Marconi's Dream: Telegraphy Without Wires

Marconi with his telegraphic box of tricks
Marconi with his telegraphic box of tricks

by Ray Setterfield

December 11, 1896 — The fame of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi took a leap forward on this day when William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, gave a public lecture in London called "Telegraphy without Wires", praising the Italian's ideas.

Marconi had left his native Italy earlier in the year believing that his work was unappreciated by his countrymen. Aged 21, he thought he would have more success in the United Kingdom.

Preece became involved when he was alerted by a Customs officer at Dover who found electrical apparatus in Marconi's case. The Post Office man became fascinated by the Italian's experiments and they formed a friendship which led to Preece's lecture.

From then on Marconi's fame grew, culminating in the first transatlantic radio communication in December 1901. It was transmitted from Poldhu in Cornwall, England, and received at St John's Newfoundland. An excited Marconi later wrote about the experience:

"I placed the single earphone to my ear and started listening. The receiver on the table before me was very crude – a few coils and condensers and a coherer; no valves, no amplifiers, not even a crystal.

"But I was at last on the point of putting the correctness of all my beliefs to the test.

"The answer came when I heard, faintly but distinctly, pip-pip-pip. I handed the phone to Kemp {George Kemp, who had been Marconi's assistant since 1896}. 'Can you hear anything?' I asked. 'Yes,' he said, 'the letter S' – he could hear it.

"I knew then that all my anticipations had been justified. The electric waves sent out into space from Poldhu had traversed the Atlantic – the distance, enormous as it seemed then, of 1,700 miles – unimpeded by the curvature of Earth.

"The result meant much more to me than the mere successful realisation of an experiment. I now felt for the first time absolutely certain that the day would come when mankind would be able to send messages without wires not only across the Atlantic but between the farthermost ends of the earth."

Published: November 27, 2017

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