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First trans-Atlantic message sent 100 years ago

Jan 1, 2003

One hundred years ago last Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001, Guglielmo Marconi became the first to span the Atlantic with a wireless radio transmission.

Marconi, the genius offspring of an Irish mother and Italian father, proved with early radio-wave experiments that telegraphic messages can be sent over short distances by wireless means. Gradually those distances increased as technological improvements in radio design occurred.

But when he was only 27 years old, Marconi set out to prove what all the experts had said was a technological impossibility: sending a wireless message all the way from the old world to the new. On that cold December day, in an abandoned hospital building on Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland, Marconi proved them all wrong. As he sat before a receiver of his own design, he heard a series of three short clicks (the letter S in Morse code), which had been sent from his transmitting station on England's Cornwall coast.

Ironically, the copper-wire aerial used for his receiver (held high in the air by a large box kite) was tethered next door to a St. John's marine flag station, which had, for some 200 years, been used to signal ships approaching from the sea.

In 1904, the Cunard Company began installing Marconi's marvelous new long-range radio devices on its liners so wealthy passengers might keep abreast of world news while cruising. Improvements continued, and in 1911, the Cunard liner Mauritania became the first ship to make use of a radio receiver specifically designed to take bearings from shore-based radio stations in order to plot its global position.

Marconi's feat at St. John's helped to establish long-range radio communication as an absolutely indispensable tool for safety, communication and navigation at sea.Sidebar:

Early improvements in radio often came faster than ideas for its use could be imagined. Serendipitous accidents often suggested practical uses for the device, like the first time radio was used at sea in a rescue operation.

In 1899 the ship F. F. Mathews collided with East Goodwin Lightship off the English coast. The lightship just happened to have experimental radio equipment onboard, and radioed a request for assistance. The message was received and relayed by a coastal receiving station to the port of Dover, which immediately dispatched rescue vessels to the scene.


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