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Sungook Hong Marconi’s Error: The First Transatlantic Wireless Telegraphy in 1901 On the twelfth and thirteenth of December 1901, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Guglielmo Marconi received an “S ... S ... S ...” on the wireless. On the fourteenth, he called a press conference to announce a groundbreaking event in the history of communication: the transmis­ sion of wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean. The messages were sent from a wireless station in Poldhu, a small town located at the south­ west end of England. The signals were transmitted almost 2,000 miles, one-sixth of the earth’s circumference. In spite of initial skepticism on the part of some famous British scientists and engineers, Marconi’s announcement was welcomed and quickly accepted as true. Marconi became the hero who had spanned the Atlantic without cables. Although he could not have imagined it, our world is now saturated with radio waves, from television and GPS to cell phones, their messages traveling vast distances and binding us all in an invisible information network. A number of notable scientists and engineers joined Marconi in believing it possible for electromagnetic waves to travel over a wall of ocean, based on the current theories of the electron and ether, in which the electron was regarded as a “knot” of the electric strain in the ether. In this theoretical framework, the earth itself functioned as social research Vol 72 : No 1: Spring 2005 107 a sort of huge waveguide. However, it was not long before Marconi’s idea of surface transmission was shown to be in error, for the electron was soon identified with real particles, and it was also shown that the earth could not guide waves as Marconi believed. We now know the electromagnetic waves that Marconi received in St. John’s in 1901 did not get there by traveling along the surface of the earth, but by reflect­ ing off the upper ionosphere (now known as the Heaviside-Kennelly layer). Marconi’s achievement, based on the science of his time, was based upon a “big mistake.” MARCONI THE "PRACTITIONER” Marconi had little training in physics, though he once worked in the Italian physicist Augusto Righi’s laboratory when he was in Italy. In Britain, he was thought of as a “practitioner”—a man who had little knowledge of theory. PhysicistJohn Ambrose Fleming, an expert on the properties of electromagnetic waves who became Marconi’s adviser in May 1899, remarked that “[Marconi] did not arrive at any of his results by mathematical prediction. In fact I think his mathematical knowl­ edge was not very great. . . . [However,] in addition to this power of intuitive anticipation he possessed enormous perseverance and power of continuous work” (Fleming, 1937: 57). Marconi was also not well versed in power engineering. From the beginning ofhis career, he was a telegraphist who employed low-power devices. He taught himself through numerous trials in the field. His method was not, however, a simple rule-of-thumb method. In design­ ing wireless circuits and devices, he employed a rigorous personal logic and intuitive talent that neither scientists nor science-oriented engi­ neers seemed to possess. Most literature on transatlantic wireless telegraphy (e.g., Jacob and Collier, 1935; Tarrant, 2001; Weightman, 2003) emphasizes that scientists such as Lord Rayleigh and Henri Poincare dismissed Marconi’s plan because of the theory that electromagnetic waves propagated only linearly. Marconi once told his biographers, 108 social research Despite the opposition which I had received from many quarters, often that of most eminent men, it was still my opinion that electric waves would not be stopped by the curvature ofthe earth, and therefore could be made to travel any distance, separating any two places on our planet. From the very first of my experiments, I was sincerely convinced of this (Jacot and Collier, 1935: 64). However, Marconi’s recollection is not completely accurate. It was only after his success in December 1901 that physicists like Lord Rayleigh, H. M. MacDonald, and Henri Poincare began to debate the nature ofthe transmission ofelectromagnetic waves across the Atlantic. This was primarily because his transatlantic experiment was not widely known to the public. The project was kept a secret among his close...


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