Remembering Canada

On the weekend of Feb. 24 an Italian princess named Elettra Marconi retraced steps laid down by her father almost 100 years earlier. In so doing, she completed a personal journey of discovery and also paid tribute to the role Canada played in one of history’s greatest advancements in communication technology.

Guglielmo Marconi was a scientist and a dreamer. His fascination with what would become radio began in the late1800s. Heinrich Hertz, for whom the units hertz and megahertz are named, discovered and first produced radio waves in 1888, and at the turn of the century modern communication relied on telegraph wires.

By 1895, Marconi was sending electrical signals through the air across the width of his house, and then from the house to the garden. His next step was to transmit from one side of a hill to the other, the first known transmission between two reciprocally-invisible points.

Marconi kept at it, and by 1899 he had sent a signal nine miles across England’s Bristol Channel and 31 miles across the English Channel to France. That was impressive but few thought he would progress much beyond that. A distance of approximately 200 miles was unanimously believed to be wireless technology’s practical limitation, as the curvature of the Earth would send any long-distance signal soaring off into space.

Undeterred, Marconi decided to tackle the Atlantic. Towards the end of 1901, he established a transmitting station at Poldhu, in Cornwall, on a peninsula protruding into the Atlantic. The receiving station, a small hut, was built on the other side of the ocean in St. John’s, Nfld. Poldhu transmitted the telegraphic signal of the letter “S” while Marconi struggled to fashion the right type of receiving antenna. He built larger antennas and hung them from balloons and kites to gain altitude.

Finally, and gloriously, on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 1901, the signal arrived. Marconi and his assistant both heard a Morse-coded “S” that had traversed the ocean.

One hundred years later, Marconi’s daughter travelled to Canada to thank the country her father credited with supporting his early work. Elettra Marconi told the St. John’s audience that her father’s accomplishment was viewed by some as a threat to the status quo.

“Sadly, the Anglo-American Telegraph Co. knocked on his door, the door of the little hut (on Signal Hill in St. John’s) and threatened him with court action. They wanted him to go away, and my father decided to leave Newfoundland and go to America. But the Canadian government immediately understood the importance of Marconi’s invention and they stopped him (from leaving). Canadians knew that his transmission across the Atlantic would help ships, fishermen, and their relationship with England.

“My father always told me and my mother how grateful he was to Canada. All my life I have longed to visit St. John’s, and now I am here. I am happy to see the landscape that is the same as it was when my father made the first transmission to cross the Atlantic.”

Canada’s initial involvement in Guglielmo Marconi’s communications revolution was a geographic happenstance – Newfoundland, after all, is relatively close to England. However, the subsequent actions of the Canadian government cement our place in this historic development.

Following his 1901 transmission, Marconi wrote: “The electric waves sent out into space from Poldhu had traversed the Atlantic – the distance, enormous as it seemed then, of 1,700 miles – unimpeded by the curvature of the earth…I now felt for the first time absolutely certain that the day would come when mankind would be able to send messages without wires not only across the Atlantic but between the farthermost ends of the earth.”

Those words still resonant in our world of instant communication, Internet culture and the current mania over wireless technology.