Marconi’s “gadget”

In today’s interconnected world where communication can be constant and relentless, when it seems we can be in touch with anyone, anywhere at any time, it’s difficult to think ourselves into an era when we couldn’t (or didn’t want to).

MarconiThe Italian experimenter Marconi was not the “inventor” of radio, as is sometimes believed, and such a claim was never made by Marconi himself. The pioneering research into the phenomena of electro-magnetic pulsations or “waves” was done by scientists of many nations, including German, Italian, French, British, and American physicists; but Marconi had quite properly patented transmitting and receiving apparatus of his own design in 1896, and formed a company to sell the apparatus and the idea, at first specially for the transmission of messages over water – that is, principally for use in ships – in which, in the nature of things, wire-telegraphy was impossible.

It was for this reason that the name “wireless” came into use, as a dramatic description of a new kind of electric telegraph which could send signals by Morse code between ships out of sight of one another at sea, or between ships and the shore, far beyond visual or normally audible range.

Part of a chart illustrating the Morse Code alphabet.

For centuries seamen had been accustomed to being isolated from the rest of the world when they were at sea, with no method of communicating with other vessels or with the shore except by flag signals or semaphore or signal lamps within a visual range of, say, five miles at most, or by siren blasts, megaphones, and leather-throated singing out within directly audible range.

Signaling with flags.

But, in its early stages, wireless seemed of little use in the mercantile marine, in the everyday working of ships at sea. It was envisaged as an emergency method of sending or receiving signals of distress, which happily are very rare. In other words, it was only “a gadget”.

Cigarette card image of the Cunard ship RMS Caronia.The Caronia [in 1907] carried one wireless operator, who was a former Post Office landline telegraphist. He pottered about in the daytime and slept soundly throughout the night, and nobody paid much attention either to him or to his “fantastic instruments”. The name “wireless telegraphy” – also known as “marconigram signalling” – indicated to our minds something newfangled and unreliable, and not of much practical use.
‘Tramps and Ladies, My Early Years in Steamers’, Sir James Bisset with P.R. Stephensen, Angus & Robertson, 1959.

Marconi – cigarette card, Famous Men series by Carreras, 1927.
Graphics from ‘Brown’s Signalling’, 1954.
Caronia – cigarette card, Merchant Ships of the World, W.D. & H.O. Wills, c. 1923.


An Emigrant’s Tale

I was in my teens when we left Scotland. My father was ordered to take a long sea voyage, and New Zealand was chosen as our destination – the mild climate being a great attraction.

Off Valparaiso

We left Home in the sailing ship Ganges in July [1st], 1863, arriving in Auckland in October [12th], after a good voyage; no bad storms, and no serious illness. There were 12 first class passengers, and about 250 immigrants in the steerage. In those days the conditions of travelling first class were much below those of the third class now-a-days both in accommodation and in commissariat arrangements, there being very small cabins, and very hard bunks, with the most primitive means of lighting. There were no baths; the men and boys used to be hosed down in the early mornings when the decks were cleaned, but the women had to perform their ablutions in tiny basins with very little water.

We carried some crates of thin fowls on deck, which grew tougher and skinnier as the voyage progressed, as did also a few sheep. There were also preserved vegetables, potatoes which were very nasty, and butter, which, unlike the fowls, grew stronger and stronger as time went on. Curiously enough, plum pudding was the most successful dish in the menu. It appeared every Thursday, and was quite the event of the week. But we had a good captain, and our fellow-passengers were so congenial that everyone felt sorry when the voyage ended, and we had to separate and scatter.
A. H. Williams quoted in ‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.

The popular captain was Thomas Funnell and there were 22 passengers listed in the main cabin. One steerage passenger, William Kirkwood, had died of pulmonary tuberculosis in September, and one child was stillborn in August. That was certainly a “good voyage” by the standards of the day.

The ship’s second, and last, voyage to New Zealand in 1864/65 with Irish emigrants wasn’t so fortunate. Two crew lost overboard when they fell from the mast, two adult passenger deaths, and 54 children due to an outbreak of whooping cough. The newspaper report and captain’s log make grim reading.

The Evans Bay Slip

The Wellington Patent Slip at Evans Bay, near today’s international airport, was an important feature of the harbour’s industrial shoreline for a hundred years.

Patent slip vintage

This postcard from the early 1900s was printed, and presumably hand coloured, in Berlin and the colourist, never having seen the place, was overly generous with the blue ink. The area around the ship was, of course, dry land and not water.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897, noted –
“The Patent Slip, owned by a private company, is situated in Evans Bay, about three miles by road and two-and-a-half miles by water from the Queen’s Wharf, and can take vessels up to 2,000 tons not exceeding 300 feet in length or having a greater draught forward than sixteen feet when about to be slipped. The ways are laid to a gradient of one in twenty-three, are 1,070 feet in length, and have a depth at high water of 32 feet at the outer end. The Slip Company own appliances for repairing both wooden and iron vessels, and have machine tools for effecting the smaller class of repairs to iron vessels, but large repairs have to be sent to the foundries in the City. The Company charges for vessels over 200 tons register 1s[hilling] per ton on the gross tonnage for the first day, and 6d. [sixpence] per ton per diem thereafter”.

Although the company was founded in 1871 preparation of the site, especially laying the rails under water at the outer end, took two years. The divers were sometimes swept off their feet in strong currents.

Patent slip Huia

Typical of small coastal steamers in the 19th century, the s.s. Huia (1878-1927) had a reputation for being difficult to steer in some conditions and went aground more than once. This photograph might have been taken at the Patent Slip in June 1907 after she stranded for 20 minutes on Long Point, Kapiti Island, on her regular run from Wanganui to Wellington. A leak was traced to a cracked plate on her port side.

In 1897, as the Cyclopedia explained, the Patent Slip “as a settlement” consisted of “a few cottages……occupied by the engineer in charge and some of the men who are employed” there. Eventually, the city suburbs spread out to engulf it and by mid 20th century coastal shipping had begun to die away under pressure from road, rail and air transport. In 1972 the slip – then under the control of the Harbour Board – didn’t have enough trade to stay in business and was closed. Now the site is preserved alongside Wellington’s most scenic route “around the bays” from the city to Miramar. Unfortunately, due to its low profile, many tourists probably drive past it without noticing.

The site of Wellington's Patent Slip, Evans Bay, (1871-1972).

The track of the original slipway is marked by wooden poles that feature panels explaining the site’s history. The huge cogged wheel at left was part of the steam driven winding gear that hauled vessels out of the water with chains. The chain locker below was 10 metres [about 30 feet] deep.

Patent slip_2

This second slipway, opened in 1922, lies alongside Wellington’s scenic “round the bays” drive.

Interesting trivia – One of the company directors in 1897 was Harold Beauchamp, father of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

Maiden voyage


The White Star liner R.M.S. Titanic sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage 105 years ago today.

This painting, ‘Departure into History’, is by the renowned marine artist Colin Verity (1924 – 2011). It was reproduced on a postcard in 1998 by Marine Art Posters of Hull, England.

Dropping the Pilot


Tuck’s Oilette [set of 12 postcards] 2908. Artist C. Chapman

Dropping the Pilot. This is quite spectacular and creates no little commotion, the passengers gathering to watch the pilot’s agility in getting over the vessel’s side and into his little boat there waiting for him. The bar at the entrance to New York harbor can only be crossed at high tide by big ships, and then the water is only 32 feet deep. All foreign vessels and ships sailing under register, both incoming and outward bound, are obliged to employ the services of a pilot to guide them safely through the channel and over the bar. Sandy Hook pilots are State constituted guardians of the interests of maritime insurance of the Port of New York. [Card caption]

Rivalry at the Suez Canal


The Suez Canal from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and opened in 1869, takes advantage of some lakes on its route, and for ninety miles runs through the desert as a commercial highway of the greatest importance to all nations, especially our own. By it the journey to India is very nearly halved. A great share in its control was gained when the Khedive’s shares were bought for our country [1875]. These have proved not only a good financial investment, but also a great leverage in the diplomacy necessary for maintaining a hold on Egypt…..


A cargo ship on the “commercial highway” at Tussun Curve

The importance of Egypt on the highway to India has brought it under British control which has been maintained since 1882.

Text from The World, a British school textbook by McDougall’s Educational Co. Ltd. c.1913/14.
This gives the impression that Britain supported the Canal proposal from the start. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The official position was that it would be a threat to British maritime supremacy and was “merely a device for French interference in the East”. Paranoia turned to farce after the Canal opened….

……. argument about the Suez Canal rumbled on in London, even after Disraeli’s dramatic purchase of Canal company shares. That purchase gave the British places on the Canal company’s Board of Directors but it still seemed to them that the French were using the Canal as a weapon against them…… The French had set up a Sanitary Board in Egypt, nominally meant to keep the country free of cholera. It decreed that if a ship passed through the Canal without a clean bill of health, it must not have any contact with the shore, and nobody on shore must go on board it. Yet all ships using the Canal had to be controlled by a pilot. In effect, no ship – and they were mostly British – which approached from the south could present a bill of health from every Eastern port she had called at, some of which might have had a case of cholera. British ships were told that they must have a pilot, that he must not go on the ship but go ahead of it in a tug boat, shouting his instructions. That took an unconscionable time, the Canal company charged the earth for it, and it led to frequent strandings.

The French would have taken a different view and insisted their Sanitary Board was a necessary protection. But it never got to that stage. The British Foreign Office, still hating the thought that the Canal was under French control, demanded a second canal, to be strictly British, and in 1883 it offered de Lesseps £8 million to dig it.

[Thomas] Sutherland [Managing Director of P&O] was elected Chairman of a Committee representing all the British shipping lines which used or might use the Canal, with instructions to put the scheme into effect. De Lesseps had all the cards in his hand, not least the firm offer of £8 million. But luckily Sutherland, and presumably de Lesseps too, came to see after very long discussions that there must be some more practical answer to the problems, and the rather crazy idea of a second Suez Canal parallel with the first was allowed to fall out of sight.

The Story of P&O, David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.


The P&O ship Caledonia (1894-1925) leaving Port Said.