How did Guglielmo Marconi, a young entrepreneur with limited scientific education, prevail against other scientists and companies in a race to invent wireless communications, earn a fortune, and be tapped for the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics? (Nikola Tesla's patents have superseded Marconi's, giving Tesla credit for the advent of the radio, but that's a story for another time.)
Combine serendipity from a sensational murder chase and the world's most famous shipwreck with Marconi's tenacious grit and never-ending hard work, and we get the advent of the world's first wireless phone.
Marconi struggled the better part of a decade (1900-1910) to prove the commercial viability of wireless telegraphy using the recently discovered and spooky Hertzian waves (better known now as electromagnetic or radio waves). In the early 1900s, after successfully demonstrating transmissions over several distances (tens of miles to a few hundred miles), Marconi announced he would build a transatlantic system able to transmit signals wirelessly from one continent to the other (more than 2,000 miles).
The public and business investors scoffed at such an idea. First, telegraphs were the medium of choice. The Transatlantic Cable, already in place, worked brilliantly, so what was the point? There was no need, really. And contracts with the telegraph companies prohibited competition, so even if this were successful, it would not be a viable business.
Undeterred, Marconi sank his entire fortune and reputation into the dream. After nearly a decade of hard work and countless failures (many of his own doing), his fortune was nearly gone, and Marconi had little to show for all his hard work other than a few systems installed on passenger cruise liners running back and forth from the UK to Canada and the US. The Marconi Wireless Telegraphy systems enabled the affluent first-class passengers to send and receive news from back home during their lengthy voyage across the Atlantic -- a novelty at best.
But two spectacular and horrific events would change all that. The first was a telegram sent in late July 1910 across the wireless Marconi system by Chief Inspector Walter Dew from Scotland Yard. Dew, already famous for his investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, was leading a manhunt for Dr. Hawley Crippen, who was suspected to be fleeing from the UK to North America with his girlfriend. Crippen was wanted for questioning in regards to his wife, Cora, whose beheaded and disemboweled remains had been found buried under the doctor's house. The telegram describing Crippen and his girlfriend was received by Captain Kendall aboard the SS Montrose, one of the few Canadian Pacific liners fitted with the Marconi wireless radio.
Kendall, recognizing two passengers that fit the description, radioed back: "Strong suspicions that Crippen -- London cellar murderer and accomplice are among Saloon passengers... Accomplice dressed as boy. Voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl."
Inspector Dew quickly departed London in pursuit aboard the White Star Liner Laurentic. The SS Montrose had a three-day head start. Dew needed to overtake the Montrose before it docked in Canada, or the fugitives would undoubtedly escape forever. For several days, wireless messages flew back and forth between the captains of both ships as the Laurentic, a much faster ship, caught up to the Montrose.
The wireless messages were intercepted daily and generated sensational newspaper headlines on both continents. Newspaper sales skyrocketed. Multiple nations sat on the edge of their seats watching (or rather reading) a 1910 version of the OJ Simpson car chase occurring in slow motion across the Atlantic. All this was made possible by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph.
The Laurentic was able to beat the Montrose to the Canadian dock. On July 29, 1910, Inspector Dew boarded the Montrose and arrested Crippen. The next day, the headline in the Nebraska State Journal read:
READY TO GRAB HIM
Scotland Yard Sleuth in wait for Dr. Crippen.
ARRIVES AHEAD OF DOCTOR
Crippen was returned to London, tried, found guilty, and hanged for the murder of his wife. He was the first criminal to be captured with the aid of wireless communications.
Literally overnight, Marconi's name became synonymous with wireless communications. Cruise ships lined up to install the latest and greatest system.
Just shy of two years later, on April 15, 1912, a high-pitched distress signal sang out hundreds of miles across the north Atlantic in a desperate plea for help. The Titanic had struck an iceberg. The distress signal was sent by a Marconi Wireless Telegraph system that had been upgraded for extended range just before her maiden voyage. The system was one of the most powerful in the world -- a range of up to 1,000 miles (1,609 km).
The rest is well known. The Carpathia altered course after receiving the distress signal. That ship, arriving approximately two hours after the Titanic sank, was able to save 710 passengers. Sadly, 1,500 passengers lost their lives in the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in modern history. Later investigations determined that the SS Californian had also received the distress signal but (for unknown reasons) failed to respond. Nevertheless, Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy proved invaluable that fateful night; 710 lives were saved by the world's first wireless telephone.
A quarter century later, on July 21, 1937, wireless operators around the world stopped transmitting for exactly two minutes during Guglielmo Marconi's funeral. The Great Hush occurred for the last time in world history. Over the course of one generation, Marconi's technology gave rise to the global village. Anybody could now talk to anybody using magical Hertz Waves. Scientists had denied it was even possible, but a tenacious, gritty individual with a bit of serendipity created a monopoly, captured the Nobel Physics prize, and made a fortune from invisible waves.
— Keith Schaub, founder of Wireless SOC Test Inc. and author of Production Testing of RF and SOC Devices for Wireless Communications, has more than 15 years of experience in RF/microwave system design and test engineering. He works at Advantest with w2bi on system-level testing and SOC businesses. He has a BSEE from Texas A&M and an MSEE from the University of Texas at Dallas.