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Marconi, Signal Hill, and the First Transatlantic Wireless Communication

Updated on March 27, 2017

In this day of instant communication, cell phones, and FaceTime, it is hard to imagine that it wasn't that long ago, relatively speaking, that the first overseas wireless communication was achieved. On December 12, 1901, at Signal Hill, in St. John's, Newfoundland, Guglielmo Marconi, listening through his telephone headset, heard a series of three "bips"; Morse code for the letter "s." He had received the first transatlantic communication, sent from a radio transmitter just over 2100 miles away, on the southwest coast of England.

Marconi and his assistants on the steps of Cabot Tower, on Signal Hill.
Marconi and his assistants on the steps of Cabot Tower, on Signal Hill. | Source
Guglielmo Marconi with his wireless telegraphy device.
Guglielmo Marconi with his wireless telegraphy device. | Source

Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi developed an interest in science at an early age. He was especially drawn to a German physicist, Heinrich Hertz, and his work on the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. Italian by birth, Marconi moved to England in the late 1890's to pursue his work with wireless telegraphy (something he had begun on his own in 1894) when he failed to get sponsorship from his own government (this was most likely due to his lack of a University education, having failed the entrance exam to the University of Bologna) despite the fact that he had made a major breakthrough with his discovery that signal range could be increased by grounding the transmitter and increasing the height of the antenna. Though messages could already be transmitted over great distances through wires, Marconi recognized the real potential that existed in being able to send these messages wirelessly, especially when it came to communicating with ships at sea.

In 1896 he patented his first wireless telegraphy machine. In 1897 he founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company to manufacture these devices, which were radio sets capable of transmitting and receiving messages in Morse Code. The Royal Navy quickly saw the potential of this technology, and in 1899 equipped three of their warships with these radio sets. Commercial shipping companies quickly followed the Navy's lead.

Marconi's first wireless transmitter.
Marconi's first wireless transmitter. | Source

The Potential of Wireless

The Royal Navy's decision to try Marconi's wireless radio systems was based on the success of his 1899 experiment where he transmitted a message across the English Channel to France, though it was still unknown just how far a wireless signal could be sent. The excepted scientific wisdom of the day was that radio waves traveled in a straight line. If this were true than the distance a wireless transmission could travel was limited to the distance from the point of origin to the horizon. Marconi, however, believed that radio waves would follow the curvature of the earth which, if true, would mean that messages could travel much greater distances. The main focus at the time was on being able to communicate with ships at sea. Even though Marconi believed this to be possible he still had to prove it. His idea was to send a message across the Atlantic.

Marconi would eventually set up his receiver at Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada but this location was not his first choice. He had originally set up his receiver at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States, and the transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, on England's west coast. However, a storm damaged the antenna at Poldhu forcing Marconi to replace it with a shorter one. Fearing that the signal would not travel the distance to Cape Cod with the shorter antenna he decided to change the location of the receiver to a point closer to the transmitter, Signal Hill, Newfoundland. The only point in North America closer to Europe is Cape Spear, Newfoundland. The Newfoundland government would later try to encourage Marconi to establish a wireless station there.

Abandoned TB isolation hospital on Signal Hill where Marconi had set up his receiver.
Abandoned TB isolation hospital on Signal Hill where Marconi had set up his receiver. | Source
Today a walking trail goes by where the old TB hospital used to be, and over the rocky hills where Marconi once flew his kite supported antenna.
Today a walking trail goes by where the old TB hospital used to be, and over the rocky hills where Marconi once flew his kite supported antenna. | Source

In December 1901 Marconi set up his receiving station on Signal Hill, in an abandoned TB isolation hospital (this building has long since been torn down) on the eastern part of the hill. The plan was to have a signal sent each day at an appointed time from the transmitter in Poldhu. At the same time Marconi would try to receive the message via his receiver and an antenna. The antenna was to be lifted into the air by balloons and kites. This proved quite difficult due to high winds but he managed, after several days and a number of failed attempts, to receive, on December 12, 1901, a message using this kite borne antenna. The message he received was a series of three "bips"; Morse Code for the letter "s".

Marconi and crew launching kite with antenna, Signal Hill. The man circled in red is Mr. William Holwell, one of a small group of local men hired by Marconi as helpers, at the rate of $1 a day.
Marconi and crew launching kite with antenna, Signal Hill. The man circled in red is Mr. William Holwell, one of a small group of local men hired by Marconi as helpers, at the rate of $1 a day.

The receiving of this message proved definitively that Marconi was correct, radio waves did, in fact, follow the curvature of the earth. What was unknown to him at the time, however, was that the waves traveled in two different ways: along the ground and through the air. It was not the waves that traveled along the ground that allowed the message to be received from the other side of the Atlantic, as Marconi had believed (as these waves can only travel a very short distance beyond the horizon) but rather it was the waves that traveled through the air that reached the receiver on signal hill. It is bouncing off the ionosphere in the upper atmosphere and returning back to earth that allows these waves to travel great distances.

The Success of Wireless

The success of this experiment lead to an explosion in interest in wireless telegraphy, and Marconi's company flourished. Newfoundland was quick to recognize the potential of the industry and wanted Marconi to set up a wireless station on the island, at the most easterly point in North America; Cape Spear. This, however, did not happen due to a preexisting monopoly agreement between the government and the Anglo-American Telegraph Company. Under the terms of the agreement the Anglo-American Telegraph Company received a fifty year monopoly on telegraphic communications on the Island in exchange for running a cable from St. John's to Newfoundland's west coast and across the Cabot Strait, thus connecting Newfoundland to the rest of North America. This agreement did not expire until 1904, and the company threatened to sue Marconi if he tried to establish a wireless station on the island before that time. To avoid this he decided to construct his station at Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, instead.

Marconi did eventually build a telegraph station in Newfoundland but not at Cape Spear. He returned to the island in 1904, after the Anglo-American Telegraph Company's monopoly expired, and built a station at Cape Race. This would be the station that would, on the night of April 14, 1912, receive the distress signal from the ill fated luxury liner RMS Titanic.

Marconi's wireless station at Cape Race, NL
Marconi's wireless station at Cape Race, NL | Source

Marconi made a couple of more trips to Newfoundland to conduct experiments, and continued to experiment with, and make improvements in wireless telegraphy, including the transmitting of the human voice, until his death in 1937.

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      John h. 4 weeks ago

      Good read thank you

    • Stephen C Barnes profile image
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      Stephen Barnes 4 weeks ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

    • Stephen C Barnes profile image
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      Stephen Barnes 4 weeks ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      I would like to thank reader Tina Thomas who identified her grandfather, William Holwell, as one of the helpers in the kite picture, and for the additional information that she provided. Perhaps a reader or readers could identify the other local helpers hired by Marconi, and provide some information on them. This would make a great followup article.

    • Stephen C Barnes profile image
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      Stephen Barnes 4 weeks ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      A correction to my last comment, Mr. Holwell is actually Tina's great-grandfather.

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