The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)

Chapter 11. Without Wires

“Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio”

—Jefferson Starship, “We Built This City”

In one version of the story, Guglielmo (“Willy”) Marconi’s inspiration for wireless telegraphy came from reading the obituary of Heinrich Hertz in 1894. The German physicist, using Leyden jar “batteries,” demonstrated that a powerful electrical spark set off between a gap of two closely placed metallic poles emanated invisible waves that caused a similar spark in similarly gapped metal poles a few feet away. In another version of the story, he precociously read of Hertz’s 1860s experiments at the age of fourteen while on vacation in the Alps and rushed back home to begin his experiments.

Hertz’s sole interest seems to have been to prove Maxwell’s theories correct through experimentation. One could detect the sparks received, just barely, but in Hertz’s mind it was doubtful they were capable of any substantial “work.” For the German scientist, just establishing their existence and giving physical form to Maxwell’s elegant math was enough.

However news of the mysterious Hertzian waves reached him, Marconi was ideally, if unconventionally, suited to put them to practical use. The son of a wealthy Italian businessman and the heiress to the Jameson Irish whiskey fortune, Marconi certainly had the resources, if not the academic credentials. His education, by all accounts, was somewhat spotty, comprised mostly of private tutors along with brief stints at various schools and universities in En gland, Florence, and Livorno.

It was, by all accounts, a comfortable life. As the magazine Vanity Fair noted somewhat unkindly, later in his career, “The true inventor labors in an attic, lives chiefly upon buns, sells his watch to obtain chemicals, and finally after desperate privations succeeds in making a gigantic fortune for other people. Guglielmo Marconi invented in comfort, retained any small articles of jewelry in his possession, and never starved for more than five hours at a time.” All that certainly seems to be true, at least by available accounts. Still, even from a young age, Marconi was as single-minded in his pursuit as any bun-eating inventor struggling in poverty. Close-mouthed about his work, even with his family, the young man resisted all attempts to steer him toward a more reputable career.

Blithely flunking the exam for the Naval College, Marconi continued with his experiments, much to the consternation of his father, who viewed science as somewhat less than a respectable career path. Whatever support he received at home was from his mother, Annie. Strong-willed and independent, she arrived in Italy to study opera and ended up in what was then called a “runaway marriage” to the much older, though respectably wealthy, Giuseppe Marconi. Throughout a good portion of young Willy’s life, she was never far from her son, providing him with what he needed for his work and smoothing the way for his efforts. By any standard, she showed a remarkable—even uncomfortable—level of devotion. Perhaps because her own ambitions of an operatic career had been thwarted by her parents, who saw life on the stage as uncomfortably close to scandalous, she mustered the iron will to make her son’s ambitions a reality.

Not surprisingly, Marconi’s father proved a somewhat reluctant supporter of his son’s technological inquiries, though he still provided him with the leading scientific journals and books. Devouring these texts, the young Marconi was able to gain something of an understanding of practical scientific principles. Years later in interviews, he would relate his love of Faraday’s lectures, but he held a special place for Benjamin Franklin and his early electrical experiments, even going so far as to duplicate some of them on the family estate.

That a youthful Marconi should latch on to Faraday and Franklin, two master experimenters, is not surprising. His eccentric schooling did not include the advanced math required for pure science. These heroes were from an age of science without the complications of higher math. Profoundly curious about the nature of electricity and dogged in his experiments, Franklin’s focus, like Marconi’s, was on the potential of practical applications that could emerge from experimentation.

Setting up a makeshift lab in a dusty attic room that had once housed silkworms on his family’s estate, the Villa Griffone in Pontecchio, just outside Bologna, Marconi labored within a few miles of where Galvani had conducted some of his first battery experiments at the start of the century. Experimenting on the lawns and vineyards of the estate, he discovered that Hertzian waves could travel through or over hills and trees. They could also travel distances far beyond the few yards that Hertz established to prove Maxwell’s theory. Marconi quite literally brought the science out of the lab and into the wider world, though like everyone else, he had no idea how the waves traveled. Indeed, a definitive answer wouldn’t present itself until the 1920s—long after regular broadcasts were more or less commonplace.

DESPITE POPULAR MYTH, MARCONI DID not emerge from his attic room carrying a new technology and present it triumphantly to a grateful world. Wireless communication had long been in the incubation stage, waiting for someone to assemble the disparate pieces through tinkering and experimentation. In this regard, Marconi was more engineer than scientist.

Years before the young Marconi even began experimenting, the eminent British scientist Sir William Crookes speculated on the possibility of wireless telegraphy.

Rays of light will not pierce through a wall, nor, as we know only too well, through a London fog; but electrical vibrations of a yard or more in wave-length will easily pierce such media, which to them will be transparent. Here is revealed the bewildering possibility of telegraphy without wires, posts, cables, or any of our present costly appliances…All the requisites needed to bring it within the grasp of daily life are well within the possibilities of discovery, and are so reasonable and so clearly in the path of researches which are now being actively prosecuted in every capital of Europe, that we may any day expect to hear that they have emerged from the realms of speculation into those of sober fact.

The wireless telegraph, as it was called, like the telephone and countless other technological breakthroughs, was one of those inventions destined to come into the world sooner or later. Alexander Popov, the Russian physicist, had transmitted signals over a short distance but never published his findings, while the wildly eccentric Nikola Tesla later claimed that Marconi had made use of many of his patents, eventually launching an unsuccessful lawsuit against the young inventor. The British scientist and inventor David Edward Hughes also dabbled in the reception of Hertzian waves, which he called “ariel telegraphy” years before Maxwell published his theories or Hertz proved them through experiment. However, his work sat dormant and largely forgotten until J. J. Fahie published A History of Wireless Telegraphy in the early 1900s to set the record straight, in a very gentlemanly way, of course.

Even earlier, in the 1860s, an American dentist and amateur inventor in Virginia, Dr. Mahlon Loomis, apparently transmitted signals more than a dozen miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the Catoctin Ridge to the Bear’s Den Mountain. He even received a patent for a vaguely worded description, though his research was stalled by the Civil War, and funding tied up in Congress. Nothing ever came of his invention.

There was also Amos Dolbear, a physics professor at Tufts College, who patented a device somewhat similar to Marconi’s in 1882, which led to a dispute years later over Marconi’s American patent, the famous “7777 Patent.” And, in India, Professor Jagadish Chandra Bose of the Presidency College succeeded in sending out Hertzian waves that rang a bell and exploded a mine, but, like Loomis, he couldn’t manage to find funding for his experiments.

Even Edison had gotten into wireless transmission, devising a system that transmitted from an overhead line to a moving railroad car, though he did this through induction of two closely positioned wires rather than transmission of Hertzian waves. This was not so far-fetched an idea. For a very brief time induction was seen as having a genuine future as a form of wireless communication. In London it was discovered that telephone lines were picking up signals from nearby telegraph lines by way of induction. The esteemed John Trowbridge, who was instrumental in building Harvard University’s physics laboratory and in the process brought physics out of the lecture hall and into the lab, suggested using induction communications from Europe to North America by means of “power dynamo electric machines.”

Then there is the intriguing—and somewhat mysterious—case of Captain Henry Jackson of the Royal Navy, who was reported to have achieved some success with Hertzian wave transmission just prior to Marconi, though his experiments were considered state secrets. At one point, Jackson would later recall, he approached Marconi during a public demonstration and told him of the experiments, though the results were not made public at the time.

There were others scattered throughout Europe, all experimenting with Hertzian waves with varying degrees of success. What Marconi had going for him was the sheer tenacity and energy of youth along with an instinctive ability as an engineer to reconfigure what was then largely considered laboratory equipment and commercial devices into a practical transmitting and receiving system. In the same way, Edison had his teams search out pertinent patents for technology, Marconi scavenged through existing scientific instruments to find what he needed or what he could reconfigure and modify to fit his needs.

The receiver he used, for instance, was first developed in the 1890s by the French physicist Édouard Branly, a professor at the Catholic University in Paris, who had taken some metal filings and dumped them into a test tube. When hit with an electrical burst from a battery, the filings coalesced to form a kind of fragile wire capable of conducting electrical current. A few years later, the British professor Oliver Lodge discovered that the filing-filled tube reacted similarly to identify Hertzian waves in much the same way a voltmeter detects current in a line, though it could also be used as a switch or valve. Lodge called his invention a coherer. During a series of experiments, he sent signals fifty or more yards, but he never followed up on the research by seeking to extend the distance or adapt it to a commercial communications system.

IT WAS MARCONI WHO IMPROVED the coherer for commercial applications. Experimenting with different metallic filings, he finally hit on the combination of coarse silver and nickel powder in a vacuum-sealed thermometer tube, making it even more sensitive to electromagnetic waves, then invented a little hammer (or trembler) that worked like a doorbell to gently tap the glass and de-coalesce the filings, terminating the circuit after activation. It was an ingenious design. Each time a burst of electromagnetic energy hit the coherer, the metallic filings completed a local battery-powered circuit connected to a Leclanché-type cell that ran a standard telegraph printer. When the signal ceased, the little hammer would tap the glass and break the fragile string of metallic filings to await a new burst of waves. In many respects, the system resembled a telegraph relay that used a relatively weak signal to switch on a local circuit powered by a stronger, fresh battery.

The transmitter Marconi first used sparked across a gap of eight inches, powered by batteries supplying fifteen volts and boosted by an induction coil that sent the signal a few hundred yards. From there, he slowly worked his way to a few miles. In one interview given just a few years after Marconi debuted his system in London, the American reporter described the outfit as consisting of ninety-eight dry cells connected in parallel to eight rechargeable or storage batteries that stepped up the current before sending it along to a powerful induction coil that increased the current even more.

Later, the spark gap would grow to a whopping ten inches or more, sending the signals even greater distances with the size of the gap determining the length of the radio waves. To our modern mind, the transmission of radio waves is a silent process, though with Marconi’s device they were dramatic events, the sparks noisily arcing across two posts topped by brass balls, forever giving radio operators the nickname “sparks” or “sparky.”

Whitehouse may have taken some grim satisfaction in the fact that although his use of high voltage was a disaster when running current through wires, it was an absolute necessity to transmit signals through the air. A thimble-sized battery just wouldn’t do the trick. To get those metallic filings to line up in a coherer, a robust burst of energy was needed. One early demonstration required more than a hundred dry cells to generate enough power for even a short-range transmission.

WITH THESE BASIC ELEMENTS ALREADY in place, Marconi had only to refine the concept to receive Morse code. However, even after he had developed a working model—proof of concept—the Italian government declared itself uninterested. This might have ended his ambitions right there, relegating him to a technological footnote and “also ran” like Bose or Loomis, but the young inventor had luck as well as support. Undaunted, he quickly turned from the Italian to the British side of the family. His mother, always his staunchest advocate, began pulling strings with her well-connected Jameson relatives in England. It was her nephew, Henry Jameson-Davis, an engineer himself, who led the charge in London for the young inventor, arranging introductions even before Marconi boarded the boat.

Marconi arrived in London only to have his apparatus broken by an overly zealous customs official, and then on June 2, 1896, filed the first patent for a wireless telegraphy device. Interestingly, it took a team of lawyers months to work out the precise phrasing for the patent application. What exactly had Marconi invented? All of the elements of the boyish Italian’s device had long been in place, including the theoretical work accomplished years previously. Even the transmission and reception of Hertzian waves was not particularly unique. Scientific journals across Europe had been filled for years with experiments involving Hertzian waves. Finally, the patent was titled “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus…”

WITH HIS FATHER’S FORTUNE ALONG with the substantial weight of his mother’s Jameson name smoothing the way, Marconi managed to arrange a series of demonstrations, first for officials at the powerful British Post Office, which controlled the country’s telegraph system, then for the general public. Still in his early twenties, Marconi—who spoke flawless English—demonstrated a simple version of his device in the fall of 1896 at Toynbee Hall in the less than elite section of Whitechapel of London’s East End. Home to the fictional Fagin in Oliver Twist and the decidedly real Jack the Ripper, Whitechapel was certainly not the Royal Institution, which was only fitting for a demonstration very much intended for the general public, rather than for scientists.

The device that Marconi demonstrated consisted of two simple wooden boxes housing the sending and receiving apparatus. When a lever was depressed on one box, a bell rang in the other. The press, which reported on the demonstration, was soon calling Marconi the “inventor of wireless telegraphy.” The idea that Signor Marconi—appearing no older than a teenager—had labored away in isolation on an Italian estate to create a miraculous device was simply too good a narrative for either press or public to easily abandon. Like Edison, Marconi quickly became a celebrity inventor, giving interview after interview in the popular press.

However, not all of the press was glowing. Some feared that wireless communication could be used to set off explosions at a distance. A few reporters speculated that the young man might have developed a dangerous new weapon. And Oliver Lodge, among others, vigorously objected to Marconi’s designation as “inventor of wireless telegraphy” and took steps to set the record straight. In an 1897 letter to the Times,he complained in the most gentlemanly manner:

It appears that many persons suppose that the method of signaling across space by means of Hertzian waves received by a Branly tube of filings is a new discovery made by Signor Marconi. It is well known to physicists, and perhaps the public may be willing to share the information, that I myself showed what was essentially the same plan of signaling in 1894…

The public didn’t much care. Lodge had missed the point. Marconi, whom the British press habitually noted dressed as a “pleasant young English gentleman,” was an instant nineteenth-century celebrity, his name indelibly linked to the invention of wireless communication. If the young Italian genius wasn’t actually British, then he at least looked and sounded the part. And, too, the Jameson family was already raising money—with Jameson-Davis in the vanguard—mostly from those associated with the family’s distillery business. Within a short time, the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company (later called Marconi Telegraph) was founded with the equivalent of more than $10 million of what could be called venture capital.

In its early form, the system could send out a message a few miles at fifteen words a minute, slower than a wire telegraph. However, bit by bit Marconi was able to increase the distances, progressing from a few miles to across the English Channel. Where Marconi shone was in his development of antennas, at first grounding them (like lightning rods) and then extending them upward with the use of kites and balloons, until finally hitting on the idea of the directional antenna or aerial, which required hundreds of yards of land. It is tempting to speculate on just how much his reading of Franklin and those early colonial experiments influenced Marconi’s efforts.

Each step of the way the media of the day eagerly followed his progress. Of course, the telegraph companies also kept a close eye on his advances, though with considerably less enthusiasm. Fortunes in stock stood to be lost. With their systems of cables and poles in danger of becoming obsolete, they launched something of a campaign against wireless, paying physicists and other scientists to publicly question the possibility and practicality of wireless as a means of communication.

However, the future had already arrived. By 1897, predictions for the new space telegraphy were already being made. At a lecture given at the Imperial Institute, Professor William Edward Ayrton said,

I have told you about the past and about the present. What about the future? Well, there is no doubt the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires, gutta-percha coverings and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities. Then, when a person wants to telegraph to a friend, he knows not where, he will call in an electro-magnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electro-magnetic ear, but will be silent to everyone else. He will call, “Where are you?” and the reply will come, “I am at the bottom of the coal mine” or “Crossing the Andes” or “In the middle of the Pacific”…

Eventually ships would act as the perfect proving ground for wireless transmissions. This was an area not only in need of wireless communication, but one in which the established telegraph companies could not compete. Marconi’s system was portable, untethered by the complex network of wire that now crisscrossed Europe and North America.

By 1898, he outfitted a yacht with an antenna and wireless set to report back on a regatta for a newspaper. It was a good publicity stunt, that is to say both the paper and Marconi benefited. This led to sets installed on the Royal Yacht and on the grounds of Queen Victoria’s estate, which proved even better publicity for Marconi. The technology could have received no better endorsement than that from the aging queen. Later, Marconi would get credit for the first car phone, setting up a wireless telegraph in an enormous steam-powered car with a sixteen-and-a-half-foot antenna mounted on the roof.

In 1901, Marconi transmitted a message between the Isle of Wight and Cornwall, a distance of nearly 200 miles, demonstrating that radio waves followed the curvature of the earth. Then, in 1902, using powerful battery arrays, he transmitted his first transatlantic signal from England to Newfoundland—the letter “S” in Morse code.

JUST AS IMPORTANT AS DISTANCE, portability of wireless transmission was a fact not overlooked by the military. Naval ships, in particular, were stuck in the early 1800s, using flags for line-of-sight signaling. By 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, wireless received its first use in combat with disastrous consequences for the Russians who were slow in adapting their strategy to a wireless world. The Russian army also bought Marconi sets to communicate with distant outposts, though one unit came close to being destroyed when a Russian Orthodox priest in Siberia insisted on blessing it with holy water.

SO FIRMLY EMBEDDED WAS THE idea of the telegraph that Marconi and others seemed to be using it as their model when casting their eye to future innovations and uses of wireless communications. One central idea for the new technology was sending a signal to a specific receiver, point-to-point communications. The concept of what would become known as “broadcasting” (borrowed from an agricultural term for casting seeds widely) sending a signal to whoever happened to possess a receiver was only vaguely considered early on, in much the same way that early IBM executives could not comfortably imagine a home use for a computer. In an interview appearing in an 1899 edition of McClure’s Magazine, one of Marconi’s engineers took a look into the future of broadcasting:

“—any two private individuals might communicate freely without fear of being understood by others,” he said. “There are possibilities here, granting a limitless number of distinct tunings for transmitter and receiver, that threaten our whole telephone system. I may add, our whole newspaper system…The news might be ticked off tapes every hour right into the houses of all subscribers who had receiving-instruments tuned to a certain transmitter at the news-distributing station. Then the subscribers would have merely to glance over their tapes to learn what was happening in the world.”

However, despite fanciful predictions, what Marconi developed was still largely a device for use by professionals—excellent for communications by trained telegraphers between distant points, but with limited use for the consumer marketplace. For one thing, it lacked the essential elements of intuitive and easy operation. The subscribers Marconi’s engineer imagined would have to be highly motivated indeed to operate the wireless sets and learn Morse code to decipher its messages. It would take decades before radio operation became a matter of fiddling with a few dials and switches.

NOT EVERYONE WAS WELCOMING OF the new technology. Distance was now dying at a rapid pace. Within a single lifetime the world had progressed from telegraph networks of short-distance wires to long-distance wireless transmissions. The century that began with the movement of increasingly larger objects, railroad engines and ships by way of ever-more powerful engines, now ended with the taming of the smallest of things—the electron, less than a millionth of an ounce.

“A Triumph But Still a Terror,” read a New York Times headline in 1906. “There is something almost terrifying in the news…that attempts at telephoning without wires have already attained such success that scientists announce the approach of the time when man will be able to speak without any conducting wire to a friend in any part of the world,” the story read, as if the physical presence of a wire provided some crucial human link.

Addressing an audience of scientists a few years before his death, Hertz said, “[Electricity] has become a mighty kingdom. We perceive [it] in a thousand places where we had no proof of its existence before…the domain of electricity extends over the whole of nature.”