Marconi: The West of England's very own Italian wireless pioneer
A trip to the Lizard King's monument
Geek's Guide to Britain This is the story of a 22-year-old technology genius, who, stung by the lack of interest in his work in his homeland, moved to a new country to develop his ideas.
In a single year, this individual extended the performance of a key technology of his time by a factor of more than 20.
It sounds like an outlandish tale even by Silicon Valley standards, but by the end of 1901, Guglielmo Marconi had pushed the range of wireless communications from just over 80 miles (128km) to 2,000 (3,220km).
His breakthrough turned conventions about the then-new wireless technology on its head, earning him a joint Nobel Prize for Physics nine years later.
If one technology dominated the early 20th century, it was wireless – thanks largely to Marconi. Before TV, Marconi's work established wireless as the world’s first mass medium, trouncing telegraph and rubbishing print.
He facilitated the spread of communications, entertainment, politics and propaganda around the globe in a fast-modernising world of motor-driven cars, and propeller-powered aircraft.
Long-range wireless transmissions made the oceans a safer place, too, allowing ships to stay in touch with the land long after they had journeyed over the horizon. Marconi’s work also allowed the development of the SOS signal – and his company received the first one in 1910.
The birthplace of long-range wireless is an area surrounded by oceans, so remote it feels like the edge of the world: Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula, the southernmost part of Great Britain.
Fresh-faced Marconi, circa Lizard transmissions
From a pair of sites – a hut on the coast near The Lizard village then a purpose-built facility near the village of Poldhu – Marconi worked on the generation and transmission of wireless radio signals.
You can visit the scene of Marconi’s endeavours today.
Assuming you are already in west Cornwall, you can visit both in an afternoon by car or bus. As it generally opens and closes first, it makes sense to follow Marconi and start at Lizard Wireless Station. After half a mile’s easy walk from the village along the Lloyds Lane track, you meet the coast path, with views of cliffs, a nearby lighthouse and the ocean.
Built in 1900, this Grade II-listed building is the world’s oldest surviving Marconi wireless station and is run by the National Trust. It was from here that Marconi conducted his early work, reaching out across the sea.
Of course, Marconi didn’t invent wireless; it owes its origins to German physicist Heinrich Hertz. Marconi, the son of a wealthy landowner and a member of Ireland’s Jameson spirit distilling family, had studied at the Livorno Technical Institute and University of Bologna. He became interested in Hertz’s work and by 1895 had extended the range of wireless to 1.5 miles (2.5km).
But the Italian government wasn’t interested, so Marconi moved to Britain – a canny move given its erstwhile status as ruler of the world’s waves. He gained a patent, along with interest from the military, the Post Office and the Lloyd’s of London insurance market.
As the main use for wireless seemed to be at sea, Marconi and his backers decided to move their operations to Britain’s coast, with sites that would reach shipping lanes as far as possible across the Atlantic.
Southwest Cornwall was the obvious choice, and in summer 1900, Marconi chose his site at The Lizard village – at Bass Point, near Lizard Point, the most southerly point of the Lizard peninsula – and a second location a little further up the coast at Poldhu, on the peninsula’s western side.
At Bass Point he moved a shed previously used as a waiting room for a carriage service to Helston train station near to the edge of the cliffs, and kitted it out as both a ship-to-shore station and an experimental base. The site was already well connected, just a few hundred yards from a Lloyd’s signal station built in 1872 (now a private residence), used for flag communications with passing boats.
Marconi extended the range of wireless to 32 miles (51.4km), enough to cross the English Channel. But although some naval tests saw signals reaching as far as 88 miles (142km), many scientists thought stations needed a clear line of sight to communicate. It was Marconi who disproved this.
Remotely speaking: Lizard Wireless station, with the coast path and Lizard Lighthouse in distance
Marconi formed the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897, which became the Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900, and the Lizard hut was opened on 18 January 1901. On 23 January, the day after Queen Victoria’s death, Marconi received an S signal in Morse code from another of his firm’s stations on the Isle of Wight, 186 miles (300km) to the east and well beyond the optical reach of the two stations.
Although no one was sure how, he had shown that radio signals could travel hundreds of miles.
The restored shed is a low wooden structure with a cracking sea view. It’s here I meet David Barlow, its volunteer warden and a former merchant marine radio officer. “I suppose I have to mention the horrible word – cable,” he says, of wireless’s rival technology. The signal station had a private telegraph link to London and was installing submarine cable to Bilbao in Spain.
Visit today and you’ll find that the main room has been equipped to look like it did when first in use, based on a photo from 1903. Wardens such as Barlow take delight in demonstrating the 16,000-volt spark transmitter. He checks first to see if anyone has a pacemaker, which can be disrupted by the equipment, then fires it up, its sparks producing a loud snapping.
The desk also features the glass-jar batteries, an analogue clock and Morse equipment, below a framed painting of the St Louis – a passenger ship overdue in Britain by many days, whose near-arrival was first reported by a ship with radio to this station in 1903.
The St Louis is not the only boat which had cause to be grateful to this station. In 1906, the Berlin Convention established “SOS” as the international distress signal and on 18 April 1910, the station received what is thought to be the first.
The cargo ship SS Minnehaha had run aground on rocks in the Isles of Scilly, on its way in from New York. Its passengers and crew were rescued by locals, but wireless meant that the ship was able to stay in touch with the mainland.
The next room houses modern radio equipment, which can be used by licensed amateur operators who appreciate a nice sea view and a long heritage. When I visited in autumn 2014, radio fan Malcolm Bolton was using the set.
Having successfully communicated with a station in Australia, he was using an Android app to turn an audio signal back into a television picture from Germany. “It’s like electronic fly-fishing,” he said, seeking the right conditions to bounce signals off the ionosphere right around the planet – which is how Marconi’s signals were reaching so far.
The next chapter in the story carries on five miles north west of the Wireless Hut, as Marconi looked to send radio waves across the Atlantic. He purchased a plot of land just south of Poldhu Cove, and built a signal station that opened in 1901, next to a then recently-built hotel (now a nursing home).
This initially consisted of a circle of 20 masts, each 200 feet high, connected to a 25 kilowatt transmitter capable of producing a spark audible a mile away. The buildings housed research, signal transmission and power generation.
Marconi's Poldhu station in its prime, with newly built hotel infront
In June 1901, Poldhu communicated with a station at Crookhaven in County Cork, 225 miles away. In September, high winds blew down the masts, but that wasn’t going to stop Marconi making history. With a temporary pair of 160-foot masts he set off for Newfoundland in Canada to receive transmission of the first transatlantic wireless signal – from those masts.
On 9 December, he used cable telegraphy to ask his team to start sending signals. On 12 December 1901, he heard their reply: an SSS in Morse. Wireless radio communications had crossed the Atlantic, and further tests found that Poldhu’s range could exceed 2,000 miles.
January 1903 saw the first transmission from the US, from American President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII. This may have been the first example of poorly timed international calls due to time differences; Poldhu received the message at night, after the post office in the nearby village of Mullion had closed, so it didn’t get through to the king until the next morning.
This didn’t put off the Prince and Princess of Wales – later King George V and Queen Mary – visiting both Poldhu and The Lizard stations that July, providing some amusing anecdotes (the brakes on Marconi’s car failed going down a hill; rather than overtake the royals and break with protocol, the driver steered into a wall) and many of the surviving photographs of both stations.
Marconi eventually moved the wireless telegraphy work to new purpose-built stations in Ireland and Canada, with great commercial success. Cable companies charged a shilling a word: “Marconi charged sixpence, and really cleaned up,” Keith Matthew, honorary secretary of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, told The Register on our trip around the sites.
Poldhu continued with maritime communications, in 1904 launching Ocean News, a daily news bulletin for liner passengers. As signals didn’t always reach across the ocean, boats within range would retransmit it. One night in April 1912, it is thought that the SS Minnehaha – the sender of the first SOS – retransmitted the bulletin to the world’s biggest liner, sailing across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage; yes, that would be the Titanic.
Poldhu was run by the government during the Great War, communicating with ships and submarines. Afterwards, when it reverted to Marconi, it developed transatlantic wireless telephony, introduced in 1920, and Charles Franklin developed directional short-wave beam technology – as well as coaxial cable, to get power to the transmitters across the field.
Wireless Field today: remains of a legacy and today's Marconi Centre and former hotel behind
However, the site was remote and expensive to use. Marconi considered moving a few miles east to Goonhilly, which half a century later would host its own transatlantic breakthrough, but instead the firm set up its Empire Wireless Beam station at Bodmin in central Cornwall, although that site has since been demolished to upgrade the A30 road.
Poldhu was to share the same fate, minus dual carriageway: it was closed in 1934, with the land donated to the National Trust – on the condition it was cleared.
The clearance wasn’t quite finished; what remains today is a series of building foundations and tile floors picked out by encroaching grass and other assorted flora, holes and trenches. Britain has far better preserved Roman villas.
Reclaiming the site
There is a monument to Marconi and his colleagues on the coast path just outside the field, a column near the edge of the land that looks a little like the beacons that were used to communicate before cables and wireless. Put up after the National Trust took over the land, its plaques record the achievements of Marconi, Franklin, the station’s designer John Fleming and their colleagues. But for many years, that was it.
However, 2001 saw an attempt to reclaim Marconi’s site from history, with the Marconi Centre museum. It’s an unassuming barn-like building that opened on the centenary of that transatlantic transmission in 2001.
Marconi's gear: Guglielmo with his wireless transmission equipment
The centre was partly funded by the former Marconi PLC (during a brief period of corporate independence and brand-awareness raising before largely being swallowed by Ericsson in 2006), and the National Trust and Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, who put in a total of £311,913, with a final £141,913 from the European Regional Development Fund.
The centre tells Marconi’s story through a short film, a set of display panels and some interesting artefacts. It also includes three well-appointed radio rooms, used by the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club – who staff the centre – and visiting licensed operators.
Both Poldhu and the Lizard Wireless hut are in lovely coastal locations, although if you’re travelling with those unaccountably less than enthralled by the early history of wireless telecommunications you might drop them off at amusement park Flambards, the Cornish seal sanctuary at Gweek or the small seaside resort of Coverack, all on the Lizard peninsula.
For catering, Roskilly’s Farm, which produces the ice-cream of the same name, is free to visit and serves food all day. If you want to linger, you can even stay in the cottage attached to the Lizard Wireless Hut, courtesy of the National Trust.
Poldhu Amateur Radio Club's Keith Matthew operating today's equipment in the Marconi Centre
If time is short, or the buildings are closed, you can still leave the uninterested on Poldhu beach, and walk up to and across Wireless Field. With its mysterious ruins and earthworks, it feels like the site of a lost civilisation – rather than a field on the edge of Britain which sent a signal to an Italian in Canada and shrank the world.
It’s a remote but profound place; much of what made it important has vanished. Radio signals, like the buildings and aerials once at Poldhu, are ephemeral.
However, because of what happened here we are swimming in such signals and surrounded by the technology they allow. To adapt Sir Christopher Wren’s memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral: if you seek Guglielmo Marconi’s memorial, look around you. ®
Lizard Wireless Station
49.963771, -5.2187740 (for the Lizard Village's post office)
By car: A30, south on the A39 and A394, south at Helston on A3083 (becomes the A3033), part at The Lizard Village. Walk east through the village and take Lloyds Lane, to the coast path; the station is just to the west. Alternatively, park in the National Trust car park at Lizard lighthouse and walk east along the coast path to the station. Public transport: Train to Redruth, First’s 37 bus from the train station to The Lizard.
No fee, but a £1 donation is requested. Station open on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the early afternoon only, shorter hours in winter, and only in reasonable weather. For exact try the website, or contact the National Trust office on 01326 561407.
The Marconi Centre and Wireless Field
Car: as above to the A3083. Shortly after passing the southern end of RNAS Culdrose, turn right for Poldhu Cove. At the end of the beach after a bridge, go right turn up a private road for Poldhu Nursing Home. Look for the Marconi Centre car-park on the left. Public transport: Same as above; Poldhu is on the 37 bus route, about 65 minutes from Redruth and 20 minutes from The Lizard.
There is no charge for entry, but donations are gratefully received. The station is normally open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday and Friday evenings all year, Wednesday afternoons from May to September and Thursday afternoons in July and August. Exact times can be found on the website. Wireless Field and the Marconi monument are open at any time.
Amateur licence holders wishing to operate radio station GB2GM are welcome, as are groups, but are asked to book in advance.