Marconi's first radio broadcast made 125 years ago

By Jonathan Holmes
BBC News

Published
Image source, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Image caption,
Marconi's receiver was examined by post office officials in Lavernock

It was an experiment that saved hundreds of lives, and changed the way the world talks forever.

On 13 May 1897, Guglielmo Marconi sent the world's first radio message across open water, and he did it while visiting a seaside resort in Somerset.

Marconi came to Weston-super-Mare looking to experiment with what he called "telegraphy without wires" - known to us now as radio.

He was initially interested in contacting ships, but his work led to a communications revolution.

It paved the way for the radio and television broadcasts that we take for granted today.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Marconi's equipment relied on huge sparks of electricity to generate the Morse code dots and dashes

In 1896, Marconi came to the UK to conduct his experiments after trying, and failing, to get interest in his work from the Italians.

His assistant, George Kemp, was from Cardiff, and suggested the Bristol Channel would be the perfect place to test it out.

On 11 and 12 May Marconi's team placed a transmitter on Flat Holm, an island halfway across the Channel, and began sending messages out into the airwaves.

Their work was a failure, with the team member in Lavernock sat waiting for a non-existent signal.

Image caption,
Marconi's team sent a message across the Bristol Channel from Brean to Lavernock in Wales.

Then on 13 May, the instruments rang out with a clear spark. Marconi sent a message of "CAN YOU HEAR ME," which was received loud and clear.

Immediately, the team travelled back to Brean Down Fort, just south of Weston-super-Mare, and set up again.

A further message was sent a distance of nearly 10 miles - a record at the time.

Image source, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Image caption,
The original message slip is now preserved in the Museum of Wales, signed by Marconi and Kemp

"Before Marconi, you had to use telegraph wires to contact people but with radio you could contact ships instantly," said Dave Dyer, chairman of the Weston-super-Mare Radio Society.

"Take the Titanic for instance, which sent a distress call out, it saved so many lives at sea."

During the ship's sinking, wireless operator Jack Phillips sent out a 'CQD' message to ships nearby - a precursor to the 'SOS' signal now used.

Mr Philips, a Marconi Company employee, went down with the ship as he continued to broadcast and died in the disaster.

Britain's Postmaster General, then Herbert Samuel, said: "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention."

The wireless became the only way for survivors on board the RMS Carpathia to contact their families. Since messages were charged per word, one simply read "Safe, Bert."

In an ironic twist, Marconi narrowly avoided travelling on that fatal voyage - he was offered a free ticket for the Titanic but took the Lusitania three days earlier.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Titanic's 'CQD' distress call was picked up by the wireless operator of the RMS Celtic over 700 miles away

Two months after his Weston experiments, Marconi set up the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd, which was one of the six founders of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922.

Its first London station was called 2LO, and was broadcast from Marconi House, the headquarters of Marconi's company.

"The idea of broadcasting was big in America, and people were clamouring for it here," said Neil Wilson from the Radio Museum in Watchet, Somerset.

"It was absolutely incredible - other than playing a gramophone record you couldn't hear music or speech from elsewhere."

Image caption,
From Morse code to music: the London Radio Dance Band were often on 2LO London

Marconi's radios were designed to appeal to the mass-market, rather than to wireless amateurs who built complicated sets themselves.

"It became more of a pastime for the whole family.

"You could hear news reports from all over the country, without waiting for a newspaper, it was so revolutionary," Mr Wilson added.

Image caption,
Weston-super-Mare Radio Society's Dave Dyer wants Marconi's work celebrated locally

Against a backdrop of static coming from the small receiver in the corner of his caravan, Mr Dyer is determined to celebrate Marconi's legacy.

Until recently, a plaque was installed in the town's Italian Gardens dedicated to Marconi.

"It would be nice if his work was celebrated more here, even my daughter doesn't know about his work.

"It's so important for us as radio amateurs that he came here.

"To have that connection with Marconi in Weston-super-Mare is fantastic, he's our hero," said Mr Dyer.

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