Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts
Newfoundlanders often proclaim that Signal Hill in St. John's was the place where Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless message ever transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean. We have every right to do so, and to claim that Marconi's success marked the start of the communications revolution that has done so much to shape the way everybody in the world lives and works.
The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador's celebration of the Marconi centennial in 2001 was convincing evidence that we still take pride in his achievement. But nowhere during the year-long centennial celebrations was there any mention that Marconi left Newfoundland less than a fortnight after he demonstrated that wireless messages could cross oceans, and nowhere was there any mention of the reason why he did so.
Marconi's story is well-known. An Italian, he had long been entranced by the possibility of sending messages through the air rather than through giant cables underneath the Atlantic and the world's other great oceans. Unable to raise sufficient money in Italy to finance experiments to prove his theories, he went to London in 1896. There, he was able to attract the funding he needed. (James Candow, in his Lookout: The History of Signal Hill (2011) sets the amount at $10 million in today's Canadian currency).
By 1899, Marconi had successfully sent wireless messages across the 51 kilometres of the English Channel, between England and France. Emboldened by this, he set out to send them across the Atlantic Ocean.
St John's a second choice
He began by building a transmitting station at Poldhu Cove, in Cornwall on the western edge of England. His idea was to send a message to Massachusetts, 5,000 kilometres away. Equipment failure caused him to abandon this plan, however, and he then chose St. John's, 3,425 kilometres from Poldhu, as his eastern terminus.
With the help of Newfoundland's governor and prime minister, he set up his receiving apparatus in the abandoned Diphtheria and Fever Hospital in Ross's Valley, just below Signal Hill. (The common belief that he did so at Cabot Tower is wrong.)
Marconi arrived in Newfoundland's capital on Dec. 6, 1901. He was coy about his intentions. Candow reports that he told the St. John's newspapers that he was going to attempt "to make contact with ocean liners plying the shipping lanes south of Cape Race." He speculates that Marconi did this "to forestall potential embarrassment should the experiment fail." His concerns were baseless, however.
Before leaving England, Marconi had arranged to have the Morse letter "S" - three dots - sent westward from Poldhu on Wednesday, Dec. 11. Shortly after noon, Newfoundland time, he heard the signal. He passed the receiver to George Kemp, his assistant. He, too, heard three dots. Both men heard them again on two separate occasions later that afternoon.
There were many who doubted that Marconi actually heard anything other than static. He knew what he was listening for — the three dots — and he knew when the transmission was to be made. There is no way to settle the argument definitively. Candow argues convincingly, on the basis of all the available evidence, that the two men did in fact hear "S," and that Marconi's "every subsequent word and deed indicated that a miracle had occurred".
The story doesn't end there. Less than a fortnight after his triumphant success, Marconi sailed away from Newfoundland, never to return. He went on to Nova Scotia in Canada, Newfoundland's neighbouring Dominion. It was from there, in Glace Bay, that he sent the first message eastward across the Atlantic to England, in December 1902.
Why did Marconi not stay in Newfoundland? And why did he leave so quickly? The answer is that he left to avoid a lawsuit. And the threat to sue him, ironically, came about because Newfoundland was the place where the Trans-Atlantic undersea cable first came ashore, at Heart's Content.
In 1854, the Newfoundland legislature — the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council — had granted a monopoly on telegraphic communication in the Colony to Cyrus Field, the man who had succeeded in laying a cable across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland. The monopoly ran for 50 years. The Anglo-American Telegraph Company, successor to Field's company, threatened to sue Marconi on the grounds that he had broken it.
Nobody seems to have paid any attention to the fact that the Anglo-American monopoly was for transmission by overland cables; not wireless transmission. (The actual words of the Act were that the Company had the "sole and exclusive right to build, make, occupy, take or work the said line or any line of telegraph ... between any ... points on the Island."
The Canadian authorities heard about the threat, and promptly invited Marconi to come to Canada. He left St. John's on Christmas Eve.
The Canadian Marconi Company did come to Newfoundland in the end. Its most powerful station, at Cape Race, went into service in 1904, when the monopoly expired. Eight years later, in April 1912, the operators there picked up the distress signals from the doomed Titanic, and passed the news of the disaster to the world.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the following: firstname.lastname@example.org