Radio passes 100 year milestone
Marconi's transmission was a milestone in long-distance communication
LONDON, England (CNN) -- People tuning into their radios on Tuesday might have been unaware that January 23 marked a very special anniversary.
Exactly a hundred years ago, at 4:30 p.m. local time, Italian-born radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi sent the first ever long-distance wireless transmission from the Isle of Wight to Cornwall on the British mainland.
Although Marconi had, over the previous five years, been sending messages over increasingly long distances, the January 23 transmission marked a milestone in the development of long-distance communication.
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Not only was it the furthest wireless transmission ever made -- 186 miles (299 kilometres) -- but it also proved that radio waves could be transmitted across the horizon, something the majority of the scientific establishment had insisted was impossible.
"It was the key move forward for wireless transmission at that time," says a spokesman for Chelmsford-based Marconi plc. "186 miles might not seem very far today, but back then it was astounding."
The birth of the wireless
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.
The transmission of January 23, 1901, however, 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.
"It was hugely important," says Stuart Smith, Chief Executive of the Trevithick Trust which now runs the Bass Point radio station. "Before then scientists thought radio waves only travelled in straight lines and therefore couldn't cross the horizon.
"Marconi proved them wrong."
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."
A number of commemorative events have been planned around the Bass Point Station, which has, over the past four years, been restored to its original 1901 condition, complete with replicas of the wireless equipment Marconi himself used.
Further Marconi-linked events are planned for later in the year to commemorate an equally significant centenary -- that of Marconi's first Trans-Atlantic broadcast, on December 12, 1901.
Among these will be the launch by Marconi plc of a Web site specially dedicated to the great inventor, and the issue of a commemorative coin by Britain's Royal Mint.
Marconi himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909 in recognition of his pioneering work.
He died in Rome on July 20, 1937.
August 12, 2000
The Royal Mint
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