This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: First Radio Transmission Across the Atlantic Ocean.
It would not be possible to set an exact date to Marconi’s invention of the wireless telegraph, nor even to the beginning of its great practical usage as a means of communication between Europe and America.
Antecedents go way before. Electric communication with trains in motion, like communication with ships at sea and with lighthouses, has long been a favorite problem with electrical engineers: indeed it is much older of the two, and dates back to the first days of electric telegraphy.
In 1838 Edward Davy, the rival of Cooke and Wheatstone, proposed such a system. In a lecture on “Electric Telegraphy,” delivered in London during the summer of 1838, he says:
I have a few words to say upon another application of electricity–namely, the purposes it will answer upon a railway, for giving notices of trains, of accidents, and stoppages. The numerous accidents which have occurred on railways seem to call for some remedy of the kind; and when future improvements shall have augmented the speed of travelling to a velocity which cannot at present be deemed safe, then every aid which science can afford must be called in to promote this object. Now, there is a contrivance, secured by patent, by which, at every station along the railway line, it may be seen by mere inspection of a dial what is the exact situation of the engines running either towards or from the station, and at what speed they are travelling. Every time the engine passes a milestone, the pointer on the dial moves forward to the next figure, a sound or alarm accompanying each movement.
Not only this, but if two engines are approaching each other, by any casualty, on the same rails, then, at a distance of a mile or two, a timely notice can be given in each engine by a sound or alarm, from which the engineer would be apprised to slacken the speed; or, if the engineer be asleep or intoxicated, the same action might turn off the steam, independently of his attention, and thus prevent an accident.”
Marconi actually transmitted a message across the ocean in 1902, but the service proved so very uncertain and irregular as to be useless for commercial purposes until some years later. Gradually, however, the distance over which wireless messages could be transmitted increased. Ships began to use the wireless at sea in 1904. At first its sea use was almost as a toy, a means of interesting idle passengers. Then in January of 1909 there came suddenly the first dramatic occasion in which wireless telegraphy saved from death a whole ship-load of the victims of a mid-ocean wreck.
At once this newest and strangest of electricity’s marvels leaped into universal glory as the brightest achievement of the age. We give here an excellent brief account of the rescue by Mr. Edward J. Wheeler, Editor of Current Literature, reprinted by permission of the magazine. Then follows Signor Marconi’s own explanation of his work; and then an account of the wireless operators, who took part in that first shipwreck which lifted their labor into fame.
The selections are from:
- an article in Current Literature by Edward J. Wheeler.
- his address to the Royal Institution of Great Britain by Gugllelmo Marconi.
- an article in Putnam’s Magazine by Arthur D. H. Smith.
For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Summary of daily installments:
|Edward J. Wheeler’s installments:||2|
|Gugllelmo Marconi’s installments:||2|
|Arthur D. H. Smith’s installments:||2|
We begin with Edward J. Wheeler.
Place: Mid Atlantic
When the ocean liner Republic was rammed in a fog off the Nantucket shoals a few days ago, a brand-new tale was added to the annals of Time, and in the long, long duel between man and nature the former achieved a fresh triumph. The story of the collision between the Republic and the Florida is, unhappily, a commonplace one, except for one thing — the part played by wireless telegraphy. There was a heavy fog. The two ships, going in opposite directions, drew near together. Their fog-sirens were sounding continuously, but the fog sometimes plays tricks with sounds, deflecting the vibrations so that two ships, as they near each other, may enter a “zone of silence,” in which neither may hear the other’s warning. Whether this was what happened, or whether the quartermaster of the Florida turned the wheel in the wrong direction, in the early morning the sharp bow of the Florida came out of the fog and clove the side of the Republic amidships, crashing through five staterooms and opening a gap into the engine-room. As the Florida rebounded* out of sight in the fog, leaving one of her anchors in a wrecked state room, the sea began to flood the engine-room of the Republic, and the engineers had barely time to bank the fires, and then, neck-high in water, flee to the decks. Ten minutes after the collision the ominous sound of axes was heard on the top deck as the crew began knocking away the boat-blocks preparatory to launching the life-boats. But the calmness of the captain prevented any disorder or panic.
“And darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The electric lights on the Republic had been instantly put out of com mission, and nearly 500 men, women, and children, wakened from a sound sleep, confronted the possibility of death with out being able to see each other’s faces more than a pace or two away. Fortunately, the bulkheads of the ship held, and the sea was calm. Then it was that a young man with the unheroic name of Jack Binns got into action. He was the wireless telegraph operator, and his storage batteries were uninjured. Out through the fog and over the wide waste of waters he sent the ambulance call of the deep — C Q D — over and over again. Every other message that was traversing the air when that call of distress came promptly ceased, in order to give the right of way to Binns. The wireless operator in the Boston navy-yard caught the call and responded. Then came Binns’s message: “The steamship Republic has been rammed in latitude 40.57, longitude 70, twenty-six miles south of Nantucket.” Then the Boston operator got busy. If one could have been up in a balloon and had had eyes to see the unseeable he would have noticed a tremendous force at work at the top of the wireless mast, hurling vibrations in every direction with inconceivable velocity — the messengers of the ether, racing through space to find succor for the Republic. Most of them, scientists tell us, are still racing out on the far frontiers of our solar system, seeking help from Uranus and Neptune; but a few of them were arrested in their flight, taken down a wire and translated into flashes that told the whole story. The wire of the liner Baltic caught one series of the vibrations, halted it, and took it down into a little cabin on the upper deck for cross-examination by a young man named Tattersall. The whaleback steamer City of Everett did the same thing. So did the Gresham, so did the Seneca, so did the Lorraine. So did a dozen or more of liners, tugs, revenue- cutters, and even a little torpedo-boat, and in a brief time a fleet of ships were feeling their way carefully through the fog to find latitude 40.57 and longitude 70, where Jack Binns kept talking to the world with his finger-tips and telling of the progress of affairs.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history