Kidspace: When the wireless world began

Can you imagine a world without television and radio? Not to mention cellphones, cordless phones, radar, microwave ovens, remote-control cars, and baby monitors?

All these devices rely on the transmission of radio signals through the air. And it was 100 years ago this Saturday that a young Italian inventor showed the globe-girdling potential of his wireless telegraph, or radio transmitter.

On Jan. 18, 1903, Guglielmo Marconi sent the world's first wireless two-way message across the Atlantic. This historic exchange between a president and a king (America's Theodore Roosevelt and Britain's Edward VII) instantly bridged the 3,000 miles from Cape Cod, Mass., to Poldu Station in Cornwall, England.

Electrical telegraphs had been around since the 1830s. Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone in 1876. But they relied on wires to carry the electrical signals. And when there was a large body of water in the way, that meant huge underwater cables and enormous expense.

The son of an Italian landowner father and an Irish mother was not your typical scientist. He never had any formal education, for one thing. He was mostly tutored at home and failed an entrance exam to the Italian Naval Academy at age 12.

At 16, he failed another entrance exam, this time for the University of Bologna, Italy. Not only that, he was getting into trouble with his teachers for turning in poor and incomplete homework assignments.

But Marconi loved science. He pored over books on chemistry and physics. He read everything he could about electricity, from the ancient Greeks and Chinese to the modern scientists of his age.

He did lots of experiments, too. Once, after reading about Benjamin Franklin's experiments with lightning rods, Marconi and a friend erected a spearlike zinc rod on the roof of his house. They connected it to a bell inside using a wire. Then they waited for a thunderstorm. They thought the lightning would travel down the wire and vibrate the bell, ringing it. (This was a very dangerous experiment.) Finally a storm hit, lightning struck, and the bell jingled!

Marconi's youngest daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi, told the Monitor in a phone interview from Italy that her father "experimented with everything ... sticks, brooms, plates, forks, spoons, and knives." To Marconi's father, she adds, "It looked like he was playing jokes, but he was really experimenting and learning....

"His mother was very confident that he would do something great," Princess Elettra continues. "But his father wasn't so sure. He was very worried about him."

No more experiments, his father says

The elder Marconi decided to put an end to his teenage son's research when Guglielmo tried to copy another of Franklin's experiments and destroyed dozens of dinner plates in the process.

Marconi's mother believed in him, though. Annie Marconi helped to arrange private science lessons for him.

Then one day, while on vacation in the Alps with his mother, Marconi read an article describing the work of German scientist Heinrich Hertz. Hertz had proved that electrical waves could travel from one place to another through the air.

Marconi immediately thought of using electrical waves to carry messages. For the rest of the vacation, he sketched diagrams of how this might be done. As soon as he got home, he rode to visit his physics professor, Augusto Righi, who was not impressed.

Experienced scientists had been studying electrical waves ever since Hertz had proved such waves existed, Professor Righi said. You don't know enough to contribute anything.

But instead of being discouraged, Marconi read all he could on electric waves. He was determined to duplicate Hertz's experiments.

In his attic laboratory, Marconi experimented with batteries, induction coils, electrical conductors, and receivers. He worked with electricity and with electromagnetic waves, formed by the interaction of electricity and magnets.

He was confident. "My chief thought," he said later, "was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic, that it seemed difficult to believe no one else had thought of putting it into practice.... From the first, the idea was so real to me that I did not realize that to others the theory might appear quite fantastic." No less a visionary than Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, thought that wireless communication was absurd.

Every tiny thing he observed, and every tiny change he made, Marconi recorded. He tried hundreds of combinations of metals. It took time, but he stuck with it.

Then, in the fall of 1895, Marconi sent his brother, Alfonso, out of sight of the house with a radio-wave receiver. Guglielmo stayed in the attic. If Alfonso heard anything, he was to fire a gun in the air. Guglielmo tapped out the letter S in Morse code, and waited.

Immediately, Alfonso fired the gun. The wireless telegraph had worked!

Marconi worked on his machine until he could send signals as far as a mile. Then he wrote to the Italian telegraph authorities. Were they interested in funding his research? No, they were not.

Scientists scoffed at the idea

Britain was, however. Marconi and his mother went to London. On July 27, 1896, he demonstrated his device publicly for the first time, transmitting signals from the top of the General Post Office in London. He was 21 years old. Soon, the young inventor from Villa Grifone was a household name.

People called Marconi's invention "the wireless." Today, we call it the radio. At first, it didn't carry voices or music - just Morse Code. But it delivered important messages, such as cries for help. (See story on the Titanic, below.)

At 23, Marconi started his own company. He had big dreams for his invention.

"He hoped the different countries around the world would communicate together to avoid war," Princess Elettra says. "He thought that if people could communicate, they could explain their thoughts and understand each other better."

A real test of his invention would be to send a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. Most scientists said this was impossible. The Earth is curved. How could radio waves travel around it? (Answer: Radio waves bounce off the Ionosphere. But neither Marconi nor anyone else knew that at the time.) Marconi was confident.

Marconi erected tall radio antennas in Cornwall, England, and on Cape Cod. Both were destroyed by storms at different times and had to be rebuilt. Finally, on Jan. 18, 1903, the first transatlantic two-way wireless conversation was held. (See transcript below.)

For that and all his other efforts at wireless communication, Marconi received the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was 35. Not bad for someone who never went to college.

Marconi and the Titanic

On the night of April 14, 1912, inventor Guglielmo Marconi saved the lives of 705 people. They were survivors of the Titanic, rescued thanks to Marconi's invention.

That night, the Titanic's wireless operator had frantically tapped out this message in Morse code: "CQD require assistance position 41.46 N 50.14 W struck iceberg Titanic." The ship had collided with an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. and was rapidly taking on water.

CQD was the international distress signal before SOS became widely used. CQ meant "All stations, I have messages for you." "D" stood for "distress."

The Marconi operator on the passenger ship Carpathia, 58 miles away, was about to shut down. Before he did, though, he wired the Titanic that the wireless station on Cape Cod was trying to contact them. The Titanic replied with its CQD call, and the Carpathia immediately headed for the scene. It arrived at 4:15 a.m. to find 16 lifeboats and four rafts holding 705 passengers. The Titanic had sunk two hours before.

Another ship had been much closer. The Californian was stopped 10 miles away when Titanic wired for help. But its wireless operator had finished his routine messages and was in bed.

Wireless on ships had been a luxury. Operators gave passengers messages from loved ones or up-to-date stock quotes. At night, operators shut down.

After the Titanic, nations decided that wireless radios would be aboard passenger ships and staffed all day. "SOS" would be the distress call.

Days after arriving in New York, Titanic survivors presented Marconi with a gold medal. Without his invention, they said, all might have perished.

A president chats with a king

Here's what President Theodore Roosevelt said to Britain's King Edward VII on Jan. 18, 1903, during the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and Europe.

His Majesty, Edward VII

London, Eng.

In taking advantage of the wonderful triumph of scientific research and ingenuity, which has been achieved in perfecting a system of wireless telegraphy, I extend on behalf of the American people most cordial greetings and good wishes to you all and all the people the British Empire.

Theodore Roosevelt

This was King Edward's reply:

The President,

White House, Washington, America

I thank you most sincerely for the kind message which I have just received from you, through Marconi's trans-Atlantic wireless telegraphy. I sincerely reciprocate in the name of the people of the British Empire the cordial greeting and friendly sentiment expressed by you on behalf of the American Nation, and I heartily wish you and your country every possible prosperity.

Edward R. and I. American Samuel F.B. Morse invented Morse Code in the 1830s. It uses dots and dashes (short and long pulses of sound or light) to represent letters. In 1851 a simplified version became the International Morse Code, below.

A • -

B - • • •

C - • - •

D - • •

E •

F • • - •

G - - •

H • • • •

I • •

J • - - K - • L • - • •

M - N - •

O - - P • - - •

Q - - • R • - •

S • • •

T -

U • • -

V • • • W • - X - • • Y - • - Z - - • •

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