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Wireless makes waves 100 years on

Marconi's discovery changed the world forever
Marconi's discovery changed the world forever  

By CNN's Graham Jones

LONDON, England -- It was the signal that changed the course of history.

Exactly one hundred years ago on December 12 1901, Guglielmo Marconi was on Signal Hill in Newfoundland, when he heard the three dots of the letter `S' come through in Morse Code from 2,000 miles away in Cornwall, England.

The signal proved beyond all doubt that his wireless system could travel around the curvature of the earth and over tremendous distances.

It was a discovery that led to birth of radio, television and modern telecommunications.

Italy honours its greatest twentieth century inventor 

To mark the centenary of the signal, transmissions were made between Britain and Canada.

The Italian inventor's grandson, also called Guglielmo Marconi, was at a new $430,000 Marconi Centre at Bass Point, Cornwall.

The centre was officially opened with the transmission of a letter "S" at precisely 1600 GMT on Wednesday to Signal Hill in Canada, which then responded with a letter "R".

Guglielmo Marconi, 34, said he was proud to take part in the celebrations to mark what he called radio's "highest victory."

"It is a very historical event which marks the beginning of wireless communication throughout the world -- an event that brought the world closer and closer," he said.

A message from the Queen to the people of Canada, read by Lady Mary Holborrow, the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, was then transmitted across the Atlantic.

Following this, Cornwall, Canada and Marconi's native country of Italy were linked by satellite, enabling Marconi's grandson, the Governor General of Canada and the Italian President to send messages of greeting across the globe.

A team of engineers from the British Royal Navy's Thunderer Squadron also at Poldhu recreated Marconi's communication using a spark gap transmitter similar to the one used 100 years ago.

The new Marconi Centre contains a permanent exhibition charting the history of communications from Marconi to the present day, three radio studios, interactive displays and computers with Internet access.

In London, the British government marked the centenary with a reception at which Douglas Alexander, e-commerce minister, was highlighting how radio had changed society and business and pointing out some of the new opportunities it offered for the future.

Alexander said: "We are entering a new century of radio technology where we face a wide range of exciting opportunities and challenges. Digital radio technology has a huge potential to change the way we live and work, delivering an astounding variety of entertainment and educational services into our homes and when on the move.

"The UK radio industry is worth $28 billion a year, delivering key communication services. We are committed to sustaining and developing this innovative sector."

Born in Bologna, Italy in 1874, the son of an Italian father and Irish mother, Marconi showed an early interest in physics and electricity.

In 1894 he began experimenting in the use of radio waves to send messages without the use of wires (hence the term "wireless"), progressively increasing the distance over which a message could be transmitted: across a room, down a corridor, the length of a field.

In 1896, due to a lack of interest in Italy, he took his equipment to England where he was granted the world's first ever patent for a system of telegraphy and founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, of which Marconi plc is the descendent.

Over the next five years he continued to push back the boundaries of radio transmission, sending a message 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) across the Bristol Channel in 1897, and 85 miles (187 kilometres) from France to Britain in 1899.

On January 23, 1901, his transmission from Niton on the Isle of Wight to Bass Point in Cornwall, more than doubled his previous record, proving once and for all that distance was no barrier to the sending of radio messages.

Despite the significance of his achievement, Marconi kept it secret for a week out of respect for Queen Victoria, who had died the previous day, January 22 (ironically on the Isle of Wight).

The only person he told was his cousin, Henry Jameson Davis, to whom he dispatched a telegram saying: "Completely successful. Keep information Private. Signed William."

Over the past four years the Bass Point Station has been restored to its original 1901 condition, complete with replicas of the wireless equipment Marconi himself used.

After the success of his transatlantic experiment Marconi's system was adopted by the British and Italian navies.

By 1907 the transatlantic wireless telegraph service was established for public use.

In 1909, Marconi received a Nobel Prize in physics for his pioneering work in wireless telegraphy jointly with the German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun.

British physicist James Clerk Maxwell had first suggested the existence of radio waves in 1873 with the publication of his theory of electromagnetic waves.

Fifteen years later the German physicist Heinrich Hertz generated these waves electrically.

Marconi died in Rome on July 20, 1937.


• Trevithick Trust
• Marconi plc
• Guglielmo Marconi
• Royal Mint

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