Something in the air
Brian Faulkner looks at Marconi’s pioneering work on radio on the Dorset coast
Published in February ’11
Guglielmo Marconi, credited with being the ‘Father of Wireless’, was born in Bologna, Italy. He wasn’t a particularly clever scholar but was captivated by what he called, ‘the idea of transmitting messages through space by means of etheric waves’. With the Italian government showing little interest in his experiments the 22-year-old arrived in London in 1896 and, after staging successful experiments in front of scientists and the military in London and on Salisbury Plain, he was convinced that, in the short term, wireless would offer greater benefit at sea than on land. The following year he arrived on the Isle of Wight, with his assistant George Kemp, where he set up the world’s first fixed transmitting station at the Royal Needles Hotel.
We have a very accurate account of Marconi’s work at the time from the meticulous diaries that Kemp kept. On 24 November 1897 he wrote: ‘purchased lower mast, topmast and sprit at Southampton. Hired a tug and towed it to Alum Bay, landing it at the bottom of Alum Chine. It was far from easy work in bad weather to transport these spars to the top of the cliffs and across the lawn in front of the Needles Hotel.’
On 7 December the experiments began. ‘We started experiments using either the Solent or Mayflower, tugs belonging to the South Western Railway Company at Lymington, the object being to steam over a triangular course each day and noting the signal strength. To Bournemouth Pier, then on to Swanage Pier with a straight run back to Alum Pier.’
Despite contending with south-westerly gales, rain and dense fog, good progress was made and signals were received at distances of up to eighteen miles (29km) allowing Kemp to write, on 23 December, ‘We were satisfied that we could erect a station at Bournemouth and another station at Swanage and keep them in communication by wireless telegraphy day and night throughout the year without interference.’
Marconi now turned his attention to finding a suitable site to, as he wrote later, ‘prove that wireless telegraphy was not a myth but a working reality.’ In January 1898 he arrived in Bournemouth and set up a station at Madeira House, in the vicinity of the current Bournemouth International Conference Centre. A local journalist wrote, ‘His object in Bournemouth is to signal a considerable distance, namely to Swanage on the west and the Isle of Wight on the east or to ships at sea. A flagstaff has been erected and from the top of this a wire runs down to apparatus in the house where instruments for receiving and transmitting messages are placed. The instruments to the ordinary observer are very simple in appearance and can easily be accomodated on a table three feet square.’
After some early teething problems, Marconi gave a series of successful demonstrations from the Needles Hotel to Madeira House on 9 January 1898, in front of his company’s directors and local residents, Lord and Lady Tennyson, who took away with them a piece of tape that recorded one of the messages.
Towards the end of March, in a raging blizzard, Kemp managed to erect an aerial at the old Lloyds signal station at Swanage, over 200 feet above sea level. Wireless pioneers were a hardy crowd. His diary records that, ‘I then laid down in the snow and joined up to the receiver at the same time covering my head and the receiver with the large cape attached to my waterproof coat.’ He immediately heard signals between Marconi, in Bournemouth, and the Needles Hotel.
During these trials the liner Carisbrooke Castle was sighted passing the Needles outbound on her maiden voyage. Her position was passed by wireless from the Needles to Bournemouth and by inland telegraph to London. The telegram read, ‘Steamship Carisbrooke Castle, Donald Curie Line, outward bound, passed the Needles at five minutes past six.’
Among the many prominent people who visited Marconi at his stations was eminent physicist, Lord Kelvin. He became the first person to send a paid message by wireless when, on 3 June 1898, he sent a message to mathematician and physicist, Sir George Stokes, insisting on paying 1s (5p) royalty on it.
The message read:
‘To MacLean, Physical Laboratory, University, Glasgow.
Tell Blyth this is transmitted commercially through ether from Alum Bay to Bournemouth and by postal telegraph thence to Glasgow – Kelvin’
Earlier Kelvin had been extremely uncomplimentary about Marconi’s efforts. ‘Wireless was all very well,’ he said, ‘but I would rather send a message by a boy and a pony,’ so this was his way of apologising and something in the way of a gesture of confidence. The message was handed in at Bournemouth at 2.30pm and received in Glasgow just 50 minutes later.
After all the effort he put into finding a suitable site for his station, Marconi soon fell out with the hotel management over the cost of the 115ft (35.5m) wooden mast that was in their grounds. Kemp recorded, ‘Sept 24th to 28th, trouble with hotel manager Mr. Miller.’ On 30 September he wrote, ‘Transported masts on a timber wagon and apparatus in a van to the Haven Hotel, Sandbanks.’
In the latter years of the 19th century Sandbanks consisted of just two hotels, a coastguard station and a few private houses, one of which belonged to Lord Wimborne. Marconi carried out a great deal of experimental work here and a local boatman spoke of a large, east-facing room on the ground floor that served as the main laboratory although he also used huts in the grounds. He often spotted Marconi through the window standing in front of a ‘great flat instrument, several feet square. He looked as though he was playing a piano. Sparks kept flying from this strange machine.’
Marconi lived and worked on and off at the hotel, with members of his family, until 1926. Visitors noted that meals were taken at a communal table, with Marconi and his mother and brother being joined by Dr James Erskine Murray – who had studied under Lord Kelvin and subsequently worked with Marconi on many of his experiments – and his wife, the rest of the staff, and indeed anyone else who happened to be there at the time. Following dinner there was often a musical interlude. Murray would play his cello, Marconi’s brother, Alfonso, his violin, with Marconi, himself, accompanying them on the piano. Today the hotel’s lounge is named in his honour.
On 28 February 1900, the 14000-ton German liner, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, probably the most famous liner of her day, sailed from Bremerhaven with Kemp on board, the first liner to be fitted with wireless. Once in the English Channel, the ship’s wireless operator made contact with Marconi’s stations at the Needles and Haven Hotel and, before the ship was out of range of the Isle of Wight, many of her passengers had taken the opportunity to try out this new-fangled invention.
In later years, Marconi became a Captain in the Italian Naval Reserve, and said on more than one occasion that he felt more at home on the sea than on dry land. ‘Nothing can replace the charm and freedom of the sea,’ he said. His yacht, Elettra, was a floating laboratory, and was often seen in Poole Harbour lying just off Brownsea Castle. Marconi carried out a great deal of his experiments in long-range communications on board. Elettra, receiving signals transmitted from the Marconi company wireless station at Dorchester. This station was built in 1927 and was known as the ‘Beam Station’ due to the way the radio signal was transmitted. It opened on 16 December with a service to New York and was followed shortly afterwards by a route to South America. By the end of 1928 services to Japan and Egypt had also been inaugurated. In 1929 equipment was installed to enable the station to conduct tests with Marconi on his yacht which, at the time, was off Genoa. The tests were apparently, ‘quite satisfactory.’ The Post Office took the station over in 1949 operating Associated Press services and world-wide maritime services. The beam aerials were prominent on the Dorchester skyline until 1966 when the last one was demolished and the station itself closed in April 1978.
When Marconi died in July 1937, the Bournemouth Times and Directory reported, ‘Bournemouth may take special pride in the fact that it was here that senator Marconi conducted his first experiments at the close of the last century, and there are those still living in the town who remember him working in their midst. There is not a wireless listener in Bournemouth or anywhere else who has not lost a good friend in Senator the Marchese Marconi whose death in Rome this week has been universally mourned.’
3 Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. MHS inv. 34711
4 Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. MHS inv. 86892
5. The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS Photog. B63