How Guglielmo Marconi Telegraphs Without Wires

by Russell Doubleday

A nineteen-year-old boy, just a quiet, unobtrusive young fellow, who talked little but thought much, saw in the discovery of an older scientist the means of producing a revolutionising invention by which nations could talk to nations without the use of wires or tangible connection, no matter how far apart they might be or by what they might be separated. The possibilities of Guglielmo (William) Marconi's invention are just beginning to be realised, and what it has already accomplished would seem too wonderful to be true if the people of these marvellous times were not almost surfeited with wonders.

It is of the boy and man Marconi that this chapter will tell, and through him the story of his invention, for the personality, the talents, and the character of the inventor made wireless telegraphy possible.

It was an article in an electrical journal describing the properties of the "Hertzian waves" that suggested to young Marconi the possibility of sending messages from one place to another without wires. Many men doubtless read the same article, but all except the young Italian lacked the training, the power of thought, and the imagination, first to foresee the great things that could be accomplished through this discovery, and then to study out the mechanical problem, and finally to steadfastly push the work through to practical usefulness.

It would seem that Marconi was not the kind of boy to produce a revolutionising invention, for he was not in the least spectacular, but, on the contrary, almost shy, and lacking in the aggressive enthusiasm that is supposed to mark the successful inventor; quiet determination was a strong characteristic of the young Italian, and a studious habit which had much to do with the great results accomplished by him at so early an age.

He was well equipped to grapple with the mighty problem which he had been the first to conceive, since from early boyhood he had made electricity his chief study, and a comfortable income saved him from the grinding struggle for bare existence that many inventors have had to endure. Although born in Bologna (in 1874) and bearing an Italian name, Marconi is half Irish, his mother being a native of Britain. Having been educated in Bologna, Florence, and Leghorn, Italy's schools may rightly claim to have had great influence in the shaping of his career. Certain it is, in any case, that he was well educated, especially in his chosen branch.

Marconi, like many other inventors, did not discover the means by which the end was accomplished; he used the discovery of other men, and turned their impractical theories and inventions to practical uses, and, in addition, invented many theories of his own. The man who does old things in a new way, or makes new uses of old inventions, is the one who achieves great things. And so it was the reading of the discovery of Hertz that started the boy on the train of thought and the series of experiments that ended with practical, everyday telegraphy without the use of wires. To begin with, it is necessary to give some idea of the medium that carries the wireless messages.

It is known that all matter, even the most compact and solid of substances, is permeated by what is called ether, and that the vibrations that make light, heat, and colour are carried by this mysterious substance as water carries the wave motions on its surface. This strange substance, ether, which pervades everything, surrounds everything, and penetrates all things, is mysterious, since it cannot be seen nor felt, nor made known to the human senses in any way; colourless, odourless, and intangible in every way, its properties are only known through the things that it accomplishes that are beyond the powers of the known elements. Ether has been compared by one writer to jelly which, filling all space, serves as a setting for the planets, moons, and stars, and, in fact, all solid substances; and as a bowl of jelly carries a plum, so all solid things float in it.

Heinrich Hertz discovered that in addition to the light, heat, and colour waves carried by ether, this substance also served to carry electric waves or vibrations, so that electric impulses could be sent from one place to another without the aid of wires. These electric waves have been named "Hertzian waves," in honour of their discoverer; but it remained for Marconi, who first conceived their value, to put them to practical use. But for a year he did not attempt to work out his plan, thinking that all the world of scientists were studying the problem. The expected did not happen, however. No news of wireless telegraphy reached the young Italian, and so he set to work at his father's farm in Bologna to develop his idea.

From the wires hung to these towers are sent the messages that carry clear across to England.

And so the boy began to work out his great idea with a dogged determination to succeed, and with the thought constantly in mind spurring him on that it was more than likely that some other scientist was striving with might and main to gain the same end.

His father's farm was his first field of operations, the small beginnings of experiments that were later to stretch across many hundreds of miles of ocean. Set up on a pole planted at one side of the garden, he rigged a tin box to which he connected, by an insulated wire, his rude transmitting apparatus. At the other side of the garden a corresponding pole with another tin box was set up and connected with the receiving apparatus. The interest of the young inventor can easily be imagined as he sat and watched for the tick of his recording instrument that he knew should come from the flash sent across the garden by his companion. Much time had been spent in the planning and the making of both sets of instruments, and this was the first test; silent he waited, his nerves tense, impatient, eager. Suddenly the Morse sounder began to tick and burr-r-r; the boy's eyes flashed, and his heart gave an exultant bound—the first wireless message had been sent and received, and a new marvel had been added to the list of world's wonders. The quiet farm was the scene of many succeeding experiments, the place having been put at his disposal by his appreciative father, and in addition ample funds were generously supplied from the same source. Different heights of poles were tried, and it was found that the distance could be increased in proportion to the altitude of the pole bearing the receiving and transmitting tin boxes or "capacities"—the higher the poles the greater distance the message could be sent. The success of Marconi's system depended largely on his receiving apparatus, and it is on account of his use of some of the devices invented by other men that unthinking people have criticised him. He adapted to the use of wireless telegraphy certain inventions that had heretofore been merely interesting scientific toys—curious little instruments of no apparent practical value until his eye saw in them a contributory means to a great end.

Though Hertz caught the etheric waves on a wire hoop and saw the answering sparks jump across the unjoined ends, there was no way to record the flashes and so read the message. The electric current of a wireless message was too weak to work a recording device, so Marconi made use of an ingenious little instrument invented by M. Branly, called a coherer, to hitch on, as it were, the stronger current of a local battery. So the weak current of the ether waves, aided by the stronger current of the local circuit, worked the recorder and wrote the message down. The coherer was a little tube of glass not as long as your finger, and smaller than a lead pencil, into each end of which was tightly fitted plugs of silver; the plugs met within a small fraction of an inch in the centre of the tube, and the very small space between the ends of the plugs was filled with silver and nickel dust so fine as to be almost as light as air. Though a small instrument, and more delicate than a clinical thermometer, it loomed large in the working-out of wireless telegraphy. One of the silver plugs of the coherer was connected to the receiving wire, while the other was connected to the earth (grounded). To one plug of the coherer also was joined one pole of the local battery, while the other pole was in circuit with the other plug of the coherer through the recording instrument. The fine dust-like silver and nickel particles in the coherer possessed the quality of high resistance, except when charged by the electric current of the ether waves; then the particles of metal clung together, cohered, and allowed of the passage of the ether waves' current and the strong current of the local battery, which in turn actuated the Morse sounder and recorder. The difficulty with this instrument was in the fact that the metal particles continued to cohere, unless shaken apart, after the ether waves' current was discontinued. So Marconi invented a little device which was in circuit with the recorder and tapped the coherer tube with a tiny mallet at just the right moment, causing the particles to separate, or decohere, and so break the circuit and stop the local battery current. As no wireless message could have been received without the coherer, so no record or reading could have been made without the young Italian's improvement.

In sending the message from one side of his father's estate at Bologna to the other the young inventor used practically the same methods that he uses to-day. Marconi's transmitting apparatus consisted of electric batteries, an induction coil by which the force of the current is increased, a telegrapher's key to make and break the circuit, and a pair of brass knobs. The batteries were connected with the induction coil, which in turn was connected with the brass knobs; the telegrapher's key was placed between the battery and the coil. It was the boy scarcely out of his teens who worked out the principles of his system, but it took time and many, many experiments to overcome the obstacles of long-distance wireless telegraphy. The sending of a message across the garden in far-away Italy was a simple matter—the depressed key completed the electric circuit created by a strong battery through the induction coil and made a spark jump between the two brass knobs, which in turn started the ether vibrating at the rate of three or four hundred million times a minute from the tin box on top of a pole. The vibrations in the ether circled wider and wider, as the circular waves spread from the spot where a stone is dropped into a pool, but with the speed of light, until they reached a corresponding tin box on top of a like pole on the other side of the garden; this box, and the wire connected with it, caught the waves, carried them down to the coherer, and, joining the current from the local battery, a dot or dash was recorded; immediately after, the tapper separated the metal particles in the coherer and it was ready for the next series of waves.

One spark made a single dot, a stream of sparks the dash of the Morse telegraphic code. The apparatus was crude at first, and worked spasmodically, but Marconi knew he was on the right track and persevered. With the heightening of the pole he found he could send farther without an increase of electric power, until wireless messages were sent from one extreme limit of his father's farm to the other.

It is hard to realize that the young inventor only began his experiments in wireless telegraphy in 1895, and that it is scarcely eight years since the great idea first occurred to him.

After a year of experimenting on his father's property, Marconi was able to report to W.H. Preece, chief electrician of the British postal system, certain definite facts—not theories, but facts. He had actually sent and received messages, without the aid of wires, about two miles, but the facilities for further experimenting at Bologna were exhausted, and he went to England.

Here was a youth (scarcely twenty-one), with a great invention already within his grasp—a revolutionising invention, the possibilities of which can hardly yet be conceived. And so this young Italian, quiet, retiring, unassuming, and yet possessing Jove's power of sending thunderbolts, came to London (in 1896), to upbuild and link nation to nation more closely. With his successful experiments behind him, Marconi was well received in England, and began his further work with all the encouragement possible. Then followed a series of tests that were fairly bewildering. Messages were sent through brick walls—through houses, indeed—over long stretches of plain, and even through hills, proving beyond a doubt that the etheric electric waves penetrated everything. For a long time Marconi used modifications of the tin boxes which were a feature of his early trials, but later balloons covered with tin-foil, and then a kite six feet high, covered with thin metallic sheets, was used, the wire leading down to the sending and receiving instruments running down the cord. With the kite, signals were sent eight miles by the middle of 1897. Marconi was working on the theory that the higher the transmitting and receiving "capacity," as it was then called, or wire, or "antenna," the greater distance the message could be sent; so that the distance covered was only limited by the height of the transmitting and receiving conductors. This theory has since been abandoned, great power having been substituted for great height.

Marconi saw that balloons and kites, the playthings of the winds, were unsuitable for his purpose, and sought some more stable support for his sending and receiving apparatus. He set up, therefore (in November, 1897), at the Needles, Isle of Wight, a 120-foot mast, from the apex of which was strung his transmitting wire (an insulated wire, instead of a box, or large metal body, as heretofore used). This was the forerunner of all the tall spars that have since pointed to the sky, and which have been the centre of innumerable etheric waves bearing man's messages over land and sea.

With the planting of the mast at the Needles began a new series of experiments which must have tried the endurance and determination of the young man to the utmost. A tug was chartered, and to the sixty-foot mast erected thereon was connected the wire and transmitting and receiving apparatus. From this little vessel Marconi sent and received wireless signals day after day, no matter what the state of the weather. With each trip experience was accumulated and the apparatus was improved; the moving station steamed farther and farther out to sea, and the ether waves circled wider and wider, until, at the end of two months of sea-going, wireless telegraphy signals were received clear across to the mainland, fourteen miles, whereupon a mast was set up and a station established (at Bournemouth), and later eighteen miles away at Poole.

By the middle of 1898 Marconi's wireless system was doing actual commercial service in reporting, for a Dublin newspaper, the events at a regatta at Kingstown, when about seven hundred messages were sent from a floating station to land, at a maximum distance of twenty-five miles.

It was shortly afterward, while the royal yacht was in Cowes Bay, that one hundred and fifty messages between the then Prince of Wales and his royal mother at Osborne House were exchanged, most of them of a very private nature.

One of the great objections to wireless telegraphy has been the inability to make it secret, since the ether waves circle from the centre in all directions, and any receiving apparatus within certain limits would be affected by the waves just as the station to which the message was sent would be affected by them. To illustrate: the waves radiating from a stone dropped into a still pool would make a dead leaf bob up and down anywhere on the pool within the circle of the waves, and so the ether waves excited the receiving apparatus of any station within the effective reach of the circle.

Of course, the use of a cipher code would secure the secrecy of a message, but Marconi was looking for a mechanical device that would make it impossible for any but the station to which the message was sent to receive it. He finally hit upon the plan of focussing the ether waves as the rays of a searchlight are concentrated in a given direction by the use of a reflector, and though this adaptation of the searchlight principle was to a certain extent successful, much penetrating power was lost. This plan has been abandoned for one much more ingenious and effective, based on the principle of attunement, of which more later.

It was a proud day for the young Italian when his receiver at Dover recorded the first wireless message sent across the British Channel from Boulogne in 1899—just the letters V M and three or four words in the Morse alphabet of dots and dashes. He had bridged that space of stormy, restless water with an invisible, intangible something that could be neither seen, felt, nor heard, and yet was stronger and surer than steel—a connection that nothing could interrupt, that no barrier could prevent. The first message from England to France was soon followed by one to M. Branly, the inventor of the coherer, that made the receiving of the message possible, and one to the queen of Marconi's country. The inventor's march of progress was rapid after this—stations were established at various points all around the coast of England; vessels were equipped with the apparatus so that they might talk to the mainland and to one another. England's great dogs of war, her battle-ships, fought an imaginary war with one another and the orders were flashed from the flagship to the fighters, and from the Admiral's cabin to the shore, in spite of fog and great stretches of open water heaving between.


A lightship anchored off the coast of England was fitted with the Marconi apparatus and served to warn several vessels of impending danger, and at last, after a collision in the dark and fog, saved the men who were aboard of her by sending a wireless message to the mainland for help.

From the very beginning Marconi had set a high standard for himself. He worked for an end that should be both commercially practical and universal. When he had spanned the Channel with his wireless messages, he immediately set to work to fling the ether waves farther and farther. Even then the project of spanning the Atlantic was in his mind.

On the coast of Cornwall, near Penzance, England, Marconi erected a great station. A forest of tall poles were set up, and from the wires strung from one to the other hung a whole group of wires which were in turn connected to the transmitting apparatus. From a little distance the station looked for all the world like ships' masts that had been taken out and ranged in a circle round the low buildings. This was the station of Poldhu, from which Marconi planned to send vibrations in the ether that would reach clear across to St. Johns, Newfoundland, on the other side of the Atlantic—more than two thousand miles away. A power-driven dynamo took the place of the more feeble batteries at Poldhu, converters to increase the power displaced the induction coil, and many sending-wires, or antennae, were used instead of one.

On Signal Hill, at St. Johns, Newfoundland—a bold bluff overlooking the sea—a group of men worked for several days, first in the little stone house at the brink of the bluff, setting up some electric apparatus; and later, on the flat ground nearby, the same men were very busy flying a great kite and raising a balloon. There was no doubt about the earnestness of these men: they were not raising that kite for fun. They worked with care and yet with an eagerness that no boy ever displays when setting his home-made or store flyer to the breeze. They had hard luck: time and time again the wind or the rain, or else the fog, baffled them, but a quiet young fellow with a determined, thoughtful face urged them on, tugged at the cord, or held the kite while the others ran with the line. Whether Marconi stood to one side and directed or took hold with his men, there was no doubt who was master. At last the kite was flying gallantly, high overhead in the blue. From the sagging kite-string hung a wire that ran into the low stone house.

One cold December day in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi sat still in a room in the Government building at Signal Hill, St. Johns, Newfoundland, with a telephone receiver at his ear and his eye on the clock that ticked loudly nearby. Overhead flew his kite bearing his receiving-wire. It was 12:30 o'clock on the American side of the ocean, and Marconi had ordered his operator in far-off Poldhu, two thousand watery miles away, to begin signalling the letter "S"—three dots of the Morse code, three flashes of the bluish sparks—at that corresponding hour. For six years he had been looking forward to and working for that moment—the final test of all his effort and the beginning of a new triumph. He sat waiting to hear three small sounds, the br-br-br of the Morse code "S," humming on the diaphragm of his receiver—the signature of the ether waves that had travelled two thousand miles to his listening ear. As the hands of the clock, whose ticking alone broke the stillness of the room, reached thirty minutes past twelve, the receiver at the inventor's ear began to hum, br-br-br, as distinctly as the sharp rap of a pencil on a table—the unmistakable note of the ether vibrations sounded in the telephone receiver. The telephone receiver was used instead of the usual recorder on account of its superior sensitiveness.

Transatlantic wireless telegraphy was an accomplished fact.

Though many doubted that an actual signal had been sent across the Atlantic, the scientists of both continents, almost without exception, accepted Marconi's statement. The sending of the transatlantic signal, the spanning of the wide ocean with translatable vibrations, was a great achievement, but the young Italian bore his honours modestly, and immediately went to work to perfect his system.

Two months after receiving the message from Poldhu at St. Johns, Marconi set sail from England for America, in the Philadelphia, to carry out, on a much larger scale, the experiments he had worked out with the tug three years ago. The steamship was fitted with a complete receiving and sending outfit, and soon after she steamed out from the harbor she began to talk to the Cornwall station in the dot-and-dash sign language. The long-distance talk between ship and shore continued at intervals, the recording instrument writing the messages down so that any one who understood the Morse code could read. Message after message came and went until one hundred and fifty miles of sea lay between Marconi and his station. Then the ship could talk no more, her sending apparatus not being strong enough; but the faithful men at Poldhu kept sending messages to their chief, and the recorder on the Philadelphia kept taking them down in the telegrapher's shorthand, though the steamship was plowing westward at twenty miles an hour. Day after day, at the appointed hour to the very second, the messages came from the station on land, flung into the air with the speed of light, to the young man in the deck cabin of a speeding steamship two hundred and fifty, five hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred, yes, two thousand and ninety-nine miles away—messages that were written down automatically as they came, being permanent records that none might gainsay and that all might observe.

To Marconi it was the simple carrying out of his orders, for he said that he had fitted the Poldhu instruments to work to two thousand one hundred miles, but to those who saw the thing done—saw the narrow strips of paper come reeling off the recorder, stamped with the blue impressions of the messages through the air, it was astounding almost beyond belief; but there was the record, duly attested by those who knew, and clearly marked with the position of the ship in longitude and latitude at the time they were received.

It was only a few months afterward that Marconi, from his first station in the United States, at Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Mass., sent a message direct to Poldhu, three thousand miles. At frequent intervals messages go from one country to the other across the ocean, carried through fog, unaffected by the winds, and following the curvature of the earth, without the aid of wires.

Again the unassuming nature of the young Italian was shown. There was no brass band nor display of national colours in honour of the great achievement; it was all accomplished quietly, and suddenly the world woke up to find that the thing had been done. Then the great personages on both sides of the water congratulated and complimented each other by Marconi's wireless system.

At Marconi's new station at Glacé Bay, Cape Breton, and at the powerful station at Wellfleet, Cape Cod, the receiving and sending wires are supported by four great towers more than two hundred feet high. Many wires are used instead of one, and much greater power is of course employed than at first, but the marvellously simple principle is the same that was used in the garden at Bologna. The coherer has been displaced by a new device invented by Marconi, called a magnetic detector, by which the ether waves are aided by a stronger current to record the message. The effect is the same, but the method is entirely different.

The sending of a long-distance message is a spectacular thing. Current of great power is used, and the spark is a blinding flash accompanied by deafening noises that suggest a volley from rifles. But Marconi is experimenting to reduce the noise, and the use of the mercury vapour invented by Peter Cooper Hewitt will do much to increase the rapidity in sending.

After much experimenting Marconi discovered that the longer the waves in the ether the more penetrating and lasting the quality they possessed, just as long swells on a body of water carry farther and endure longer than short ones. Moreover, he discovered that if many sending-wires were used instead of one, and strong electric power was employed instead of weak, these long, penetrating, enduring waves could be produced. All the new Marconi stations, therefore, built for long-distance work, are fitted with many sending-wires, and powerful dynamos are run which are capable of producing a spark between the silvered knobs as thick as a man's wrist.

Marconi and several other workers in the field of wireless telegraphy are now busy experimenting on a system of attunement, or syntony, by which it will be possible to so adjust the sending instruments that none but the receiver for whom the message is meant can receive it. He is working on the principle whereby one tuning-fork, when set vibrating, will set another of the same pitch humming. This problem is practically solved now, and in the near future every station, every ship, and each installation will have its own key, and will respond to none other than the particular vibrations, wave lengths, or oscillations, for which it is adjusted.

All through the wonders he has brought about, Marconi, the boy and the man, has shown but little—he is the strong character that does things and says little, and his works speak so amazingly, so loudly, that the personality of the man is obscured.

The Marconi station at Glacé Bay, Cape Breton, is now receiving messages for cableless transmission to England at the rate of ten cents a word—newspaper matter at five cents a word. Transatlantic wireless telegraphy is an everyday occurrence, and the common practical uses are almost beyond mention. It is quite within the bounds of possibility for England to talk clear across to Australia over the Isthmus of Panama, and soon France will be actually holding converse with her strange ally, Russia, across Germany and Austria, without asking the permission of either country. Ships talk to one another while in mid-ocean, separated by miles of salt water. Newspapers have been published aboard transatlantic steamers with the latest news telegraphed while en route; indeed, a regular news service of this kind, at a very reasonable rate, has been established. These are facts; what wonders the future has in store we can only guess. But these are some of the possibilities—news service supplied to subscribers at their homes, the important items to be ticked off on each private instrument automatically, "Marconigraphed" from the editorial rooms; the sending and receiving of messages from moving trains or any other kind of a conveyance; the direction of a submarine craft from a safe-distance point, or the control of a submarine torpedo.

One is apt to grow dizzy if the imagination is allowed to run on too far—but why should not one friend talk to another though he be miles away, and to him alone, since his portable instrument is attuned to but one kind of vibration. It will be like having a separate language for each person, so that "friend communeth with friend, and a stranger intermeddleth not—" and which none but that one person can understand.