Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

Previously on this blog we wrote about the connection between the Post Office aboard the Titanic, and the telegrams held in our collection concerning the sunken ship. Also on the Titanic was wireless equipment and two operators supplied by the Marconi company, which proved important in getting word to nearby vessels – and beyond – that the ship was sinking. The Post Office was a pioneer of telegraphic technology and had become interested in Marconi’s experimentation at a key point in the development of wireless telegraphy, so it could be argued that thanks to the Post Office many of the Titanic’s passengers were saved.

Guglielmo Marconi, who died on this day in 1937, was born near Bologna in 1874 of an Italian father and Irish mother. He did not do well at school, but nevertheless had an interest in science and was fortunate to have as a neighbour Augusto Righi, a physicist who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of radio waves.

A stamp commemorating Marconis first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

A stamp commemorating Marconi's first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

At the age of 20, Marconi began experimenting with radio waves, hoping to create a wireless telegraphy system. By 1895 he had achieved a range of two kilometres, but needed investment to continue development. When the Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs showed no interest in the system, Marconi travelled to London and through his mother’s family connections received a letter of introduction to William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office.

Preece was impressed by Marconi and provided him with an assistant, George Kemp. On 27th July 1896 Marconi and Kemp successfully demonstrated the wireless telegraphy system between two Post Office buildings. A transmitter was placed on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office (located on Newgate Street/St Martin’s Le Grand, where the BT Centre now stands) and a receiver on the roof of GPO South (Carter Lane). The distance between the two buildings was 300 metres. Later that year the Post Office provided funding for Marconi to conduct further experiments on Salisbury Plain.

But despite the potential of the system and Marconi’s growing international reputation, the Post Office did not make any formal arrangements with Marconi, leaving him free to establish a private company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd, in London in 1897. Marconi and his company went from strength to strength, transmitting across the English Channel in 1899 and across the Atlantic in 1901.

Marconi’s company also provided wireless equipment and operators for shipping lines, enabling them to communicate with ports and each other for the first time. As a thank you for supplying this equipment for the Titanic, Marconi and his family were invited to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage. Fortunately they were unable to take the fated journey.

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

The wireless operators aboard the Titanic were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. 25 minutes after the ship struck an iceberg, Captain Smith instructed Phillips to send an all stations distress call. Phillips then continued to communicate with ships in the area even after Smith had ordered that he and Bride stand down and save themselves. Phillips eventually went down with the ship, although Bride survived and was picked-up by the SS Carpathia. Together with the Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, Bride transmitted the names of the survivors to shore.

Following the disaster, enquiries were held and Marconi was called as an expert witness. New safety procedures were put in place such as sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills aboard ships and 24 hour wireless cover. An iceberg patrol was set up too, and began to patrol the North Atlantic in early 1913 with Marconi equipment on board.

Herbert Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, said of the Titanic disaster “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.”

Two stamps released by Royal Mail in 1995 as part of the Pioneers of Communication series commemorate Marconi, his invention, and its role in the Titanic disaster.

Bibliography
BT Archive – Events in Telecommunications History
Connected Earth – The Origins of Radio
Marconi Calling
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi

One response to “Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

  1. I notice that the illustration on the stamp commemorating the Titanic disaster of 1912 contains a couple of anachronisms. Firstly, Marconi appears to be listening to a spoken message in 1895. There was no speech transmitted by wireless then, nor were the Titanic distress calls spoken: it was all Morse Code. And the SOS is not right. Although that had become the agreed international distress signal, Marconi operators continued to use their own CQD to raise the alarm. This is what Jack Phillips tapped out on the night of 14 April 1912 and which Harold Cottam picked up on the Carpathia. Phillips and his junior colleague Bride did tap out SOS later just to make sure other ships without Marconi operators might pick it up.

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