Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Story of an Old Newfoundland Postcard

Did Marconi Really Hear the Letter 'S' Across the Atlantic ?

It was on Thursday December 12 in the year 1901, that Marconi claimed to have successfully received a wireless transmission from Poldhu in Cornwall at his temporary listening location near St. John’s on the North American island of Newfoundland. 

            It is stated that the radiating equipment at Poldhu was a 75 kW spark transmitter, which was operating somewhere in what we would today call the longwave or maybe the mediumwave band.  The signal was fed into a temporary vertical fan antenna system. 

            The receiving equipment at the old hospital building near Cabot Tower on Signal Hill St. John’s Newfoundland, was a longwire antenna held aloft by a balloon or a kite, a simple untuned coherer detector, and a set of headphones.  It is suggested that the transmitter was radiating on several harmonic frequencies in addition to the emission on the fundamental frequency, and it is quite probable that the receiver was also receiving some of the untuned harmonics as well as the fundamental.

            That event is dated exactly 111 years ago tomorrow, Monday December 12, 2012.  However, all throughout these many years, it has been quite popular to deny the veracity of the event, and to declare that Marconi & his assistant George Kemp did not actually hear the letter S transmitted across the Atlantic from England, but instead, they simply heard the crash of static produced by strong winter storms.   

            It is true, in the headphones, the actual sound of static and the sound of a spark from a distant wireless transmitter were quite the same in that era.  However, there is a real difference between the irregular sounds created by lightning and the regular rhythmic sound of a continuous stream of the letter S, three dots, in Morse Code. 

            We should remember also, that both Marconi & Kemp listed in their diaries the times & the dates when they state that they heard the letter S from England.  The Marconi diary shows that he heard the signal from Poldhu on 14 separate occasions during the Thursday & Friday; and the Kemp diary shows that he heard the signal on 11 separate occasions, a total of 25 times altogether.

            In addition, it is known that lower frequency radio transmissions in the middle of winter at a low sunspot count can cover quite long distances, as is revealed also in observed mediumwave coverage during similar conditions in Australia & New Zealand.

            However, in the middle of last year, an interesting original postcard was offered on eBay, and the message on this postcard tends to confirm the fact that it was believed in Newfoundland at the time that Marconi did indeed achieve what he said he achieved.

            The message was written in black ink onto a 2d (two penny) Newfoundland postal card with the printed postage stamp in orange showing a portrait of Queen Victoria.  The message was written on January 15, 1902, just a little over a month after Marconi’s stated reception of the wireless signal from England.  The card was addressed to Mr. William Codner at 18 Wickford Street, St John’s, though the sender did not give his own name nor complete address.

            This card was posted at Broad Cove NS, indicating North Shore to distinguish it from another place with a similar name, and it was carried by the old Conception Bay Railway.  Three postal cancellation dates show January 18 & 20, 1902.  The message on the card reads as follows:

Dear Sir,
You will please tell your friend the adjutant who is (at) St Johns that a  mistake was made in referance of date of first message wireless telegraphy received in Newfoundland.  For factule information, please mention right date first message across the Atlantic was received from Lizard Point in Cornwall at 11:20 am Wednesday the 11th November 1901.
(Two illegible initials) 
            The writer accuses the Adjutant of making a mistake regarding the correct date for the 1st Morse message across the Atlantic, but he himself makes several mistakes, due no doubt to his reliance upon his own memory, and not checking up on the accuracy of the information.  We would see the mistakes on this 110 year old postcard as follows:-

 1. The write spells the word “reference” incorrectly, as “referance”.

2. He also spells the word “factual” incorrectly, as “factule”.

3. There were 2 Marconi wireless stations located on the southern coast of Cornwall, 6 miles apart.         The station at Lizard was subsidiary to Poldhu.  The Poldhu station was the one that Morsed the          letter S to Newfoundland, not the Lizard station.

4. The 11th of November in the year 1901 was not a Wednesday, instead it was a Monday.

5. It is true, that Poldhu did send the letter S to Newfoundland on Wednesday the 11th of December, but the Marconi/Kemp diaries and subsequent news reports indicate that the signals on the 1st day           were not received reliably at St. John’s.  The 1st verified reception, it is stated, was on the next           day, Thursday, December 12, 1901.

             What is the writer of the card trying to say?  In spite of his 5 mistakes, he is endeavoring to state that the 1st reception of a trans-Atlantic wireless signal occurred at 11:20 am Newfoundland time, on Wednesday December 11, 1901.  It is true, there are reports that the signal was heard on that date, though neither Marconi nor Kemp considered that the reception was sufficiently attested, due to the many changing propagation conditions.  On this the 1st day, several attempts were made at reception, but many logistical problems intervened, including the fact that a large balloon broke loose, taking the long antenna wire with it.  Continuous attempts at reception on the 1st listening day were impossible.  

            Why did the unidentified writer write to Mr William Codner?  Was Codner the editor, or maybe the reporter, for the local newspaper in St John’s?  Who was the Adjutant?  Was he interviewed about these Marconi events by the local newspaper?

            I guess we will never know, but the postcard, with all of its mistakes, does throw light onto the fact that at least one Newfoundlander at the time believed that Marconi did indeed receive the letter S across the Atlantic on that memorable occasion.  Maybe the radio historians should be arguing as to which day should be listed as the 1st day of reception (Wednesday December 11, 1901 or Thursday December 12, 1901), rather than questioning as to whether a signal was heard at all.
(AWR/Wavescan/NWS 198 via Adrian Peterson)
(photo/Daily Dope.Net)