Thursday, July 20, 2017

Signalling with Marconi

‘Signalling with Marconi and Parallel-Wire systems to Lavernock Point.’ This is George Kemp’s inauspicious diary entry for 13 December 1897, the day the Italian radio pioneer, Guglielmo Marconi, made telecommunications history. Marconi, who died 80 years ago today, certainly kept notebooks and diaries himself, though they are brief and coded and considered largely inscrutable by biographers. Of more use to biographers, especially those wishing to trace the evolution of Marconi’s technical innovations, are the diaries kept by Kemp, his first assistant and lifelong friend.

Marconi was born in 1874 into a wealthy Bologna family, and, although mostly brought up in Italy, he spent several years living with his Irish/Scottish mother in Bedford, England. As a boy he took a keen interest in physical and electrical science, studying the work of physicists Maxwell and Hertz. Another physicist who was also a neighbour, Augusto Righi, let Marconi attend lectures at the university of Bologna. In 1895, he began experiments at his father’s country estate at Pontecchio, and succeeded in sending wireless signals over a distance of one and a half miles. The following year, he took his apparatus to England where he was introduced to William Preece, engineer-in-chief of the Post Office, and was granted the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy.

Marconi demonstrated his system successfully in London, on Salisbury Plain and, most significantly, across the Bristol Channel (on 13 May 1897); and later, in July, he formed The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited. That same year, he gave a demonstration to the Italian Government at Spezia where wireless signals were sent over a distance of twelve miles; and, in 1899, he established wireless communication between France and England across the English Channel. He soon erected permanent wireless stations in several places on the south coast. In 1900, he took out his famous patent No. 7777 for ‘tuned or syntonic telegraphy’ and, on an historic day, 12 December 1901, determined to prove that wireless waves were not affected by the curvature of the Earth, he used his system for transmitting the first wireless signals across the Atlantic between Poldhu, Cornwall, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, a distance of over 2,000 miles. A year later, a transmission from a Marconi station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada, became the world’s first radio message to cross the Atlantic in the other direction. In 1905, Marconi married Beatrice O’Brien in 1905, and they had three children.

Marconi expanded his company rapidly, developing inventions, and building high-powered stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships. In 1904, he established a service of transmitting news to subscribing vessels at sea, and a few years later he launched the first transatlantic commercial service between Glace Bay and Clifden, Ireland. In 1905, he patented his horizontal directional aerial and, in 1912, a ‘timed spark’ system for generating continuous waves. Marconi’s company played a significant role in saving lives after the sinking of the Titanic, a development which brought Marconi himself some fame. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, shared with Professor Karl Braun, in 1909. In 1913, the Marconis moved back to Italy.

In 1914, Marconi was commissioned in the Italian Army as a Lieutenant, and placed in charge of Italy’s military radio service. He was later promoted to Captain, and in 1916 transferred to the Navy in the rank of Commander. He was a member of the Italian government mission to the United States in 1917, and in 1919 was appointed Italian plenipotentiary delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. He was awarded the Italian Military Medal in 1919 in recognition of his war service. Marconi continued to experiment, extending  knowledge and uses of shorter and shorter radio waves. In 1924, his company obtained a contract from the British post office to establish shortwave communication with the countries of the British Commonwealth. In 1927, having had his first marriage annulled, he married Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali and they had one child.

In 1930, by which time 
Marconi had joined the Italian Fascist party, Benito Mussolini appointed him president of the Royal Academy of Italy, which made Marconi a member of the Fascist Grand Council. He received many honorary doctorates and other international honours and awards, including Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in England, and the hereditary title of Marchese in Italy. He died on 20 July 1937, and was given a state funeral. The following day, all BBC transmitters and wireless Post Office transmitters in the British Isles observed two minutes of silence in his honour. Further information is readily available online, not least at Wikipedia, Nobel Prize, Electronics Notes, and Encyclop√¶dia Britannica.

Marconi was an inveterate keeper of notebooks which rarely, it seems, had the character of a private diary. Such notebooks from his teens (and other archival materials) were discovered in the 1990s at Villa Farnesina (which had been the home of the Royal Academy under Marconi’s presidency). Some information on these early notebooks (and photographs) can be found at the Guglielmo Marconi Committee’s website. Although the text is in Italian, Google Translate provides a reasonable text in English. 

Otherwise, there is information in English about Marconi’s adult notebooks/diaries in various biographies. Marc Raboy, in his much-respected and very recent work Marconi: The Man who Networked the World (Oxford University Press, 2016), summarises: ‘Every life has its store of secrets and mysteries, which is perhaps why people get so exercised at the thought of some government agency having access to their phone records or hard drives. Marconi’s diaries hold clues to questions unasked and unanswerable, often hinting at relations and interests that then vanish without a trace. There is a backstory to Marconi’s elusive life that we can only begin to glimpse. He loved recounting and reinventing it, but he also took great care to keep parts of it shrouded in obscurity. He would record meetings and make notes to himself in small leather-bound diaries, but he often used a series of indecipherable codes meaningful only to himself; a word, a name, a single letter, a number or an X. The diaries are inscrutable, strewn with references to people who turn up nowhere else in any of the accounts of his life. One of these ephemeral figures was Betty - whose full name was Marion Elizabeth Jessie Marconi Clover. Marconi would occasionally make a note regarding his children - Degna, Giulio, Gioia. . . and, once in the same breath, Betty Clover. On the surface, what could be more reasonable than taking one’s fourteen-year-old goddaughter to Cartier, London’s finest jewellery dealer (as he recorded doing on January 24,1925), or so it would appear.’

Raboy includes more than a dozen mentions of Marconi’s notebooks/diaries in his index, but, as far as I can tell, he only quotes from the diaries once - and in this context: ‘Marconi also carried around a small pocket diary in those days that he used occasionally for recording experimental notations. The notations are often stripped of any context and not necessarily placed on the pages bearing the dates when they were made. But under December 12, 1901, partly obscured by other notations that he may have made earlier or later, he has written: “Sigs at 12.30 1.1 OX and 2.20,” and on December 13, 1901: “Sigs at 1.38.” These entries are the only ones in ink; the others are in pencil. In later years, Marconi frequently referred to these notations, as well as Kemp’s diary, as evidence of the time and date the signals were received. What is perhaps most unusual is that neither Kemp’s nor Marconi’s diary indicate they felt that anything extraordinary had taken place. The entries are matter-of-fact and unadorned. In later years, they both embellished the story, turning it into drama.’

Kemp - George S. Kemp - was Marconi’s right-hand man for many years. Marconi always considered Kemp his first collaborator and a valued friend; indeed emp was still employed by the Marconi company when he died on January 2, 1933, at the age of seventy-five. Marconi was one of the witnesses to his will. From 1887 to 1932, he kept a diary recording his work with Marconi. The diary is a considered a precious resource for understanding Marconi’s research in the early days, and is referred to and quoted from often in Raboy’s biography.

Similarly, Gerald Garratt has much to say about Kemp in his work (available at GooglebooksThe Early History of Radio: From Faraday to Marconi (Issue 20 of History and Management of Technology Series - Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1994): ‘A name that does not appear in any of the contemporary accounts is that of G. S. Kemp, to whom we are chiefly indebted for the day-to-day account of the Lavernock trials. Kemp had joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen and, when he was discharged in 1895 at the age of thirty-eight, he joined the staff of the Post Office as an assistant in the Engineer-in-Chief’s Laboratory. In that capacity, he had been instructed to assist Marconi in the earlier experiments on Salisbury Plain. With the decision to hold the more extensive trials in the Bristol Channel, Kemp was made responsible for transporting and setting up the apparatus at Lavernock and Flat Holme. Following his life-long habit, Kemp recorded brief details of his daily activities in a pocket diary. It is to this diary - and particularly to the expanded and edited versions that Kemp prepared for the Marconi Company in about 1930 - that we are indebted for the details which follow.’

Garratt’s text then continues (I have italicised the entries from Kemp’s diary for clarity):

‘In Kemp’s words, the historic experiments started early:

6 May 1897
‘Left at 8.30 a.m. for Paddington with apparatus for experiments at Cardiff. Arrived at 2.17 p.m. and stowed apparatus in store. Proceeded to Lavernock to see mast and found that a long cable had been fixed, stretching out beyond low-water mark, for the earth connection. Fixed a wire atop the 107 ft pole, 16 strands of aluminium wire. Then returned to Cardiff to make arrangements for transporting apparatus to Flat Holme Island.’

7 May 1897
‘I packed Mr Marconi’s transmitter into a small tug at 6.30 a.m. together with the transmitting and receiving apparatus belonging to Mr Preece’s Parallel- Wire system and transported all to Flat Holme Island. Fixed a wire of 18 strands to top of 110 ft pole and prepared Mr Marconi’s transmitter in a small hut close to mast. Slept at a small house owned by the person in charge of the Cremation House.’

For the next few days, Kemp was busy on the little island, fitting up and testing Marconi’s transmitter and Preece’s parallel-wire system. He had trouble with the insulation of the zinc drum at the top of the mast and with the insulation of the stays. Sparks on the parallel-wire system also caused difficulties whenever he used the Marconi transmitter, but these were only ‘teething troubles’ and by the Wednesday of the following week he was able to record that, ‘The signals transmitted across to Lavernock by Mr Marconi’s transmitter and the Parallel-Wire system were good.’ Insulation, however, was still proving troublesome and his next comment was, ‘As I did not like the insulation of the drum, I sent some of these signals on the aerial which was connected to insulated stays’ - a reminder of the very high voltages encountered in the aerial circuits of the early spark transmitters.

Mention was made above of the two versions of Kemp’s diary: the original contemporary pocket diary (parts of which the owner, Kemp’s son, Leslie, kindly permitted me to photograph some years ago) and the expanded version which Kemp had typed and edited for the Marconi Company in about 1930. The latter version contains an amount of detail to which no reference is made in the original, and while no actual contradictions have been noted, it is difficult to avoid wondering how an old man (he was over seventy at the time) writing more than thirty years after the events could have remembered many of the trivial details he mentions. In the original diary, the events of the time from Monday 10 to Friday 14 May are bracketed together with the single comment, ‘Signalling with Marconi and Parallel-Wire systems to Lavernock Point’, but in the 1930 version the daily events are recorded with considerable detail, for example:

13 May 1897
‘The great day for Flat Holme signals. 1 started at 7 a.m. and fitted a new copper earth wire in lieu of the iron earth. I sent and received good signals on both systems between 12 and 1.45 p.m. The first half hour of V’s were on a paper strip on the inker, the second, ‘so be it, let it be so’, and the third, ‘it is cold here and the wind is up’. This message was posted to the Kaiser by Professor Slaby.

In the afternoon Mr Marconi came over and tried some adjustments; Mr Taylor came with him and did a little transmitting but, as T sent the best sentences between 12 and 2 p.m. I returned to those adjustments and sent them the following:
How are you?   repeated
It is hot   repeated
Marconi   repeated
Go to bed   repeated
Go to Hull   repeated
So be it   repeated
Tea here is good   repeated

Nine similar sentences follow. The tests were resumed the following morning. A motor-driven commutator and a Vrill break were tried, but with no marked improvement on the previous day’s results.’

15 May 1897
‘I dismantled the Marconi transmitting apparatus on Flat Holme, leaving it at Penarth, and then arranged for a steamer to Brean Down on Monday.’

Here is the first mention in any of the records of an attempt to transmit right across the Bristol Channel from Lavernock to Brean Down on the Somerset coast. It leaves the impression that it was a sudden, ‘on the spot’ decision, inspired in all probability by the success of the Lavernock-Flat Holme experiments. Preparations continued over the weekend, with Kemp assembling the Marconi transmitter on the top of the cliff at Lavernock. Monday, however, brought bad weather, and Kemp noted that it was too rough for the receiver party to land at Brean Down. Kemp himself remained at Lavernock to operate the transmitter. Just how the receiver party eventually reached Brean Down is not evident from the surviving records. There is no record either of the names of those in the receiver party, or of exactly what they received, but in his contemporary diary Kemp noted on Tuesday, 18 May: ‘Good signals to Brean Down using kite and 300 ft (91.4m) of 4-strand wire’.

In the language of the day, the phrase ‘good signals’ was far from being synonymous with ‘good messages’. In the 1930 version of his diary, Kemp seems to qualify his original comment by saying ‘The engineers reported that they had received signals at Brean Down’. Whether or not the signals were exactly ‘Q5’ (fully readable), it is evident from Gavey’s report that the Post Office officials were impressed with the inherent possibilities of the system. Signals, of sorts, had got across, although it was clear that, in Gavey’s words, ‘There was . . . still much to be desired in order to convert crude appliances into good working devices’. [. . .]

This historic series of experiments across the Bristol Channel came to a close, as Kemp noted the following in his diary:

29 May 1897
‘Packed up and returned to Paddington by the 10.37 p.m. train from Cardiff, arriving at Paddington at 3.30 a.m. on Sunday morning. We stowed all the apparatus in the cloak room.’ ’

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