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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 16:35 GMT
Marconi's Atlantic leap remembered
Wireless field, Poldhu: BBC
The remains of Marconi's wireless station in Cornwall and, beyond, his memorial
Helen Briggs

On 12 December, 1901, three faint clicks tapping out the Morse code for the letter "s" were picked up by an aerial held aloft by a kite on the coast of what is now Canada.


The first and final answer came at 12:30 when I heard...dot...dot..dot

Guglielmo Marconi
The signals had been sent for the first time across the Atlantic from a makeshift wireless station on a cliff at Poldhu in Cornwall, England.

The Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi masterminded this visionary experiment, earning a place in history as the "father of wireless" - an honour that is hotly contested to this day - as a result.

This week's centenary of the first transatlantic radio signal will be marked by the opening of a museum dedicated to Marconi and his achievements.

 Click here to listen to Sir Ambrose Fleming - whose equipment was used in the Atlantic experiment - talking about the early days of wireless.

Dawn of radio

A few days short of the 100th anniversary, Carolyn Rule, chair of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, sits in front of hi-tech radio equipment looking out at the field from which the first transatlantic radio signal was sent.

Poldhu before storm: Marconi plc
Marconi's station at Poldhu, which sent the signal...
Image: Marconi plc

All modern day telecommunications, including radio, TV, mobile phones and satellites can be traced back through this milestone of wireless communication.

"It's quite an emotional thing to be sitting here looking out on to the wireless field," she says. "You can see the ruins over there just ahead of us which is the actual remains of the original wireless building that Marconi would have used."

On 11 December, 1901, the first attempt at transmission from Poldhu took place - and failed.

Marconi, who was in Newfoundland, had sent a message back to England, via the underwater telegraph cable, to tell the Poldhu transmitter to send radio signals between 12 noon and 3pm local time.

Poldhu pilgrimage

A weak signal was received in Canada but the wind was so strong that the balloon holding the aerial aloft was swept away.

Signal Hill: Marconi plc
...to Newfoundland, where Marconi picked it up
Image: Marconi plc

The following day, after losing one kite, a second was launched with the aerial attached and the signal from Cornwall was heard by both Marconi and George Stephen Kemp, his assistant.

"The chief question," Marconi said at the time, "was whether wireless waves would be stopped by the curvature of the Earth. All along, I had been convinced that this was not so. The first and final answer came at 12:30 when I heard...dot...dot...dot."

In an age when transatlantic radio and television broadcasts are routine, Marconi's Atlantic success seems unremarkable. But it was a scientific milestone that changed global communications.

Each year, hundreds of radio enthusiasts from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Poldhu to pay homage to Marconi.

Historic remains

The ruins of the original building built by Marconi to send the signal across the ocean are still visible in the cliff-top field at the edge of the Lizard Peninsula.

Carolyn Rule: BBC
Carolyn Rule: "Amazing things went on here"
All that remains are the scars left by the main mast, crumbling chunks of brick and some of the original floor tiles of the hut.

Beyond that, over a dry-stone wall, lies a memorial to Marconi and then the ocean stretching more than 2,700 kilometres (1,700 miles) to Canada.

"It's hard to believe that these ruins started it all - radio, TV and internet," says Debbie Peers, of the National Trust, which owns the land.

"[The original station] was actually taken down in 1934 and demolished," she says. "But it's quite evocative - you can still see on the ground plan parts of the transmitter and the original rooms the engineers worked in."

Due respect

To celebrate the centenary, the National Trust has constructed a new building on the site with the help of Marconi plc and a local grant.

Debbie Peers, National Trust: BBC
Debbie Peers of the National Trust outside the new Marconi centre
"It's been built in the spirit of Marconi rather than an actual replica of the buildings that were there," says Debbie Peers. "It's made entirely of wood and it's been built so that it takes in environmental considerations but also so that it blends in with the background."

The building houses radio equipment, an exhibit on Marconi and computers that link with Marconi plc's archive collection on their founder.

"This building is a permanent memorial to his great work," says Carolyn Rule. "Amazing things went on here and we can now mark it in a proper way."

The 100th anniversary will also be commemorated by a re-enactment of Marconi's historic transmission.

Signals from Mars

Members of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club will send the "s" signal across the water to radio enthusiasts in Newfoundland, just as Marconi did all those years ago.

Marconi centenary
Opening of the new Marconi centre, set up by the National Trust, Marconi plc and Poldhu Amateur Radio Club
The "s" Morse code dot, dot, dot, will be sent across the Atlantic to St John's, Newfoundland
Royal Navy's Thunderer Squadron will take part in the celebrations
Carolyn Rule admits that it is a little easier nowadays. "We can cheat a little with e-mails and mobile phones," she says.

Marconi proved what many respected scientists doubted - that a signal could be picked up thousands of kilometres away in Canada.

At the time it was thought that wireless communication over long distances would never be possible because electromagnetic waves, which travel in straight lines, would be radiated into space or absorbed by the curve of the Earth.

Marconi memorial coin: PA
Two pound Marconi memorial coin
Marconi achieved his dream of seeing a network of radio stations linking the world.

But he could scarcely have imagined that one day it would be possible to stand on the same Cornish cliff-top and send a fax, e-mail or text message anywhere in the world; or that giant telescopes would be tuning in to radio waves sent from deep space.

Marconi was often asked whether he had ever heard signals from Mars. He always replied: "I am concerned enough at present with business upon Earth."

Across the Atlantic and Beyond - a special programme on Marconi's historic transmission will be broadcast on Wednesday, 12 December, at 15.30 GMT on BBC Two in the South West.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Matt Pengelly in Cornwall
"The spiritual home of radio"
John Packer, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
"Cornwall has a long history of communications"
See also:

13 Nov 01 | Business
Marconi losses reach 5.1bn
17 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Driving data to new highs
14 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Optic fibre world records broken
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