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- Radio Celebrates 100 Years -

Radio celebrates 100 years.

Marconi never claimed that he invented the radio all alone. There were a number of others working in the field, from Nickola Tesla to Audion TubeNathan B. Stubblefield, all of whom demonstrated communication without wires. These other guys can take a walk, though.... because Marconi is the one who put it all together. He demonstrated his first wireless, in Italy, in 1895. He was the world's first ham; an engineer and an ace tinkerer, with the managerial smarts to found a gigabuck industry.

Most people associate Marconi with his dramatic test of transatlantic transmission, that gave wireless a permanent commercial role. This didn't happen until 1901. The transmitter, a huge spark coil, was in England, and the receiver, using an antenna held high aloft by a kite, was in Newfoundland. The first signal, sent one way, was a simple 'S' in Morse - three dits.

Marconi's first receivers were coherers, a sort of crystal radio. Early antennas were treated as giant "condensers" (capacitors), with as much wire as was sane to hang as the "aerial" half, and our mother Earth as the ground. At these wavelengths, you couldn't put up too much wire. Radio stations tended to be on rather large plots of land. Marconi, however, soon designed the space-saving antenna that still bears his name, a vertical with counterpoise, often operating at DC ground.

Marconi Wireless contracted with many ships, including the Titanic. This doomed vessel's radio call was MGY, the M standing for Marconi. Titanic wasn't the first to use SOS, and in fact sent initial calls with CQD, Marconi's original distress signal. One of the two "Marconi Operators" survived the sinking, and, despite frostbite, insisted on taking his turns at Carpathia's key. Anyone who thinks that news media were any different 80 years ago should look at some of the surviving radiograms - "TALK TO NO ONE X WILL PAY TOP PRICE FOR YOUR STORY AR" was typical!

Shoreside, a young Marconi operator named David Sarnoff had just gotten off his shift at the key when he saw headlines of the sinking. He rushed back to the New York station to be of service. Later, when Sarnoff had siezed Marconi Wireless in a Congressional action, and when he had become the owner of mighty RCA, and when he was thus the Bill Gates of his time, he boasted that he'd personally copied Titanic's initial distress call. He hadn't, but nobody argued with him...

After this disaster, a series of international treaties created the maritime radio system that, more or less unchanged, saved lives and property until February of 1999. Here we have 80 years of proud service by real radio people, standing 24/7/52 watch at real radios, earning their thunderbolts the hard way. Let's see the GMDSS appliance operators top this record!

The early spark transmitters just blasted, but tuned ones came quickly. They were huge, hundreds of kW, and they caught fire regularly. Not much later, General Electric set up a competing wireless network of giant stations using 200 kW Alexanderson alternators. These huge electric generators, spun up to high RPM, made AC at radio frequencies. There's still a working one in Sweden, which is fired up a couple of times a year and copied worldwide by those who can receive this low frequency signal. It is one "hellacious" device.

Navy wireless ship transmitterAlexanderson might have killed off King Spark all by himself, as Marconi was interested in his alternators, but then there came a new gadget called the radio tube (valve-see audion above). Early ones came from the world's second ham, Lee de Forest, who never really did understand just why the hell his Audion ever worked at all. De Forest was confused all the way to the bank.

Marconi quickly converted to his own, custom, transmitting valves. These were heroic, hand-blown, glass bottles, resembling large chemistry flasks. Wires came out of the ends. To get sufficient output, you hung the required number of wires on a breadboard type of devicer, connected the wires to the several bus bars, put in the electrodes, and stood clear. Yikes!

The wireless transmitter was the Internet of its time. It changed everything. No wonder 1995 had a Marconi Centennial.


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