Numerous researchers and scientists played key roles in the development and advancement of wireless telegraphy (as radio was known in its infancy), including such celebrated names as Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. But the system put forth by Guglielmo Marconi was the first to be widely used.
Toward the end of the 19th century, it was becoming increasingly evident that wireless communication was possible. A number of theoretical breakthroughs of that era led directly to the high-tech communication system now used around the world. Marconi developed a means of transmitting a signal great distances and eventually commercialized a practical system.
In 1897, the London-based company headed by Marconi opened the first "wireless" factory in Chelmsford, England, with a staff of approximately 50 employees. Over the next two years, he made two wireless transmissions across water to islands, leading to a major milestone in 1901 when he received the first trans-Atlantic radio signal. That historic development took place in the northeast Canadian town of St. Johns, Newfoundland, with the help of a receiving antenna that was carried several hundred feet into the air by a kite.
News of this development came as a shock; most scientists thought a radio transmission could only travel in a straight line, unable to bend with the curvature of the Earth. The signal was sent with a frequency of roughly 500 kilohertz (kHz) and a power boost far greater than had ever been used on a radio signal. The historic first message was three dots, Morse code for the letter "S," a successful test that marked the dawn of the radio age.
Marconi's system had the following components:
- A basic oscillator, comparable to the model designed by Heinrich Hertz
- A capacity area positioned above ground level
- A receiver to detect radio signals
- A telegraph key to transmit Morse code
- A telegraph register to record the Morse code on a roll of paper tape
After his history-making transmission, Marconi made swift progress. By 1902, his equipment was consistently receiving lengthy messages at distances of more than 1,500 miles at night and 700 miles by day. Just a year later, the Marconi Company was regularly transmitting news stories across the Atlantic Ocean.
Besides developing the technology that made radio commonplace, Marconi helped shape the history and role of this powerful new medium. It was not long before literally hundreds of programs cackled across the airwaves.
Marconi invented an entirely new science-based industry. Largely through his persistent style and innovative thinking, a complex branch of physics became a consumer product that profoundly influenced the early 20th century and continues to evolve and influence today's culture.