Dr. Dan Nickström explaining “How Radio Waves Work”.

On this Day:

In 1896, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, William Preece, gave a public lecture in London called “Telegraphy without Wires”, praising the work of 22 year old Guglielmo Marconi.

Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi, 1st Marquis of Marconi FRSA (25 April 1874 – 20 July 1937) was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer, known for his creation of a practical radio wave-based wireless telegraph system. This led to Marconi being credited as the inventor of radio, and he shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”.

Marconi was also an entrepreneur, businessman, and founder of The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in the United Kingdom in 1897 (which became the Marconi Company). In 1929, Marconi was ennobled as a Marchese (marquis) by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and, in 1931, he set up Vatican Radio for Pope Pius XI.

Marconi did not attend school as a child and did not go on to formal higher education. Instead, he learned chemistry, mathematics, and physics at home from a series of private tutors hired by his parents. His family hired additional tutors for Guglielmo in the winter when they would leave Bologna for the warmer climate of Tuscany or Florence. Marconi noted an important mentor was professor Vincenzo Rosa, a high school physics teacher in Livorno. Rosa taught the 17-year-old Marconi the basics of physical phenomena as well as new theories on electricity. At the age of 18 and back in Bologna, Marconi became acquainted with University of Bologna physicist Augusto Righi, who had done research on Heinrich Hertz’s work. Righi permitted Marconi to attend lectures at the university and also to use the University’s laboratory and library.

From youth, Marconi was interested in science and electricity. In the early 1890s, he began working on the idea of “wireless telegraphy”—i.e., the transmission of telegraph messages without connecting wires as used by the electric telegraph. This was not a new idea; numerous investigators and inventors had been exploring wireless telegraph technologies and even building systems using electric conduction, electromagnetic induction and optical (light) signalling for over 50 years, but none had proven technically and commercially successful. A relatively new development came from Heinrich Hertz, who, in 1888, demonstrated that one could produce and detect electromagnetic radiation, based on the work of James Clerk Maxwell. At the time, this radiation was commonly called “Hertzian” waves, and is now generally referred to as radio waves.

There was a great deal of interest in radio waves in the physics community, but this interest was in the scientific phenomenon, not in its potential as a communication method. Physicists generally looked on radio waves as an invisible form of light that could only travel along a line of sight path, limiting its range to the visual horizon like existing forms of visual signaling. Hertz’s death in 1894 brought published reviews of his earlier discoveries including a demonstration on the transmission and detection of radio waves by the British physicist Oliver Lodge and an article about Hertz’s work by Augusto Righi. Righi’s article renewed Marconi’s interest in developing a wireless telegraphy system based on radio waves, a line of inquiry that Marconi noted other inventors did not seem to be pursuing.

Marconi’s first transmitter incorporating a monopole antenna. It consisted of an elevated copper sheet connected to a Righi spark gap powered by an induction coil with a telegraph key to switch it on and off to spell out text messages in Morse code.

At the age of 20, Marconi began to conduct experiments in radio waves, building much of his own equipment in the attic of his home at the Villa Griffone in Pontecchio (now an administrative subdivision of Sasso Marconi), Italy, with the help of his butler, Mignani. Marconi built on Hertz’s original experiments and, at the suggestion of Righi, began using a coherer, an early detector based on the 1890 findings of French physicist Édouard Branly and used in Lodge’s experiments, that changed resistance when exposed to radio waves. In the summer of 1894, he built a storm alarm made up of a battery, a coherer, and an electric bell, which went off when it picked up the radio waves generated by lightning.

Late one night, in December 1894, Marconi demonstrated a radio transmitter and receiver to his mother, a set-up that made a bell ring on the other side of the room by pushing a telegraphic button on a bench. Supported by his father, Marconi continued to read through the literature and picked up on the ideas of physicists who were experimenting with radio waves. He developed devices, such as portable transmitters and receiver systems, that could work over long distances, turning what was essentially a laboratory experiment into a useful communication system. Marconi came up with a functional system with many components:

• A relatively simple oscillator or spark-producing radio transmitter;• A wire or metal sheet capacity area suspended at a height above the ground;
• A coherer receiver, which was a modification of Édouard Branly’s original device with refinements to increase sensitivity and reliability;
• A telegraph key to operate the transmitter to send short and long pulses, corresponding to the dots-and-dashes of Morse code; and
• A telegraph register activated by the coherer which recorded the received Morse code dots and dashes onto a roll of paper tape.

In the summer of 1895, Marconi moved his experiments outdoors on his father’s estate in Bologna. He tried different arrangements and shapes of antenna but even with improvements he was able to transmit signals only up to one half-mile, a distance Oliver Lodge had predicted in 1894 as the maximum transmission distance for radio waves.

A breakthrough came in the summer of 1895, when Marconi found that much greater range could be achieved after he raised the height of his antenna and, borrowing from a technique used in wired telegraphy, grounded his transmitter and receiver. With these improvements, the system was capable of transmitting signals up to 2 miles (3.2 km) and over hills. The monopole antenna reduced the frequency of the waves compared to the dipole antennas used by Hertz, and radiated vertically polarized radio waves which could travel longer distances. By this point, he concluded that a device could become capable of spanning greater distances, with additional funding and research, and would prove valuable both commercially and militarily. Marconi’s experimental apparatus proved to be the first engineering-complete, commercially successful radio transmission system.

Marconi wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, then under the direction of Pietro Lacava, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter, which was eventually dismissed by the Minister, who wrote “to the Longara” on the document, referring to the insane asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome.

In 1896, Marconi spoke with his family friend Carlo Gardini, Honorary Consul at the United States Consulate in Bologna, about leaving Italy to go to Great Britain. Gardini wrote a letter of introduction to the Ambassador of Italy in London, Annibale Ferrero, explaining who Marconi was and about his extraordinary discoveries. In his response, Ambassador Ferrero advised them not to reveal Marconi’s results until after a patent was obtained. He also encouraged Marconi to come to Britain, where he believed it would be easier to find the necessary funds to convert his experiments into practical use. Finding little interest or appreciation for his work in Italy, Marconi travelled to London in early 1896 at the age of 21, accompanied by his mother, to seek support for his work. (He spoke fluent English in addition to Italian.) Marconi arrived at Dover, and the Customs officer opened his case to find various apparatus. The customs officer immediately contacted the Admiralty in London. While there, Marconi gained the interest and support of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the General Post Office (the GPO). During this time Marconi decided he should patent his system, which he applied for on 2 June 1896, British Patent number 12039 titled “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor”, which would become the first patent for a radio wave based communication system.

The role played by Marconi Co. wireless in maritime rescues raised public awareness of the value of radio and brought fame to Marconi, particularly the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912 and the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915.

RMS Titanic radio operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were not employed by the White Star Line but by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company. After the sinking of the ocean liner on 15 April 1912, survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia of the Cunard Line. The Carpathia took a total of 17 minutes to both receive and decode the SOS signal sent by the Titanic. There was a distance of 58 miles between the two ships. When Carpathia docked in New York, Marconi went aboard with a reporter from The New York Times to talk with Bride, the surviving operator. After this incident, Marconi gained popularity and became more recognised for his contributions to the field of radio and wireless technology.

On 18 June 1912, Marconi gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Titanic regarding the marine telegraphy’s functions and the procedures for emergencies at sea. Britain’s Postmaster-General summed up, referring to the Titanic disaster: “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi … and his marvellous invention.” Marconi was offered free passage on the Titanic before she sank, but had taken the Lusitania three days earlier. As his daughter Degna later explained, he had paperwork to do and preferred the public stenographer aboard that vessel (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

I found a vintage radio for sale the other day with a sign that stated it was stuck on full volume.

I said to myself, “I can’t turn that down….”

Second, a Song:

Dan and Midlands Science have joined forces to bring you some “Science at Home” videos while we’re all at home slowing the spread of the corona virus! Tune in and learn about the science behind everyday objects in your own home. We’ll try to keep it lighthearted and entertaining for people of all ages, with a new topic in each episode!

Dan is a lecturer in the department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth University, and Midlands Science is a not for profit organisation bringing STEM to the midlands of Ireland (per YouTube.com).

Here is Dr. Dan Nickström with Midlands Science explaining “How Radio Waves Work”. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” – Marilyn Monroe

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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