Does radio need a paternity test?

By Mike Smyth, specialist technical writer
Monday, 22 October, 2012

Guglielmo Marconi is regarded as the father of radio. But tall poppies attract people carrying scissors who are only too keen to cut them down.

One scissor-brandishing individual was Nikola Tesla, who not only attempted a court case against Marconi but got his adopted country’s Supreme Court in the US to endorse his claim as the sole inventor of radio. So to all US citizens, an American invented radio while the rest of the world lays the discovery at the feet of Marconi.

What the young Marconi did, of course, was to bring to practical fruition many of the theories and much of the work of such men as Heinrich Hertz, who predicted electromagnetic waves years before Marconi’s experiments resulted in the first transmission across a mere 36 km of the English Channel followed in 1901 by his much more famous sending of the letter ‘s’ from Poldhu in Cornwall to Newfoundland, a distance of some 3700 km.

It is often thought that he chose Cornwall as being the nearest point to Newfoundland, but another school of thought says he chose the site because he was well clear of the Press that he feared would be peering over his shoulder while he worked.

Whatever his reasons, the outcome was the reception of a very faint signal that transformed communications and led to him patenting his magnetic detector, the device that formed the backbone of his achievement.

Hertz, Gustav Kirchhoff, of Kirchhoff Laws fame, and James Maxwell were also major forces in predicting ‘Hertzian waves’ - what we now call radio waves - and it was in 1898 that Marconi combined the theory with practice to send that signal across the Channel. It is not recorded what letter of the alphabet he used on this occasion or if he used a letter at all.

On the success of this venture, the next year he built a wireless station at La Spezia in Italy, but the country’s government would not support his efforts so he moved to England to found the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Co that then became, in 1963, Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co before it collapsed in 2006 with much of the business being acquired by Ericsson.

He then went on to develop shortwave radio and set up a global radio telegraph network for the British government. In 1921, until his death in 1937, he lived aboard his yacht Elettra and became politically active in his support of the Italian Fascist dictator, Mussolini.

But what of Mr Tesla, the Serbian-born, brilliant eccentric, engineer and pioneer of AC electricity? He had a theory that electricity, as well as radio, could be transmitted from the same antenna array, so with the backing of a rich banker he built a laboratory in New York on top of which he erected an 80 m high tower known as the Wardenclyffe Tower.

It was designed for two uses. One was to demonstrate the transmission of electricity by radio which would eliminate the need for cables and pylons and make distribution very cheap. The second use was as a conventional commercial radio transmitter.

In fact, neither use was put to the test. Regrettably, the tower was never finished as design changes pushed up the costs to the point where his backer withdrew funding for the experiments. Then the tower came to an ignominious end during the First World War when it was blown up because it was thought to be a target for German submarines.

Sending electricity by radio was something of an obsession with Tesla, who devised a scheme for sending energy using transverse and longitudinal waves including very low frequencies. He also tried to interest the American military in a radio-controlled device called the ‘teleautomaton’ which he said could be used as a radio-controlled torpedo.

Today, most people still regard Marconi as being the founding father of radio. Tesla may have been before his time but it is perhaps significant that no one since has attempted to send electricity by radio, attractive though the idea is.

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