Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009
Marconi: work of a radio pioneer

Eddie Butler looks back at Marconi's historic achievements in south Wales

The world's first radio transmission across water was made from Flat Holm to Lavernock Point in south Wales in 1897.

Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi had moved to Britain the previous year to seek help for his wireless experiments.

A zinc cap fixed to a thirty yard pole on the cliff at Lavernock failed to detect signals sent from the island.

But when the receiving apparatus was moved from the cliff to the beach, the extra twenty yards of wire required made all the difference.

This is an account of the event from A History of Wireless Telegraphy 1838-1899 by JJ Fahie, published in 1899:

The receiving apparatus was set up on the cliff at Lavernock Point, which is about 20 yards above sea-level. Here was erected a pole, 30 yards high, on the top of which was a cylindrical cap of zinc, 2 yards long and 1 yard diameter.

Connected with this cap was an insulated copper wire leading to one side of the detector, the other side of which was connected to a wire led down the cliff and dipping into the sea.

At Flat Holm the sending apparatus was arranged, the Ruhmkorff coil used giving 20-inch sparks with an eight-cell battery.

Cliffs at Flat Holm
Flat Holm sits in the Bristol Channel

On the 10th May experiments on Mr Preece's electro-magnetic method were repeated, and with perfect success.

The next few days were eventful ones in the history of Mr Marconi. On the 11th and 12th his experiments were unsatisfactory - worse, they were failures - and the fate of the new system trembled in the balance.

An inspiration saved it. On the 13th the receiving apparatus was carried down to the beach at the foot of the cliff, and connected by another 20 yards of wire to the pole above, thus making a height of 50 yards in all.

Result, magic! The instruments, which for two days failed to record anything intelligible, now rang out the signals clear and unmistakable, and all by the addition of a few yards of wire! Thus often, as Carlyle says, do mighty events turn on a straw.

Prof. Slaby of Charlottenberg, who assisted at these experiments, has told us in a few graphic words the feelings of those engaged:

"It will be for me,' he says, 'an ineffaceable recollection. Five of us stood round the apparatus in a wooden shed as a shelter from the gale, with eyes and ears directed towards the instruments with an attention which was almost painful, and waited for the hoisting of a flag, which was the signal that all was ready.

"Instantaneously we heard the first tic tac, tic tac, and saw the Morse instrument print the signals which came to us silently and invisibly from the island rock, whose contour was scarcely visible to the naked eye - came to us dancing on that unknown and mysterious agent the ether!"

Thanks to Glyn Jones of Barry Amateur Radio Society for sending us this account, making it clear that the pioneering transmission was sent from Flat Holm to Lavernock.

Plaque commemorating Marconi's radio experiements at Lavernock, south Wales

A plaque commemorating the event was produced for the fiftieth anniversary in 1947. It can be found on the wall of the churchyard at Lavernock Point, just south of Penarth off the B4267.

Marconi went on to achieve transatlantic transmissions between Cornwall and Newfoundland, and he was praised for the actions of radio operators employed by his company on the Titanic, who raised the alert which led to the rescue of many passengers from the stricken vessel.

Jeanette Atkinson from Barry tells of her family links with Flat Holm and Marconi:

In April 2008 my daughter visited Flat Holm with school friends to help out with the Flat Holm Project. Around 110 years ago my great grandfather also stayed on Flat Holm to assist with a project of a different nature.

Michael Rhatigan was in the regular army based at Brean Down, but stationed on Flat Holm where he assisted Signor Marconi in his preparations for sending the world's first wireless messages to Brean Down, Somerset and Lavernock. From 'a small island near Flat Holm' Michael experimented with Signor Marconi in sending wireless messages to Steep Holm.

While stationed at Flat Holm he met his wife Agnes who had gone to the island on a pleasure trip from her home at Weston. When Michael's work with Marconi was done he and Agnes married and went to live on Barry Island. Mr and Mrs Rhatigan had five daughters and three sons and remained together for over fifty years.

When Agnes died in 1964 her wish was to be buried on Flat Holm - however the family were not sure this would be possible because Flat Holm was now under Trinity House trust. So it was decided to scatter her ashes over the sea, just offshore Flat Holm. Around 110 years ago the first wireless message was sent, today I'm emailing my message via a wireless laptop!

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