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Marconi’s First Transmission

Guglielmo Marconi

The following is a translation from the Italian of a tape in which Guglielmo Marconi describes in his own words the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic on December 12, 1901.

I am pleased to be able to recollect, in a few words, the experiment of the first long distance radio telegraphic transmissions that I successfully achieved across the Atlantic Ocean on December 12, 1901.

These experiments proved conclusively that the transmission and the reception of the electric waves were in no way limited, as all scientists believed at that time, to short distances, but could be utilized for communications between the old and the new world and very probably also for far longer distances. It was thanks to the happy outcome of these experiments that the eyes of intelligent observers were opened to what were, in fact, the possibilities and potentials of this new means of communication.

Since 1895, from the time I started my experimentation I had the strong intuition, I would almost say the clear and certain vision, that radio transmission would be possible across vast distances. For this reason, I decided in 1900 to have two powerful radio stations built – one at Poldhu, in England, and the other one on the coast of the United States of America. The construction of these two stations, which involved risking a considerable sum of money, was completed in August, 1901. However, a short time later, a storm damaged the aerials of the English station and a hurricane destroyed the antennas of the American station. This incident, although very serious, did not deflect me from my purpose, but it induced me to modify my plans, having a simple aerial built for the English station and designing, for the American coast, a provisional receiving station in which the antenna would consist of a simple aerial line born aloft by a balloon or a kite. For the site of the receiving station, I chose a hill near the town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

My assistants in England had orders to transmit a repeated series of the letter “S” of the Morse Code, at a determined speed, during certain pre-arranged hours. The apparatus was necessarily very primitive and today, looking back and thinking of those early instruments, we cannot but marvel that the experiment turned out so successfully.

Continuous waves, at that time, did not exist. We did not possess thermoionic tubes that give us now such great advantages, nor could we rely on many electric instruments which are commonplace today. In short, the transmitters and the receivers which we then used would, no doubt, be now considered practically useless.

One the morning of the 12th of December, everything was ready and the decisive moment was approaching. In spite of a strong and icy wind, we were able to lift into the air – after many vain attempts – a kite that was attached to an extremity of the antenna, to a height of approximately 120 meters. At 12:30 pm, while I was listening on the telephone receiver, there came to my ear, very weakly, but with such clarity that there could no possible doubt, a rhythmic succession of the 3 dots corresponding to the letter “S” of the Morse Code; the signals, in other words, that according to my instructions, were being launched into space from the Poldhu station on the other side of the Atlantic. In that very moment, long distance radio communication was born. The distance of over 3000 kilometers, which seemed enormous then for radio, had been overcome, in spite of the curvature of the earth, which everyone believed would pose an insurmountable obstacle. The Italian government was the first to receive news of my discovery. A doubt persisted, however, in the minds of the many observers that, as the transmission had been directed from England to America over the surface of the ocean, perhaps it could have been obstructed if, during its passage, mountains or continents had been found in the way.

The means to solve this doubt was given me by H.M. King Victor Emanuel III who, in 1902 arranged for the Italian cruiser Carlo Alberto, under the command of Admiral Mirabello, to be placed at my disposal. On this ship, during the course of a long cruise in the Channel, in the Baltic, in the Mediterranean, and in the Atlantic, I was able to prove without the shadow of a doubt that continental zones and mountain s placed between radio stations did not obstruct their transmissions. We thereby had the confirmation of what I had, for a long time, intuitively known, that there is no distance on earth that radio transmission cannot reach. From that day, the science of radio communications has made giant steps and offers humanity today the most powerful and universal means of long distance communications that the world has ever known.

Guglielmo Marconi