Who invented the Wireless Telegraph?

According to many people, Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph.  In fact, his name was so joined with wireless telegraphs that for many years’ telegraphs were called Marconigrams.  However, he wasn’t the first to make wireless transmissions nor did he invent most of the devices he used in his experiments.  How did this basically uneducated man make a telegraph empire, win a Nobel Prize, and destroy Nikolas Tesla’s life?

In the summer of 1894, a 20-year-old Irish-Italian man named Guglielmo Marconi read an obituary of Heinrich Hertz and was inspired to make the wireless telegraph go around the world.  Marconi was oddly uneducated.  I say odd because Marconi came from a very wealthy family: his father was Italian nobility and his mother was an heiress of the whiskey fortune from Jameson & Sons.  However, Marconi’s Protestant mother didn’t want him to, “come into contact with the great superstition that is commonly taught to small children in Italy.”  Therefore, Marconi was educated by a string of tutors who gave him a sporadic education that, with his Mother’s permission, skipped anything he didn’t like, including most math and physics!

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi

The obituary of Hertz mentioned Hertz’s greatest accomplishment: he created an invisible electromagnetic wave that traveled and acted as a light wave.  In other words, Hertz discovered radio waves!  Hertz had created a wave with an antenna attached to an induction coil and received it by looking at a teeny tiny spark in a ring receiver.  If Marconi was going to use Hertzian waves to send long-distance wireless telegraphs then the first thing he needed was a better receiver.  Luckily for Marconi, an Englishman named Oliver Lodge had found one.   

Lodge had met Hertz and was profoundly sad to hear of his passing.  To honor him, Lodge decided to give a talk on “The Work of Hertz,” focusing on Radio waves.  However, to make a good public demonstration, he needed a more dramatic way to demonstrate that the waves travel long distances.  For that reason, Lodge decided to use a tube with metal filings in his receiver.  Four years earlier, a French Physicist named Eduard Branly had shown that metal filings in these tubes would stick together or cohere when they were in the presence of a radio wave and therefore have a significantly lower resistance (which is why Lodge called it a coherer).  Lodge had the bright idea of setting up a separate circuit with an antenna, a battery, a coherer, and a current meter that turned a mirror so that it was visible to all when the current changed.   When he created a radio wave on one side of the room, the metal in the coherer stuck together and became conductive so that the current meter turned!  In other words, Lodge made the first known wireless signal that could be easily detected.  Lord Rayleigh told Lodge, “There is your life work!”  But instead, Lodge went on vacation and then became distracted with other work and mysticism.

Marconi, however, was not distracted.  In fact, he was possessed.  Once he read of Lodge’s experiment, he spent thousands of hours improving the coherer through trial and error.  Marconi created a coherer that was a thin small tube with only a tiny v-shaped area for the metal shavings in a partial vacuum.  Marconi also found that a tall antenna worked better than a short one and an antenna that was grounded (stuck in the ground) at the top of a hill worked even better.

marconi coherer
Marconi coherer

These inventions were important, but Marconi’s biggest input has to do with his complete lack of understanding of basic Physics.  See, at the time, no one thought Radio waves could travel that far because they move in a straight line and the Earth is curved.  It is like having a really bright light on a lighthouse: after a certain distance, you can’t see it no matter how bright it is.  Marconi didn’t have a good answer for this, he was just really, really convinced that it would work out – somehow.   Still, he needed a way to make a very powerful radio wave.  And, luckily for him, Nikola Tesla had already figured that out.    

Back in the summer of 1889, Nikola Tesla had heard about “the miracle” of Hertz’s waves at the World’s Fair in Paris.  Inspired, he adjusted the transmitter by using an AC source instead of a DC battery and an interrupter and moving the position of the capacitor (or condenser) and making it variable.  This “oscillating transformer” made an extremely high voltage alternating current and Tesla patented it in April of 1891.  What he invented was quickly called a “Tesla coil” and it was a sensation.  Tesla wasn’t interested in long-distance telegraphs, he had loftier ideals: long-distance wireless lighting, and then electrifying the atmosphere, and even making the whole Earth “quiver” with electricity. All of this, by the way, is total nonsense, but they had no way of knowing that at the time.  In fact, in March of 1901, J.P. Morgan gave Tesla $150,000 for a giant whole-Earth transmission tower!

Meanwhile, Marconi was busy trying to build his transmitter and receiving towers. To make a powerful radio wave he outright stole some of Tesla’s patents.  At first, Marconi’s patent was rejected by the patent office as being too similar to Tesla’s previous ones.  Undeterred, Marconi left the details to the lawyers and built giant radio receivers & transmitters in Cape Cod and in Cornwall, England.  The machine in cape cod was so loud that it was affectionately known as “the thunder factory.” 

On December 12, 1901, Marconi said that he heard an SOS in Cape Cod from England over 2,200 miles away.  I used the phrase “said that he heard” because there was much doubt at the time whether he actually did hear the signal and now we are completely convinced that he did not (radio waves at that frequency don’t go that far in the day).  Because of the skeptics, two months later Marconi listened to signals from Cornwall on a ship as it sailed away (with people to verify it) and got a message as far as 2,000 miles away but only at night.  During the day he could only get signals at 700 miles.  Marconi called this “the daylight effect.” His daughter wrote that he yelled, “Damn the sun! How long will it torture us?” Marconi had the odd theory that the wave skimmed along the surface of the Earth due to the fact that he grounded his antennae and the sunlight somehow acted like a fog, and Tesla thought the signal was going through the earth just as he had predicted with no reason for it not to work during the day.   Later that year Oliver Heaviside (the man who condensed Maxwell’s equations from 20 to 4) solved this riddle.  He thought that a part of the atmosphere reflects the radio wave so that it could bounce along the surface and the ground.  He also thought that this layer had more complexity during the day so that the waves would often bend instead of bounce.  Therefore, during the day, it was harder to get the wave to travel long distances, as it would often just leave the Earth as scientists had originally predicted.

Wireless Telegraph Empire

Irrespective of why Marconi had proven that Radio signals would travel much farther than they should have if they traveled in straight lines.  Marconi was proud to proclaim, “There is no longer any question about the ability of wireless telegraphy to transmit messages across the Atlantic.”   

When Tesla heard about Marconi’s accomplishments he was unconcerned saying, “Marconi is a good fellow.  Let him continue.  He is using seventeen of my patents.”  However, that good feeling was destroyed in 1904 when the patent office reversed their rulings and gave the patents to Marconi!  At the same time, J. P. Morgan was getting pretty frustrated with Tesla and the “money pit” of a tower.  Marconi’s method was cheaper and was proven to work.  Morgan stopped funding Tesla, and Tesla had to give up the project and had a nervous breakdown he died penniless 39 years later.  A few months after Tesla’s death, the US Supreme Court recognized Tesla and Lodge (and others) for their initial contributions to wireless telegraphs.   

Back to Marconi.  Despite the fact that Marconi didn’t know how or why his system worked, he did manage to get them to work.  Soon, many ships had “Marconi machines” to send “Marconigrams”.   In a feat of pure propaganda, Marconi even managed to co-win a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909!  Marconi moved back to Italy, joined the Italian fascist party, and became close friends with Mussolini.   On July 19, 1937, Marconi had a heart attack and politely told his valet, “I am very sorry, but I am going to put you and my friends to considerable trouble.  I fear my end is near.  Will you please inform my wife?”  Marconi died forty-five minutes later.  Two days later, at Marconi’s funeral, wireless and radio operators around the world held two minutes of silence in his honor.  That was the last two minutes when there were no human-made radio signals invisibly whizzing through the air. 

Of course, in 1937, a large portion of radio signals was not sending Morse code, instead, they were broadcasting music and news.  How did we change from wireless morse code to music?  I’ll explain the Physics of the first radio broadcast next time on the secret history of electricity!   

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