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).
The 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.
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.
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”.
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.