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Wireless comes of age

Publicity leaflet for ship-shore radio service, 1930s

First ship to shore wireless transmission (1897) : wireless goes to sea

In July 1897, while on a visit to Italy, Marconi made the first radio contact from ship to shore over a distance of 12 miles. Simultaneously he showed, for the first time, that wireless could reach into the 'great unknown' beyond the visible horizon.

So it was the Italian navy that first used radio communication. But it was to be Britain that developed wireless.

Marconi Telegraph office

Marconi Company formed (1897) : Marconi's British wireless patent

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company was formed in London in July 1897 and Marconi was also granted a British patent for his invention, described as 'electrical actions or manifestations transmitted through the air, earth or water by means of electric oscillations of high frequency'.

Work began immediately to construct the first permanent wireless transmitting station at the Needles Hotel on the Isle of Wight, completed in November of that year.

WWI field radio equipment

Wireless goes to war : large and clumsy, but important

Two key naval battles in the first year of the First World War were brought about by wireless - proof of how important the new technology had become in little more than 10 years. In both the Battle of the Falklands and the destruction of the raider Emden, German warships were destroyed while trying to raid British wireless stations.

It was also the first war to see the widespread use of radio on land and in the air. Engineers and scientists on both sides worked furiously to develop radio equipment and techniques. The first field wireless sets reached the British army in 1916 - large clumsy affairs - and by the following year reconnaissance aircraft were fitted with wireless as well.

But this was a wireless telegraphy (W/T) war, waged in Morse code. What was really needed to co-ordinate troops in the field, aircraft and tanks was a portable and reliable radio telephone - but that arrived too late.

Even so, by the time of the Armistice in 1918, radio had matured from an exotic novelty into a universal device with which many servicemen and women had come in contact.

The coherer was the first practical wireless-wave detector. This example of the Marconi Co. pattern is a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Science Museum collection

Radio telegraphy and telephony : wireless finds its voice

At first, 'wireless' meant Wireless Telegraphy - or W/T - a telegraph that needed no cables. But as development continued during the early years of the 20th century, the technology became increasingly sophisticated, and knowledge of how to use the airwaves grew.

By the 1920s, radio had found its voice and it became possible to speak over the airwaves. W/T had turned into R/T - Radio Telephony.

Photo of Lee De Forest

Radio telephone - the first broadcast (1906) : wireless learns to speak

During the early 1900s electrical engineers developed vacuum tubes that could be used to detect and to amplify radio signals. Lee De Forest, an American inventor, patented a vacuum tube called a triode or audion in 1907. This tube became the key element in developing radio telephony - allowing wireless to talk.

There are many claims for the first transmission of human speech over the air. Most historians give credit to Reginald A. Fessenden, a Canadian-born physicist. In 1906 Fessenden spoke by radio from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to ships offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

Another inventor who did much to improve radio receivers was the American inventor Edwin H. Armstrong. In 1933 he discovered how to make FM broadcasts - using Frequency Modulation to produce radio signals unaffected by static or distortion. This was a key breakthrough in allowing clearer radio telephony.

Radio operator in Aircraft, 1920s

First ground to air telephone call (1920) : radio takes off

On August 19, 1920, Sir Samuel Instone, chairman of the Instone Air Line was able to have a telephone conversation by wireless radio between his home in London and a passenger on board on of his Vickers aeroplanes en route to Paris. This is thought to have been the first radio telephone call to an aircraft in flight.

Over the next two decades, radio telephony (R/T) equipment became ever more compact and reliable so that by the late 1930s virtually all aircraft were fitted with radios that allowed their pilots to speak to ground control, or to other aircraft nearby.

Modern radio mast at Poldhu

Why code survived : a new use for Morse

The choice of Morse code for wireless telegraphy was almost inevitable; it was already in universal use for landline telegraphy, and was also about as complex a signal as the early radio systems could handle.

Morse was and is a very efficient and flexible radio communications system. It penetrates static far better than speech, being far less affected by interference and fading.

A coded signal occupies a narrower frequency channel than voice, allowing more efficient use of the airwaves, and unlike speech, unfamiliar accents do not cause problems of recognition.

When all other means of communication failed, radio operators always resorted to Morse code.

Morse is hardly used commercially these days - but it still forms a valuable standby for professionals - and is used by radio amateurs worldwide.

Early Valve (1910s) : controlling the flow

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.

Early Valve (1910s) : controlling the flow

This is an early valve that was used in the late 1910s / early 1920s. In the later models the valves lost their roundness and became longer, transparent tubes.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

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