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Marconi’s first radio broadcast: 125 years ago

todayMay 13, 2022 25 5

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An amazing experiment that changed the way the world communicates forever.

On May 13th 1897 Italian physicist and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi succeeded in sending a simple message using radio broadcast across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Sending the morse code for ‘s’ from Poldhu in Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada more than 2,000 miles away. Other scientists at the time believed that the range of the transmission would be limited to around 200 miles by the curvature of the earth.

Born in 1874 in Bologna, Italy to an Italian father and Irish mother, Marconi studied physics and after learning about German physicist Heinrich Hertz’s experiments became very interested in the transmission of radio waves. Beginning his own experiments in 1894 where he succeeded in sending a signal over 1.5 miles using radio waves.

After garnering no attention or encouragement in Italy, Marconi moved to England in 1896 to continue his experiments. His team, including his assistant George Kemp, set up a transmission tower on the island of Flat Holm halfway across the Channel. Their original tests were a failure, with team members in Lavernock waiting for a signal that would never arrive. On May 13th of that year, the instruments picked up a signal. Marconi’s voice speaking clearly saying “CAN YOU HEAR ME”.

Marconi’s team sent a message across the Bristol Channel from Brean to Lavernock in Wales. [BBC]
With this success the team travelled to Brean Down Fort, south of Weston-super-Mare to continue their experiments. Here a further message was sent at a distance of nearly 10 miles, creating a new record of it’s kind. This was the first big step in changing the way the people talked to each other forever.

“Before Marconi, you had to use telegraph wires to contact people but with radio you could contact ships instantly”

– Dave Dyer, chairman of the Weston-super-Mare Radio Society

In 1901 came the first of Marconi’s greatest achievements. This was the year he received the first message sent from England at the St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. The transatlantic transmission won him worldwide fame. Although plenty was still to be learned about the behaviour of radio waves over long distances. Marconi himself believed that the radio waves would follow the curvature of the earth. However, the signal travelled from it’s creation in England, into space and was reflected off the ionosphere and back down to Newfoundland. Marconi himself would continue to be a leading role in radio discoveries and innovations over the next three decades.

Titanic’s ‘CQD’ distress call was picked up by the wireless operator of the RMS Celtic over 700 miles away

A major example of how this technology changed the world was during the sinking of the Titanic.  Jack Philips, a wireless operator sent out a ‘CQD’ message to ships nearby. Mr Philips was an employee of the Marconi Company and went down with the ship as he continued the broadcast. Herbert Samuel, Britain’s Postmaster General, said

“Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi and his marvellous invention”

Two months after his Weston experiments, Marconi set up the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd. One of six founders of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922.  The company’s first station, 2LO, was broadcast from Marconi’s house and the headquarters of his company.

Marconi’s radios were designed to appeal to the mass market, rather than to amateurs who created their own complicated experiments. The Radio soon became a pastime for the entire family. Broadcasting news reports from all over the country, a more immediate and revolutionary.

Written by: Michael Dearsley

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