Written by Jaclyn Pollak, Curatorial Associate.

When we think of wireless technology today, we think about the technology that allows us to watch videos on our cell phones. The original wireless technology, wireless telegraphy, was perhaps more revolutionary for its time.

Wireless telegraphy works by sending radio signals that relay messages in Morse code. Who invented it? That has been hotly debated since the 1890s. The history of the development of wireless technology is complicated, and many experiments and achievements overlap. In reality, the invention of wireless technology could be attributed to many, including Sir Oliver J. Lodge, George M. Minchin, Ernest Rutherfod, R. Fessenden, Lee de Forest, Jagardis Bose, and Captain Henry Jackson, to name just a few

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz discovered controllable electromagnetic waves, which created a host of technological possibilities. Between 1888 and 1896, Hertzian waves were successfully transformed into practical wireless technology.

In Russia, Aleksandar Stepanovich Popov is commonly known as the inventor of wireless technology, while in the West, Guglielmo Marconi associated with the invention of the radio. While Marconi was the first to produce wireless telegraphy commercially, Sir Oliver J. Lodge, claimed that “Marconi’s invention was not ingenious but rather a product of the period” (Hong 2001). It’s true that Marconi did not independently invent all the components of his wireless system. He borrowed from many other inventors, but he modified and improved all the parts of his system until they fit into a simple working “black box.”

In 1894, Russian physics professor, Aleksandar Popov, built his first radio receiver based on the experiments of Hertz and Lodge. This receiver is said to be the prototype for the first generation of radio communications systems. The next year, Popov made improvements to his radio device and presented a wireless telegraph station to the Russian Physical and Chemical Society. Popov continued his experimentation, and in 1897, equipped the Russian Naval cruiser Africa and the coastal radio station at Kronstadt with wireless apparatuses, laying the groundwork for maritime radio use. However, Popov’s apparatuses were not patented and were restricted by the Russian Navy.

photo of a vibrator, a wireless communication component.

A vibrator manufactured by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Object ID: M973.242.34

Guglielmo Marconi entered the scene in 1895, and two years later he established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, which was subsequently renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd. Marconi employed a research team who experimented with different ideas and inventions crafted by their contemporaries. By 1899, Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd had significantly increased the range of its wireless technology and could transmit over 100km. That year, three British warships were equipped with Marconi’s apparatuses. It was apparent that wireless technology would be incredibly useful for maritime and military communications.

photo of a wavemeter

A precision wavemeter from the General Radio Co. Object ID: M974.43.1a.

For both Marconi and Popov, the major challenge was transmitting across long distances. On December 12, 1901, radio truly went global when Marconi famously transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean between Cornwall and Newfoundland. Although the technology was patented by Marconi at the turn of the century, it took nearly two decades to be commercially viable and able to compete with transatlantic cable companies.

With long-distance transmission conquered, wireless radio transmission removed the barrier between ships and the shore. Distress alerts, navigational information and weather conditions could now be transmitted across great distances, making radio communication essential for the safety and security of ships at sea.

photo of a grey WWII radio receiver

A wireless radio receiver from WWII. Object ID: 2002.0002.0001.

The lifesaving value of wireless technology was demonstrated in January 1909 when two passenger ships, SS Republic and SS Florida collided under thick fog southwest of Nantucket. The Republic quickly sent out the distress message “CQD MKC, CQD MKC, CQD MKC.” CQD meaning “Come Quick Distress” and MKC referred to the ship’s call sign. The Gresham came to rescue the passengers of the two ships, and luckily there were few casualties in this accident.

The technology was widely adopted in the maritime sector. By 1912, 327 Coastal Radio Stations (CRS) and 1,924 Ship Radio Stations (SRS) had been established. Since then, wireless radio has saved countless lives at sea and remains a critical system aboard modern vessels.

Sources used:

Hong, Sungook
2001 Wireless: From Marconi’s Black-Box to the Audion. The MIT Press. Pages 1-88.

Ilcev, Stojce Dimov
2018 The Development of Maritime Radio Communications. The International Journal of Maritime History 30(3):536-543.

Liffen, John
Some Early Marconi Experimental Apparatus Reappraised.  The International Journal for the History of Engineering & Technology 83(2): 165-186.

Smulyan, Harold, Robert S. Pinals, Lisa Pinals, Daneil Villarreal
2017 Wireless: The Life and Death of Guglielmo Marconi. History of Medicine 353(6): 511-515.

Vendrik, Orest G.
1995 Popov, Marconi and Radio. Nature April 20, 1995. Page 672.