Marconi in Newfoundland:
The 1901 Transatlantic Radio Experiment

Background: Maxwell, Hertz, and Marconi

Although several scientists experimented with wireless signalling in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the principles of radio were not well understood before the theoretical work of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and the experimental work of the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. Maxwell's electromagnetic theory of the 1860's predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves; waves of an electrical nature that travelled through the air or empty space at the speed of light. In the 1880's Hertz did a famous series of experiments to generate these waves and measure their properties.

Hertz needed electromagnetic waves with a wavelength no greater than a few metres so that he could observe and measure them in his laboratory. According to Maxwell's theory, to generate such waves he required a source of alternating current with a frequency in the neighbourhood of one hundred million cycles per second (100 MHz). Where would he get such a source? Frequencies in this range were far too high for mechanical generators. Fortunately, Hertz was aware that a pulse of very high frequency alternating current can be produced when a condenser is discharged abruptly in the form of an electric spark. A condenser (modern name: capacitor) is a device that stores electric charge. This electrical oscillation dies away after the spark discharge just as the sound from a tuning fork gradually diminishes after the fork is struck. To keep generating the oscillations, Hertz produced a rapid succession of sparks dicharges between two spherical electrodes with the aid of a high voltage induction coil. His apparatus worked like the ignition system in a car engine that produces the sparks in the spark plugs. The high frequency currents produced by the sparks flowed into two metal rods that Hertz connected to the terminals of the spark gap. These currents in turn generated electromagnetic waves that radiated from the rods. Today we would call the pair of rods a dipole transmitting antenna.

His next step was to make a detector so that he could observe the behaviour of the electromagnetic waves. One type of receiving antenna that he used was a dipole. The rods were connected to a pair of metal electrodes with a very small gap between them. When electromagnetic waves struck the receiving antenna, a faint electric spark jumped the gap. This was Hertz's detector. The electromagnetic waves generated and detected in this way were referred to then as Herzian waves, but now are called radio waves. Hertz's radio wave generator and detector were a primitive form of radio transmitter and receiver (Figure 1).

Hertz's radio wave generator

Figure 1a (above).
Hertz's radio wave generator (transmitter). The free standing structure on
the right was a two metre high reflector with a spark gap and short dipole
antenna at its focal point. The apparatus on the table was an induction coil
to generate a high voltage spark at the gap. Figure 1 diagrams adapted from
"Electric Waves", by Heinrich Hertz,MacMillan &Co. (1900)

Hertz's radio wave generator, top view

Figure 1b (above).
Top view of apparatus shown in Figure 1a. Note the parabolic crossection
of the reflector.

spark gap and dipole transmitting antenna

Figure 1c (above).
Magnified view of the spark gap and dipole transmitting ("feed") antenna
at the focal point of the reflector. The high voltage spark jumped the gap
between the spherical electrodes. The electrical impulse produced by the
spark generated damped oscillations in the dipole antenna.

spark gap and dipole transmitting antenna, focal point

Figure 1d (above).
Magnified view of the spark gap and dipole receiving antenna at the
focal point of a receiving reflector similar to the transmitting one. The width
of the very small spark gap on the right is controlled by the screw below it.
The vertical dipole antenna at the left was about 40 centimetres long.

This type of radio transmitter became known as a "spark transmitter". Hertz also was a very able mathematician. His calculations still form the basis of the theory of radio transmitting antennas (Figure 2).

pattern of electromagnetic waves radiated by an ideal electric dipole

Figure 2 (above). The pattern of electromagnetic waves radiated by an ideal electric dipole,
as calculated by Heinrich Hertz and published in 1889. The axis of the dipole
is vertical. Only the upper half of the pattern is shown, the lower half being
symmetrical. The scale along the bottom is distance from the dipole in
wavelengths. The diagram shows the pattern at one instant of time. After
one cycle of oscillation the whole pattern radiates outward one wavelength
on the scale shown. The radiation pattern shown is very similar to those of
the simple vertical antennas used by the early radio experimenters.

While on vacation in 1894, a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi read about Hertz's work. He reasoned that radio waves would be an ideal medium for wireless communications if they could be transmitted and received over long distances. Upon returning to his home near Bologna, Italy, he set up a laboratory in the attic and began experimenting. As he did, he wondered why he had not heard about other people trying to communicate via radio waves. In fact, he was not alone. Sir Oliver Lodge of England had begun radio experiments about a year earlier, and Captain Henry Jackson in England, Slaby, Arco, and Braun in Germany, Alexander Popov in Russia, Chunder Bose in India, Nikola Tesla in the United States, and Augusto Righi in Italy (who tutored Marconi in physics) also were doing wireless experiments. Realizing that Hertz's receiver was too insensitive for wireless communications, Marconi, Lodge and others replaced the spark gap in it by a much more sensitive detector that Lodge named the "coherer". The coherer, based on a device developed by the French scientist Edouard Branly, was a glass tube containing metal filings between two electrodes. When a radio signal passed through the coherer, the filings clung together ("cohered"). Roughly speaking, the coherer acted like a switch that turned on when a radio signal was received (Figure 3).

Marconi's version of the coherer

Figure 3 (above).
Marconi's version of the coherer. A-B=evacuated glass tube; T-T=platinum
terminal wires; P-P=silvered beveled plugs; S= side tube for evacuation.
Adapted from "A History Of The Marconi Company", by W.J. Baker, Methuen (1970).

Marconi's first success was causing the radio signal from his spark transmitter to ring an electric bell operated by his receiver. He was so excited that he got his mother out of bed at midnight to witness it. Perhaps it is significant that he chose to rouse his mother and not his father. His father was not enthusiastic about his twenty year old son playing with electrical gadgets in the attic. Marconi's next step was to take his experiments out of doors to increase the distance over which wireless signals could be transmitted. His father now began to appreciate the potential of Marconi's experiments, and gave him money to obtain the necessary equipment. Marconi replaced the dipole antennas of Hertz's apparatus by the combination of a metal plate elevated in the air and another buried in the earth (called a "ground"), at both the transmitter and receiver. He found that the higher the upper plates were raised, the farther he could send a signal (Figure 4).

Marconi transmitting to his brother Alfonso in Italy, 1895

Figure 4 (above).
Marconi transmitting to his brother Alfonso on the family estate near Bologna,
Italy in 1895. His spark transmitting apparatus on the table was connected
to the earth and to the metal sheet above him that served as an antenna.
Alfonso in the background had a similar antenna connected to his receiver.

Eventually Marconi realized that the plates were not really necessary. Most of the transmission and reception of the radio waves was being done by the wires leading up to them, so the antennas simply became tall vertical wires. When he was younger, Marconi had learned the Morse code from a telegraph operator. This gave him the idea to switch the transmitter on and off with a telegraph key, and transmit messages in Morse code. By the end of 1895 Marconi had transmitted signals a distance of over a mile, and the age of radio communications was born. With some improvements, these transmitting and receiving arrangements became the basic radio communications system used until about World War 1 in 1914. This form of radio was called wireless telegraphy. Some experimentation was done during this period with voice transmission, then called wireless telephony, but it would be a couple of decades before it was developed into the form of radio broadcasting that we are familiar with today.

The Formation Of The Marconi Company

When Marconi demonstrated his wireless telegraph apparatus to the Italian government, they showed little interest. Consequently he and his Irish mother journeyed to England in 1896 to try his luck there (Figure 5). Her wealthy and influential family (Jameson whiskey) introduced him to William Preece, the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, because the Post Office was in charge of telegraphic communications.

Marconi with early apparatus in England, 1896

Figure 5 (above).
Marconi with early apparatus shortly after his arrival in England in 1896
at age 21.

Under the auspices of the Post Office Marconi did more experiments and increased the range of his apparatus to several miles. Some of his demonstrations were witnessed by Professor A. Slaby of Berlin who went on to be a leading figure in the German wireless company that manufactured Telefunken equipment, later one of Marconi's chief commercial rivals. With the help of his wealthy Irish relatives and their friends, Marconi set up his own company in 1897 near London to manufacture and sell wireless equipment (Figure 6). It soon became the leading radio company in the world, a position that it held for at least another two decades. One reason for its continued success was integration. Marconi led the research and development team, and the rest of the company incorporated his inventions and improvements into the equipment that they manufactured and marketed.

Marconi's transmitting apparatus for wireless telegraphy circa 1897

Figure 6a (above).
Marconi's transmitting apparatus for wireless telegraphy circa 1897,
adapted from Baker, ibid. K1=kite; A=transmitting antenna wire; E=earth
(ground connection); S=spark gap; I=induction coil that produced the high
voltage spark; B=battery; M=Morse telegraph key. Kites were used to support
the antennas in experiments or demonstrations.

Marconi's receiving apparatus for wireless telegraphy circa 1897

Figure 6b (above).
Marconi's receiving apparatus for wireless telegraphy circa 1897,
adapted from Baker, ibid. K2=kite; A=receiving antenna wire; E=earth (ground
connection); C=coherer detector; RFC1&2=radio frequency chokes; B1=
battery; R=relay; B2=battery; M=Morse inker (recorder).

The marine industry was his principal customer because radio provided the only means for ships to communicate beyond the line of sight. There was much less demand for radio communications on land because telegraph networks were widespread and telephones were beginning to come into use. If that weren't enough, the British Post Office had a monopoly on overland telegraph communications, which no doubt could be interpreted to include wireless telegraphy.

In spite of the primitiveness of the spark transmitter and coherer receiver, radio equipment at sea provided remarkable reliability out to ranges of 25 to 50 miles. This may not seem like much, but it provided communications with shore stations while in coastal waters, often the most difficult part of an ocean voyage, and was very useful for naval manoeuvres. In 1900 Marconi patented circuitry in which the transmitter and receiver were connected to their antennas via tuned transformers. Tuning (then called "syntony") enabled transmitters to operate on definite frequencies or wavelengths, and enabled receivers to separate signals on different frequencies as we do today when we tune our radios to different stations. Prior to this innovation, a spark transmission blanketed a large part of the radio spectrum, so that stations interfered with one another and only the strongest signal could be heard.

The company also built powerful shore stations to communicate with ships at sea. It was soon found that ships were receiving their signals at much greater distances than most people expected. If radio waves travelled in straight lines as most scientists assumed, they should not be received much beyond the horizon. Instead it appeared that the radio waves had a tendency to follow the curvature of the surface of the earth or ocean, so that the range of the signals was limited mainly by the power of the transmitter and the sensitivity of the receiver. This convinced Marconi that radio communication across the Atlantic should be possible between high powered shore stations.

The Transatlantic Radio Experiment

Marconi managed to convince his Board of Directors to invest in the powerful new stations required for the transatlantic gamble. These stations were built at Poldhu on the south-west coast of Cornwall, and at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A renowned electrical engineer, Sir Ambrose Fleming, was consulted to design the stations. Oil fuelled engines driving large alternators replaced battery power supplies. The Poldhu station required a 25 kilowatt alternator, a then unheard of power for a wireless transmitter (Figure 7).

The Marconi Company transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, circa 1901

Figure 7 (above).
The Marconi Company transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, Circa 1901. The
signs warned of lethal voltages. Note the spark gap in front of the window
at the right.

The antennas of both stations were supported by twenty 200 foot high masts arranged in a circle 200 feet in diameter. The radiating part of the antenna was an inverted cone of wires with a single wire from its vertex leading in to the transmitter building. Unfortunately the circles of masts were not well supported laterally, and a gale blew down the antenna array at Poldhu in September, 1901 (Figure 8).

Wreckage of the antenna array at Poldhu after a gale, Sep. 1901

Figure 8a (above).
The wreckage of the antenna array at Poldhu after a gale in September, 1901.
This temporarily halted Marconi's plans to establish transatlantic radio
communications with his station at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Temporary fan shaped antenna erected at Poldhu, 1901

Figure 8b (above).
The temporary fan shaped antenna erected at Poldhu for the
transatlantic experiment.

This was a tremendous setback, but Marconi was determined to establish a transatlantic wireless telegraph service, and convinced his Board to finance a temporary antenna array at Poldhu. He then decided on an experimental transmission from Poldhu to Newfoundland to prove that transatlantic radio communication was possible and ease the concerns of his investors. Newfoundland was chosen to minimize the transatlantic distance because the destruction of his Poldhu antenna left him with less than ideal transmitting facilities. Nevertheless, he was attempting to bridge a distance of about 2100 miles when his best distance up to that time had been 225 miles. In order to speed up the experiment he decided to take portable receiving equipment to Newfoundland initially rather than construct a permanent station. He and two assistants, Messrs. Kemp and Paget, sailed from Liverpool November 26, 1901 and arrived at St.John's December 6. Before they sailed, the disheartening news that the antenna array at Cape Cod had also blown down put further pressure on Marconi to succeed in Newfoundland. They brought with them two balloons, hydrogen equipment, and six kites for the purpose of keeping a receiving aerial wire aloft. The group were quite experienced kite fliers because they had used this method of supporting antennas in previous experiments. The true purpose of their trip to Newfoundland was kept secret. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, they were simply going to make tests for a future ship-shore station. This was a believable cover story because the company had already built many such stations in Great Britain and one in Canada. The story succeeded in discouraging most of the reporters who now were keeping an eye on Marconi.

The Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Cavendish Boyle, and Premier Robert Bond promised Marconi the full co-operation of the government of Newfoundland, then a British colony. The site chosen for the experiments was Signal Hill, a promontory near the mouth of the harbour that provided an unobstructed path to Cornwall and a marvellous view of the port of St. John's. His receiving apparatus, which was of the coherer variety, was installed in a room in a former hospital building near the present Cabot Memorial Tower. The furnishings were spartan: a chair, some packing cases, a pot bellied stove, and a table with the parts of the receiving system wired together on it (Figure 9).

Marconi with his receiving apparatus on Signal Hill, St. John's, Dec. 1901

Figure 9 (above). Marconi with his receiving apparatus on Signal Hill,
St. John's, Newfoundland in December, 1901.

Outside, the men grappled with their balloons and kites in the typically cold and blustery North Atlantic winter weather. Poldhu was requested by cable to transmit the letter "s" in Morse code repeatedly from 3 PM to 7 PM G.M.T., beginning December 11. (There had been a transatlantic telegraph cable terminus in Newfoundland since 1866.) The letter "s" was chosen because its three dots in Morse code would be quite distinctive against the background of natural radio interference, and the short dots transmitted repeatedly would be less likely than the longer dashes to overheat the Poldhu transmitter.

On December 11 Marconi attempted to receive the signal using a new tuned receiver with an especially sensitive coherer sometimes known as the "Italian Navy coherer". It contained a drop of mercury rather than metal filings between two electrodes. No signals were detected that day, but Marconi suspected that the changes in the altitude of the aerial wire due to the balloon swooping up and down in the wind were defeating the tuning of the receiver. Finally a strong gust blew away the balloon that supported the aerial wire, ending the day's experiments. For the experiments on December 12 , the aerial wire was supported by a kite, and Marconi abandoned the tuned receiver in favour of simply connecting the coherer detector and a sensitive earphone between the aerial and the buried metal plates which served as a ground connection. At 12:30 PM local time Marconi heard the signal, the three clicks of the letter "s". According to accounts of the history making event, he handed the earphone to his assistant, Kemp, and asked "Do you hear anything, Mr. Kemp?" Kemp heard a few sequences of three dots before they faded back into the background noise. Marconi's diary simply states: "Sigs. at 12.30, 1.10 and 2.20". The weather was worse on the 13th, with sleet and gale force winds, but faint signals were heard again during the brief period that they managed to keep a kite aloft (Figures 10 and 11).

Kemp, Marconi, and Paget pose in front of a kite, Dec. 1901

Figure 10 (above).
Left to right: Kemp, Marconi, and Paget pose in front of a kite that was used
to keep aloft the receiving aerial wire used in the transatlantic radio experiment.

Painting depicts Marconi's receiving aerial wire supported by a kite

Figure 11 (above).
A painting depicts Marconi's receiving aerial wire supported by a kite. Note
the connecting wire leading from the aerial wire through the window to the
receiving apparatus inside, and the ground wire from the window to the earth.

Clearly the antenna problem had to be solved if experiments were to continue. Kemp even tried to rig up an aerial wire to an iceberg in the harbour. (One has to spend a winter in St. John's to truly appreciate their difficulties.) A tall and sturdy wooden mast would have to be erected, but this would take time. In the meantime, Marconi felt obliged to report his successes so far to his company and to the world. He notified the company by cable on the 14th, and on December 15, 1901 the New York Times announced: "St. John's, N.F. Dec. 14th.- Guglielmo Marconi announced tonight the most wonderful scientific development in modern times".

Then the letdown: on the 16th, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company informed him that he would have to cease his experiments or go to court. Anglo-American had a monopoly on telegraph operations in Newfoundland, and this no doubt could be interpreted legally as including wireless telegraphy. Whatever the merits of their case, Marconi was in no mood for wasting time and money on court actions when he felt that he was on the threshold of a great new venture - linking the Old World with the New World by the magic of radio. Plans for constructing a permanent station in Newfoundland were abandoned, Paget and the receiving equipment returned to England by ship, and Marconi prepared to sail to North Sydney, Nova Scotia to catch a train to New York. There was considerable outcry in Newfoundland and elsewhere against the actions of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, but nothing could be done about it.

Although the Newfoundland experiment was cut short, it had been a great success as far as Marconi was concerned. He had proven to himself that transatlantic radio communications were possible, in spite of the nay-sayers who claimed that radio waves, like light, would not bend over the horizon. He now believed that a regular transatlantic wireless telegraph service was feasible, and that it would compete favourably with the transatlantic telegraph cables because wireless did not require the laying of thousands of miles of expensive undersea cable. Probably he was even looking beyond that to the time when all the oceans of the world would be bridged by radio and he could achieve his dream of worldwide wireless communications. Perhaps it was just as well that he did not know that six more years of hard work, experimentation, and disappointing failures lay ahead before he would be able to establish a commercial transatlantic radio service. The intermittent fading of the signal at St. John's contained a hint of future difficulties.

One of the frustrating aspects of the premature end of Marconi's Newfoundland experiment was the fact that there was no verifiable record of his achievement. The fact that only he and Kemp had heard the repeated letter "s" left his claim open to much skepticism, even among some notable scientists. However this was soon balanced off by good news. When he landed at North Sydney on Christmas Eve, Marconi was welcomed by leading members of the Nova Scotian and Canadian federal governments. They promised financial aid, and assisted him in choosing the site of his first North American transatlantic radio station at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. After these arrangements were completed, Marconi travelled by train to New York, where a dazzling banquet in his honour was hosted by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and attended by many outstanding American men of science. Before he left the United States he visited the Cape Cod station where the wrecked antenna array was to be replaced by a new one supported by four sturdy 200 foot guyed wooden latticework towers. This improved construction plan would be repeated at Poldhu and Glace Bay (See Figure 11).

Stronger type of antenna erected in 1902 at Poldhu, Glace Bay, and Cape Cod

Figure 12 (above).
The stronger type of antenna erected in 1902 at Poldhu, Glace Bay,
and Cape Cod after gales blew down two antennas in 1901. The four latticework
towers were made of wood, and were about 215 feet high. They supported
the inverted cone of wires that was the antenna. The guy wires for the towers
are not shown.

Some skepticism about the transatlantic success still persisted. This was not surprising because there was so little tangible evidence. Those who credited Marconi with the great achievement did so largely on the strength of their faith in the man. Marconi quickly set about to correct this. In February 1902 he sailed from England to the United States on the liner S.S. Philadelphia armed with good receiving and recording equipment. His receiving antenna was connected to an extension of the mast to about 60 metres above the water, and its fixed height enabled him to use a tuned receiver with a conventional (metal powder) coherer. The receiver operated a "Morse inker" type of paper tape recorder, and the ship's officers periodically signed the tapes as the ship sailed across the Atlantic. Complete telegraph messages were recorded out to 1550 miles from Poldhu, and the letter "s", transmitted repeatedly between messages, was recorded up to 2100 miles, approximately the distance from Poldhu to St. John's. Marconi had accomplished two useful things on this voyage: he had vindicated himself in the eyes of all but the most stubborn skeptics, and he had observed that the signals travelled much farther at night than in the day at these wavelengths (hundreds to thousands of metres - see End Notes).

Looking backwards, it is amazing that the first transatlantic radio success was accomplished with such primitive equipment (no vacuum tubes or transistors!), and without our present knowledge of the propagation of radio waves at various wavelengths. We now know that the "night effect" observed on the S.S. Philadelphia and the fading of the signal observed at Newfoundland were both probably due to the variability of the ionosphere, an ionized layer high in the atmosphere that reflects radio waves and makes long distance radio communications possible. We also know that the wavelength of 366 metres (821 kilohertz) that was said to have been used for both the Newfoundland and S.S. Philadelphia experiments was a bad choice, especially for the daytime experiment at Newfoundland. However, AM broadcasting stations in this wavelength range are occasionally heard across the Atlantic, and Marconi may have just been lucky in the timing of his experiment. On the other hand, some sources state that the wavelength used was 2000 to 3000 metres, which is far more plausible, but we will never know for sure. In any case, both the tuning and measurement of the wavelength still were rather crude and unreliable.

In trying to account for the surprisingly good performance of the early radio apparatus, some say that the voltage sensitive coherer was especially suitable for detecting the impulsive signal of the spark transmitter. Another favourable factor in early marine and transoceanic radio was that radio waves at low frequencies travel farther over salt water than over land. Whatever the technical reasons for the success of the transatlantic experiment, it led directly to a commercial transatlantic radio service a few years later, and that in turn led to the worldwide wireless network that we take for granted today.

End Notes

Although Hertz experimented with ultra high frequency radio (UHF) and small antennas, the observation by Marconi and others that the higher the antennas, the better the signal and the longer the ranges, led to a sort of "bigger is better" philosophy. As antennas grew larger, their natural resonant wavelength increased also, and the operating frequency of radio equipment decreased. (Wavelength and frequency are inversely proportional to one another.) By the time of the first transatlantic experiments, Marconi was using, or believed he was using, wavelengths of hundreds of metres and frequencies in the present AM broadcast band, now denoted as "Medium Frequency" (MF). As noted above, this was a bad choice for very long distance transmissions, especially in the daytime, due to absorption of the signal in the ionosphere at these frequencies. In the trial and error experiments of succeeding years, the continuing trend toward longer wavelengths revealed that wavelengths ten times longer, and frequencies ten times lower, gave quite reliable long range radio communications both day and night, mainly due to less absorption of the signal by the earth and ionosphere. These low frequencies (LF) were used for the first commercial transatlantic radio service in 1907. During this trial and error sampling of the radio spectrum, the usefulness of the high frequency (HF) portion of the spectrum for long range radio communications had been overlooked. This was because the reflection of radio waves from the ionosphere, which made long distance communications in this frequency range possible, skipped over the short and intermediate distances at which experiments were being done at the time when these frequencies were tried. This portion of the spectrum, known as "short wave", was finally exploited in the 1920's when vacuum tubes (valves) capable of high powered, high frequency radio work were developed.


- A History Of The Marconi Company, by W. J. Baker, Methuen & Co. (1970).

- Wireless Over Thirty Years, by R. N. Vyvyan, George Routledge & Sons (1933), reprinted as Marconi & Wireless, by R. N. Vyvyan, EP Publishing Limited (1974).

- My Father, Marconi, by Degna Marconi, Frederick Muller Limited, Great Britain, and McGraw-Hill Book Co., USA (1962), and Balmuir Book Publishing Ltd., Ottawa, Canada (second edition revised, 1982).

- Marconi Wireless On Cape Cod, by Michael Whatley, Cape Cod National Seashore publication, USA (1987).

- Fessenden and Marconi: Their Different Technologies and Transatlantic Experiments During the First Decade of this Century (i.e., 20th) by John S. Belrose (1995)

- Marconi's Three Transatlantic Radio Stations In Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada) by Henry M. Bradford (1998)

Your comments are welcome.

Henry M. Bradford
Site 1, Comp A0, RR2
Wolfville, N.S., B0P1X0

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