This year marks the centennial of radio . . . or should we say another centennial of radio? One century ago, on January 18, 1903, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a message from President Theodore Roosevelt from a station in the Massachusetts town of South Wellfleet (now known as Marconi Beach) to a sister station in England. A reply from King Edward VII soon came back.
Marconi, born in 1874 in Bologna, was fascinated by the idea of using electricity to communicate across distances without the assistance of wires or cables. Other inventors in France, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere pursued the same idea. After constructing a crude apparatus, Marconi gradually increased the distance over which he could transmit. By 1895, he had succeeded in transmitting Morse signals more than two kilometers. By 1898, he had formed the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in England, and had set up a factory to build wireless sets.
In England, Marconi sent signals from ships at sea to lighthouses, and from one royal English palace to another. Then, in 1899, he sent the first international wireless transmission across the English Channel. These “stunts” served an ulterior commercial purpose.
In 1903, Marconi, only 28 years old, attempted to transmit across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States. He set up three stations in Poldhu (Cornwall), England; Glace Bay (Cape Breton Island), Nova Scotia; and Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The Glace Bay station received the very first transatlantic radio signals. However, the first transatlantic wireless communication from the United States took place on January 18, 1903, between the Wellfleet and Poldhu stations.
How much of a “first” was this event? These were not Marconi’s first transmissions from America to England. In 1901, he achieved his first successful transatlantic radio transmission, sending the letter "S" in Morse code from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Poldhu. That event has received far more attention than the later Wellfleet transmission—deservedly so, for it was the first radio communication from America to England. Moreover, the 1903 transmission did not demonstrate a direct link between Massachusetts and Cornwall, as Marconi’s Nova Scotia station relayed the signals from Wellfleet to Poldhu.
The message sent from President Roosevelt to King Edward VII was simple: “In taking advantage of the most wonderful triumph of scientific research and ingenuity which has been achieved in perfecting a system of wireless telegraphy, I extend on behalf of the American people most cordial greetings and good wishes to you and all the people of the British Empire.”
Among the events that marked the centennial locally was a display of Marconi-related artifacts by the Wellfleet Historical Society. Among the artifacts were letters from Marconi, many of which mention the difficulties involved in setting up his transmitters in the blustery Cape Code winds, and photographs of Marconi and his team. The celebration also included a transmission of the original message from President Roosevelt to King Edward, as well as a new message from the latest U.S. President to Queen Elizabeth II, sent in code and by voice.
Marconi's daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi, was present at the Wellfleet station, while her son, also named Guglielmo Marconi, received the message from his mother at the family's ancestral home in Bologna. In 1978, the 75th anniversary of the same event included messages from President Jimmy Carter, President Giovanni Leone (Italy), and Marconi’s daughter.
The current Wellfleet station is not at the same location as the original out of necessity. The original site, where the station’s four 210-foot wooden towers stood, is now under water. However, at very low tides a few remnants of its concrete foundations are visible beneath the surface. Today, a small monument high on the sandy bluff overlooking the beach marks the location.
The Wellfleet radio station operated until 1918. Aside from the Marconi display in 1903, the station received its most gripping message in 1912, when its operator received a transmission from the Titanic just hours before it sank.
Far less known or celebrated are the Marconi stations in New Jersey, the first of which he built in the Navesink Highlands (“Twin Lights”) overlooking New York harbor with funding from The New York Herald. In 1906, Marconi built a number of high antennas along the Shark River in Wall Township. The station, W1GM, was the first commercial transatlantic communications installation. Transmissions originated, however, at a location forty miles away in Franklin Township along the Delaware-Raritan Canal.
In 1941, the Army Signal Corps, Ft. Monmouth, bought the site and renamed it for Col. Paul Wesley Evans, who had worked with Marconi on the development of radio transmitters and receivers. On January 10, 1946, Lt. Col. John DeWitt and others succeeded in bouncing radar signals off the moon from the Evans site.
Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909. Time for another Marconi centennial?