This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

December 2001


12 December 1901:   First transatlantic wireless message sent to Marconi in Nova Scotia from the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.

The story of the invention of radio has an interesting number of Celtic connections that are little known today.

Inventor Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1874. His mother, Anna Jamieson, was from the County Wexford in Ireland, and was a member of the famous distilling family, itself of Scottish origins. Although he was brought up mainly in Italy and educated in Florence, Marconi's mom never let him forget his Celtic origins, and Marconi always thought of himself as being as much Irish as Italian.

Fascinated by the experiments of Heinrich Hertz based on the theory of electromagnetic waves propounded by the Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, Marconi set out to find a way to transmit signals by electromagnetic waves. Using improvised equipment built of such found and scavenged objects as brass doorknobs, in 1895 he succeeded in sending signals across a room, and later from his room to the garden below. The transmission was one-way, however, and Marconi's brother had to indicate the successful reception of the signal by firing a gun into the air.

Marconi was unable to get the Italian Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs interested in his work, so instead he went to Britain, where after a successful demonstration in London the British Ministry of Posts agreed to fund his experiments. On 23 January 1901 he made the first over-the-horizon transmission of a radio signal from the Isle of Wight to Bass Point in Cornwall. By autumn he was ready for his big gamble: a transmission across the Atlantic Ocean.

Setting up a huge transmitter at Poldhu in Cornwall, he prepared to transmit to a receiving station on Cape Cod. But when the Cape Cod station was blown down in an autumn storn, he switched to a site at Glace Bay, in the Gaelic-speaking area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It was almost as if the big experiment was bound to be an inter-Celtic event. By coincidence (or perhaps not) the date chosen for the experiment was 12 December, the fifth anniversary of his triumphal demonstration at Toynbee Hall in London.

On the appointed day, Marconi used a kite to hoist a wire 400 feet into the air to serve as a receiving antenna. The signal from Cornwall -- the three-dot Morse Code for the letter "S" -- came through some 25 times that day. By transmitting radio waves beyond the curve of the earth's surface, Marconi achieved what eminent mathematicians and physicists had declared to be impossible. One of them, the Scottish inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, continued to doubt Marconi even after reports of the experiment's success. Marconi went on to become the founder of the radio industry.

But Marconi had nearly been beaten by a number of his fellow Celts. His 1901 experiment happened less than two years after the death of the Welsh inventor David Edward Hughes, who years before nearly stumbled onto the invention of radio, but declined to pursue it. It was also claimed that a Scottish engineer Andrew Muirhead, working with Oliver Lodge, had transmitted a wireless signal some 100 yards between two buildings in Oxford the year before Marconi's garden transmission. But Muirhead and Lodge didn't publicize or even adequately document their experiment, and abandoned the work after learning of Marconi's demonstration in Toynbee Hall.

They all might have been trumped by a little-known Scottish inventor who could claim to be the first to transmit a signal wirelessly, in a manner of speaking. In 1854 James Bowman Lindsay transmitted a wireless signal across the River Tay using the water of the river itself as the conducting medium. But after an initial burst of enthusiasm, this creative approach too was forgotten.

Fifteen years after Marconi's 1901 experiment, a group of Irishmen would score another "first" in the history of radio, when during the Easter Rising a team of rebels used a shortwave transmitter in Dublin to broadcast to the world the declaration of the Irish Republic.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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