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Today in History: Marconi’s Radio Signal Crosses the Atlantic

Today in History: Marconi’s Radio Signal Crosses the Atlantic

The first radio signal crossed the Atlantic today in history, thanks to physicist Guglielmo Marconi.

In the 1800s, people believed that radio transmissions could travel a maximum of 200 miles before they’d be disrupted by the curvature of the earth. Not to be deterred, physicist Guglielmo Marconi worked to send a transmission not just further than 200 miles, but a staggering 2,000 miles. What’s more, he succeeded!

On December 12th, 1901, Marconi sent the Morse-code symbol for “s” from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada. Not only did he shatter the 200-mile maximum, he also crossed the Atlantic Ocean with his transmission. It’s no surprise, then, that today we recognize Marconi as a pioneer of radio.

Interestingly, the people who believed that radio signals wouldn’t make it past the earth’s curvature were right. The transmission actually crossed the Atlantic by bouncing off the ionosphere and back down to Canada!

With further refinements, he found a way for ships to talk to each other using Morse code—the quintessential pulsed signal—and in 1896, at the young age of 21, he traveled to England and set up a radio company, British Marconi.

World events quickly proved the value of his work. In 1905 the Japanese navy all but destroyed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, in part because of radio equipment the Japanese bought from Marconi. And in 1912, after ships responding to the sinking Titanic’s distress signals rescued 711 passengers, maritime authorities required every seagoing vessel to have a wireless operator listening around the clock. But Marconi’s vision proved limited. He saw the airwaves as useful for point-to-point traffic between ships at sea and other clients untethered by cables, but that was about it. Marconi “took radio to the marketplace, but he never had the idea of broadcasting,” says Susan J. Douglas, a radio historian at the University of Michigan.

Radio has transformed society three times, not to mention giving birth to the entire field of electronics. Perhaps no invention of modern times has delivered so much while initially promising so little. When radio arrived at the end of the 19th century, few thought that “wireless” communications, in which intangible signals could be sent through the air over long distances, would be competitive in a world dominated by the telegraph and telephone.

The early inventors studied the work of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who had formulated a set of equations—“Maxwell’s equations”—that expressed the basic laws of electricity and magnetism, but as a purely theoretical exercise in understanding how nature works. His equations explained light as one form of electromagnetic radiation and predicted that there should be many other forms, invisible to the human eye. In the 1880s the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz validated Maxwell’s laws by detecting radio waves—fundamentally similar to light but with wavelengths a million times longer. “Maestro Maxwell was right,” Hertz said, but he concluded that the existence of these other waves was “of no use whatsoever.”

At The Maria Sanchez Show, today’s especially exciting because we love using radio to make a difference in our community and our world! To get a taste of what we do, join me, Maria Sanchez, and Senator Michael D. Brown on my latest program, Shadow Politics.

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