January 18, 1903

Marconi Transmits Radio Message

On this day in 1903, Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor of wireless telegraphy, arrived on Cape Cod hoping to make history. The night was cold but perfectly clear, and the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission, a message from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII, was carried directly from Wellfleet to England. The lifesaving value of this new technology was first evident on January 23, 1909, when the ocean liner Republic collided with another ship and began to sink. The radio operator sent out a distress signal. The station in Wellfleet received the call and alerted other ships in the area. Almost all the passengers were rescued, and Marconi became a popular hero. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

The South Wellfleet station operated until 1917, when it was shut down as part of the Navy's effort to control communications during World War I.

By the 1890s, five decades after Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, the world had grown accustomed to near-instant long distance communication through overhead wires and underwater cables. Because wires and cables were expensive, telegraph rates remained high. A young Italian inventor and businessman thought he had a better idea — he would manipulate radio waves to send wireless transmissions. In London in 1896, the 22-year-old Guglielmo Marconi gave the first public demonstration of wireless technology and started a revolution that continues today.

Marconi's first equipment was crude. Competition from other inventors was intense. He knew he would have to work fast to perfect his system and raced to increase the distance he could transmit wireless messages. By 1899, he had succeeded in sending messages from ship to shore, over 20 miles away. Next, he sent a signal across the English Channel. But the race that really counted was the one for the first transmission across the Atlantic. On December 12, 1901, Marconi won that race when he transmitted the letter "S" from the southeast coast of England to Newfoundland.

In London in 1896, the 22-year-old Guglielmo Marconi gave the first public demonstration of wireless technology and started a revolution that continues today.

The real challenge was to send and receive complete messages by radio across the Atlantic. For his U.S. site, Marconi chose a bluff high above the ocean in South Wellfleet, Massachusetts. There he built four towers, each 210 feet high. The towers were reinforced against the fierce Atlantic winds with 12 one-inch steel cables.

A transmitter building housed a condenser, an antenna tuning coil, and a huge sparkgap rotor. Next to the transmitter house stood the power station, which contained a 45-horsepower, kerosene-fired generator and an A/C powered battery. The sound of the spark from the rotor could be heard four miles downwind, and, much to the dismay of nearby residents, the best conditions for sending messages occurred between 10 PM and 2 AM.

The night was so perfectly clear that the station in England picked up the communiqué from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII directly and relayed the King's reply, both in international Morse code.

On January 18, 1903, Marconi arrived in Wellfleet, planning to relay a historic message from Cape Cod to Canada, and from there on to England. The night was so perfectly clear that the station in England picked up the communiqué from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII directly and relayed the King's reply, both in international Morse code. Guglielmo Marconi had made possible the first two-way trans-Atlantic wireless message.

Marconi was of course pleased by this ceremonial exchange, but his real interest lay in using radio transmissions to allow ships to communicate with each other and with stations on shore. There was money to be made here — the cost of sending a message was 50 cents a word — but the lifesaving value of the technology was even more impressive.

Marconi became a popular hero. In 1909 he won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

On January 23, 1909, the ocean liner Republic collided with another ship and began to sink. The radio operator sent out a distress signal. The station in Wellfleet received the call and relayed the news to other ships in the area. By the next morning, "every liner and every cargo boat equipped with wireless that happened to be within a 300-mile radius" was on the scene. An even more famous case was the wireless-aided rescue in 1912 of over 700 survivors of the Titanic disaster.

Marconi became a popular hero. In 1909 he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He later worked on the development of shortwave wireless communication, which is the foundation of nearly all modern long-distance radio.The South Wellfleet station operated until 1917, when it was shut down as part of the Navy's effort to control communications during World War I. Nature insured that the station did not return to active use. With the cliff eroding at the rate of three feet a year, the front towers were already on the verge of collapsing. In 1920, the buildings were dismantled and abandoned. The site is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century and the Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution, by Gavin Weightman. (De Capo Press, 2003).

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