is probably an important node on the mixed wired and wireless and optical fibre-based communications network created to run the Internet.

What happened to the original Eastern Telegraph Company at Porthcurno? It expanded with the communications technology (dot.dash) boom, but in 1928 it merged with their main competitor, i.e Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company to form Imperial and International Communications: this was renamed Cable and Wireless in 1934.

The six fibre optic cables for Goonhilly enter the sea at Porthcurno, and are still in operation, but you cannot see them.

All you can really see at Porthcurno is the remains of a wireless aerial set up in 1901 to listen in to the Marconi transmissions, and spy on what he was up to, from his Poldhu site, visible across the bay! So was Bologna the right place to visit? The Emerson wireless launch possibly overlooked the world wide communications that started before Marconi even thought of wireless.

Most of the reports to date on their wireless ideas has been available over the modern internet, through Goonhilly, as a result of US published data.

So did Emerson get the launch right? Maybe, for Editors that like Italian country pasta and ten course meals, according to the report from Andrew Bond.

My vote would have been for a trip to Goonhilly, as a radio network node, and where wireless can be said to interface with both dot.com and dot.dash! But then I have a bias towards trips to Cornwall!.

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