19th Century European Broadcasting
19th Century European Broadcasting
The centre of the birth of European radio in the late 19th Century was Ireland. Although this was not realised at the time history would soon make it an absolute fact. Ireland was perfectly located on the north Atlantic of north-west Europe which gave it a great advantage for transatlantic communications at the birth of what was to become the communications revolution of the early 20th century. Ireland would remain very much in the dark about these advantages until the arrival of Italian-Irishman, “the father of radio” Guglielmo Marconi built his first Irish station at Crookhaven, County Cork in 1902.
As far back as February 1893 an article headed “Electric Messages without Wires” the Irish public were alerted to a new reality, “the promise of electrical communication between two points without the agency of an intervening wire.” The article explains, “Today electricians are easily transmitting electric messages across a Wireless distance of three miles, without any sign of approaching the limits of the electric function in this direction.” If there were any public enthusiasm for the revelation it was not obvious for another three years.
In December 1896 Irish readers saw reports of an amazing scientific development. Newspapers explain, “A young Italian scientist named Marconi appears to have perfected a system of electrical communication by which vibrations set up in one apparatus are communicated to a nearby receiver without wires. The secret being that the receiver must respond to the vibrations of the sender.” While Wireless Telegraphy may have been a new idea to Irish readers these developments were the latest in a long series of experiments dating back to 1844.
In that year Samuel Morse, aged 53, would send the first four words ever dispatched; “What hath God wrought?” flashed over an electric Telegraph wire in ‘Morse Code’ on a line from Washington to Baltimore. Essential to Morse’s idea was signals would be sent by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit, that the receiving apparatus would, by electromagnetic, record signals as dots and dashes on paper, and that there would be a code whereby the dots and dashes would be translated into numbers and letters.
By increasing battery power Samuel Morse was able to send messages one third of a mile on electrical wire around a large lecture hall. He then devised a system of electromagnetic relays, this being the key element; it meant no limit to the distance a message could be sent. Morse went on to working out a system for transmitting the alphabet in dots and dashes, in what was to be known as ‘Morse Code’. Morse’s invention was quickly established as a means of communication in America but, importantly to him, also in his beloved Europe, in the heart of Paris.
In 1839, after a series of long legal wrangles with the English Government in relation to the Patent of his invention he sailed for Paris where he met with expansive recognition as a genius. It was said of Morse’s invention that, “it transcends all yet made known and clearly another revolution is at hand.” For financial reasons Morse was forced to return to America and four years later in 1844 he opened a Telegraph line, built with congressional appropriation, between Washington and Baltimore, a distance of 34 miles.
Morse’s experiments were so successful that when the contentious 1844 Democratic National Convention at Baltimore became deadlocked; hundreds gathered in Washington for updates. Martin Van Buren tied for the nomination with Lewis Cass. On the eighth ballot, the convention chose compromise candidate, James Polk. The rapid transmission of information was reported as, “the utter annihilation of space.” Morse’s invention became America’s only means of communication. By 1867 so indispensable had Telegraphy become that 50,000 miles of Western Union wire carried more than two million news dispatches annually.
Seven years later in 1874 in Bologna, Italy the second son of Giuseppe Marconi and his Irish wife, Annie Jameson from County Wexford was born and christened Guglielmo. By his late teens he developed an insatiable desire to communicate from point to point without wires. The idea was not inconceivable to other inventors but it was Marconi who dedicated himself exclusively to taking it from idea to reality. He saw its seaworthy potential and wanted to exploit it as a means of generating handsome profits. Marconi was not only a communications wizard but also a businessman seeking fame and fortune.
Marconi was strategically placed during his early years to be later referred to as, ‘the true father of radio’, because of his interest in science and electricity. He was fascinated by the work of Heinrich Hertz, who, in 1888, demonstrated that one could produce and detect electromagnetic radiation or Hertzian Waves, now known as radio waves. After Hertz’s death in 1894 Marconi assisted a neighbour and friend, University of Bologna physicist Augusto Righi, in researching Hertz’s work and thus birth was given to Marconi’s lifelong obsession with the airwaves.
But Marconi’s vision for the uses of Wireless communication was restricted as being a means by which one could communicate a message to another. The concept of one communicating to an audience was not familiar to him at this stage in his career. The prospect of sending communications for more than one person was a frightening one to the journalists of Marconi’s age; “with Wireless Telegraphy what is to become of the small boy who views the ball games from the tops of the Telegraph poles?”
The early radio experimentations gave little confidence for its future; ‘Experiments in Wireless Telegraphy are completed; long distance Telegraphy by this means is far from established’. Lord Kelvin, British mathematician, physicist and president of the British Royal Society, stated ‘Radio has no future’. Perhaps the future was not in radio but in broadcasting which came following a succession of inventions including electric Telegraph, Wireless Telegraph and Wireless telephony or radio which would broadcast music and speech.
The story of Irish broadcasting began in a remote windy landscape in Connemara in 1901 as a series of ‘Buzzing sounds’ are heard heralding in an age of communication which suffered because of political division. Marconi once stated, ‘I made the discovery by accident’ often fell victim to this divide and became so infuriated by it that he wrote; ‘Have I done the world well, or have I added a menace?’
This public and corporate divide was identified by Bertolt Brecht who stressed the idea of telecommunications as an artistic medium. Brecht advocated ‘two-way communication’ for radio to give the public power of representation and to pull it away from the control of corporate media. Today, Brecht’s vision still seems idealistic. But, the fact remains that Radio has had a tremendous global impact. The revolutionary medium prepared the ground for television and the internet by loosening the strictures on global public discourse.
With Wireless Telegraphy came the search for its purpose. In 1897, the Irish Times gives an optimistic account of Marconi’s experiments; “In addition to the possibility of exploding gunpowder magazines on board ships from long distances off Marconi foresees that he will be able to set all the watches in the pockets of a town’s inhabitants.” Such possibilities were true to Marconi but the use of Wireless Telegraphy as a weapon was the truest of all and he was willing to sell these weapons to the highest bidder.
Very soon Irish Newspapers reported on the ‘warfare possibilities’ of Marconi’s invention and state that he was travelling across Europe exploiting Wireless Telegraphy’s possibilities. The most startling of all the suggestions for Marconi’s invention is that it may be possible to fire the magazine of any battleship by simply passing an electric current of sufficient degree of intensity through the water on which the ship was riding. Wireless Telegraphy had the power to kill people from afar and Marconi was ready to profit on the demand for his product.
Marconi’s propaganda machine was quick to swing into action. By September 1897 interest in Wireless Telegraphy was growing as reports about covert experiments appeared on a frequent basis and in greater detail. The Irish Times tells readers that tests in Wireless Telegraphy are being arranged at Dover and are ‘unusually important’ and will last for some time; “In recent operations between ships the Italian Navy and the coast have developed the latest practical phase of the system.” The article declares that there may be military uses for the invention.
The public were developing an appetite for all things ‘Wireless’ and the academia responded. One public lecture held in Birr, County Offaly, “involved practical demonstrations of recent discoveries including a new phonograph by Edison and, the main feature, which appeared to awaken the largest measure of interest was the demonstration of Wireless Telegraphy. The instrument demonstrated was an induction coil made capable of sending Telegraphic signals for a distance of nearly 6 miles passing through all obstacles varying in density from a stone building to a mountain.”
What blossomed to be “a romance between Marconi and the Irish” began in January 1898 when Newspapers announce, “Marconi’s mother is Irish and related to John Jameson of whiskey fame. She was musically talented and attended the Conservatoire of Bologna where she met and married Marconi’s father. When her son launched his invention he came to London to his cousin, Henry Davis and the Wireless Telegraph Company was established.” The Irish public had great affection for the inventor and when other nations criticised him, the Irish strengthened their support.
One of the first public lectures in Wireless broadcasting occurred in March 1898 with a talk given by Msgr Gerald Molloy at the Theatre of the Royal Dublin Society. Molloy lectures on “Principals of Electric Signalling without Wires.” He explains Marconi’s Wireless signals are transmitted through space using electromagnetic waves. Molloy’s lecture was so popular that the general public demands a return visit for those who could not attend the first time round.”
The public appetite by the late 1890s for new information in relation to Wireless Telegraphy was voracious. Lectures were given countrywide and were always attended by large crowds eager to learn about the “most marvellous discovery of the century.” Most of these lectures were attended by the working press who, immediately after the lecture, filed reports on the latest updates. The numerous articles which appeared in the newspaper in relation to Wireless Telegraphy clearly suggests that the interest in Marconi was not just in Dublin but nationwide.
On Wednesday, May 11th 1898 the first Irish installation of Marconi’s system was made at Clara in Offaly. The transmitter was placed in the office of Clara Flour Mills and a receiver, one mile away, at Goodbody’s Jute Works. Messages were sent and say Newspapers, “This is the first attempt at Telegraphing without wires across a town in Ireland. The signals were so good that the messages were read by the sound emitted by Marconi’s Tapper and Decoherer, and the ordinary Morse instrument was dispensed with altogether.”
While these transmissions were taking place further experiments were successfully going on in other parts of Ireland. Marconi was being congratulated by the President of the Board Of Trade, Lord John Hay [Admiral of the Fleet], Lord Charles Beresford and others on the success attending a demonstration he gave them. Several naval officers sailed on the admiralty yacht to the Needles, where is situated the permanent station of Marconi’s new Telegraphy system, and for two hours sent messages and received replies between the Needles and Bournemouth, about sixteen miles.
Some days later there are reports that a rival to Marconi has turned up in Nikola Tesla, “an American of course” who claims to have invented a new machine, “More powerful than any ever before.” With it he expects “to send messages without wires for very long distances.” He has offered the invention as a free gift to his Government in the hope it proves useful for the transmission of signals by the Army and Navy during the troubles with Spain.”
However, Marconi was more preoccupied with other events. At Dublin’s Kingstown’s Regatta, “A novel feature was the successful reporting of the sailing match carried out with the aid of Marconi himself. In the morning the gentlemen of the press embarked on board the steam tug Flying Huntress, and followed the yachts engaged in the race. Marconi used his transmitter and receiver to contact the shore sending messages from the tug while in rapid motion following the yachts and when received on shore the messages were telephoned to newspaper offices.”
The world’s first text messages were sent in 1898 by Marconi between the Queen’s residence at Isle of Wight and the Royal Yacht ‘Osborne’ moored at East Cowes. The distance between the stations was a mile and each station was hidden from view of the other by hills. The electric waves easily passed over the hills; “The Prince was keenly interested in the experiments and conducted prolonged conversations with Marconi on the intricate workings of the apparatus.” To impress English royalty would soon be a major coup for Marconi.
By April 1899 faith in the future of the invention began to dwindle. Prof Silvanus Thompson, a prominent electrician, tells Irish media the success of Marconi’s experiments was the natural result of the development of well-established principles by Hertz and Oliver Lodge. The implication being Marconi was manipulating the research of others to generate profits. Thomson states, “There is no such thing as Wireless Telegraphy. One can send signals for a distance of yards without wires; but in the recent successful attempts to telegraph across space wires are used.”
But Prof JA Fleming, of University College, London disagrees and says the time has arrived for a little more generous appreciation by his scientific contemporaries of the fact that “Marconi’s work is no small achievement. His apparatus is ridiculously simple and not costly. With the exception of the Flagstaff and 150 feet of vertical wire at each end, he can place on a small kitchen table the appliances, costing not more than £100 in all, for communicating across 30 or even 100 miles of land or water.”
In a letter to the London Times another of Marconi’s supporters speaks out, “much of the future depends on Government action; it is to be hoped the Post Office will not claim this Wireless Telegraphy is included in the monopoly they possess of Telegraphy. Marconi has modest confidence in the future. I trust that those who are interested in the subject will accord him all the aid and support that his inventiveness deserves, and that he may live to see his effort is crowned with complete success.”
Days later Irish Newspapers report intense interest in Marconi’s system; “Marconi’s experiments have been closely followed with a view to placing lightships and lighthouses in communication with the shore. The importance of this was recently demonstrated when in foggy weather a vessel got into difficulties while at sea. The men of the East Goodwin lightship, who had been given elementary instruction in Marconi’s system, transmitted messages to the shore resulting in lifeboats losing no time in getting to the scene; the Crew owe their lives to Wireless Telegraphy.”
Politicians began to pay attention to Marconi’s invention. Penrose Fitzgerald, at the House of Lords demands to know “Is it time to adopt the Wireless system?” The admiration being bestowed on Marconi by the upper echelons of English politics was good for business. Marconi is offered a lucrative contract to establish transatlantic communication, “Marconi has been approached by representative of a syndicate wishing to acquire sole rights to establish communication between England and America.”
But the word from America was not positive. Some experiments had been carried out in Chicago showing that ‘land obstacles’ remain to be overcome, “It has been discovered the system is impractical in cities studded with “sky-scraping” buildings, and is too slow for commercial use.” But these reports take nothing from Marconi’s confidence that the connection of England and America by Wireless Telegraphy is no dream; he believes although there are difficulties to be surmounted, they are not as great as those that have been overcome.
One such difficulty is the height of the poles necessary to erect on either side of the Atlantic. They would have to be 1500 feet high but technical improvements will, Marconi believes, diminish these requirements. Inventor WH Preece did not share Marconi’s optimism, “Two years after the practicability of Wireless Telegraphy was affirmed, and not a single independent commercial circuit exists. Marconi’s operations are more concentrated on the stock exchange than on establishing useful circuits.”
Preece’s comments had little effect on Marconi, or anyone else involved in the science including French electrical savant, Dr Lee Bon, who was exploring Wireless technology in modern warfare. The result is an apparatus which would be able to project a current capable of annihilating a fleet of ships, “An explosion would be followed by a shower of sparks resulting from the contact between the projected current and electric wires on board ship, which would be so intense it would ignite powder and shells on board.”
The value of Wireless Telegraphy in warfare seemed limitless with reports that Royal Engineers have been testing for the purpose of dropping explosive charges. By means of balloons and an elaboration of Marconi’s systems large quantities of explosives such as dynamite could be released from a balloon 3 miles away and made to explode inside any fortified work, killing the garrison and dislodging the guns, “The Hague Conference condemns such methods, but, possibly, an enemy sore pressed in real war, would scarcely hesitate to break through such restrictions.”
But the march of progress was relentless. In new experiments in ship to shore communications greater distances are being achieved. By now messages were being transmitted over forty miles. The increased distances do not have the slightest effect upon the current and messages are being received with unvarying distinctiveness, “An interesting feature of current experiments is the facility with which Marconi’s latest development for ‘cutting out’ stations was applied. Messages are being sent without other stations interrupting them. The results of these experiments are successful.”
Meanwhile, trials of military balloons and Marconi’s systems are being made in Vienna. This first attempt to make use of Wireless Telegraphy from a balloon was made by three Austrian officers, who ascended in the military balloon Eagle. “The balloon was provided with receiving apparatus and successfully interpreted messages dispatched from the ground. It will probably be demonstrated that Wireless Telegraphy has its part to play in the warfare of the future.”
The investigations into Military applications for Wireless Telegraphy were becoming a daily occurrence and Marconi is invariably present to clench any lucrative deal. At Bangor Bay near Belfast a number of battleships and cruisers are anchored and experimenting with Marconi’s system. The cruiser Juno and the flagship Alexandra are fitted with Wireless equipment and Marconi is on board testing the usefulness of the invention in naval warfare.” The newspaper later reports Wireless Telegraphy is fast going ahead, and now the War Office is adopting it by sea and land.
The Admiralty are also impressed with further experiments going on between stations at Epsom and Aldershot. The tests proved it possible to maintain continuous correspondence from station to station, and that messages cannot be intercepted. Expert officers have made special reports to the War Office, and the effect of the report will be the inauguration of the Marconi system as a means of conveying intelligence. Many ships will shortly be “circuited” and should all go satisfactorily, the system would become universal, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned.
The possible military applications for Wireless Telegraphy are beginning to scare the general public. The Daily News reports “Grim Possibilities of Wireless War” with the announcement that a Patent in the name of John Munro has been brought to their attention. The Munro Patent’s most obvious application is the making of explosions in the atmosphere in order to influence the weather, “But it is easy to see that it can also be utilised in dropping explosives on the country, fortresses, or camps of an enemy underneath.”
Dr Peter Stiens has invented an apparatus by which people could ‘Wirelessly’ telephone over long distances. Stiens claims the device will allow persons in London and New York to distinctively communicate. The possibility of “mobile phones” had come to light. There are also reports of experiments conducted at Newbury in which a building containing explosives was blown up without direct contact.”
Scientists are impressed by a practical demonstration of Marconi’s invention during the annual general meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science arranged in conjunction with the corresponding French Association holding its conference at Boulogne, “Marconi’s system allowed for messages to be sent to France from an apparatus located at Dover Town Hall. One of the messages sent by Telegraph without wires cross-channel was a greeting from the president of the British Association to the president of the French Scientific Association who responded to the salutation.”
Thus, on the eve of the 20th century Wireless Telegraphy was an invention that still sought purpose. There were many people laying claim to it but it was not the invention of any one person but the culmination of many minds brought to perfection by Marconi. As the 20th century unfolded engineers and inventors were focused on the Maritime and international news exchange possibilities for the invention. But there were also visionaries who sought purposes in such fields as medicine, telephony and public service. Few of these visionaries had considered the possibility of communication not as exclusively one-to-one but one-to-many.
In the late 19th Century the facts about Wireless broadcasting emerged after Hertz’s 1887 discovery; ‘The contrast between these beginnings and the present uses of radio is tremendous’. Marconi’s accomplishments in radio were equally as important. In 1892 Tesla wrote; ‘Ere long intelligence, transmitted without wires, will throb through the earth like a pulse through a living organism’. It would take Marconi to fulfil Tesla’s prophecy.
Marconi had noble notions for his invention; “In the new era, thought itself will be transmitted by radio.” The potential of his invention created global excitement even in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church; “Radio is a new demonstration of the harmony between science and religion. Those who speak of the incompatibility of science and religion either make science say that which it never said or make religion say that which it never thought.”
Radio had critics especially those who feared freedom of expression. Broadcasting from the beginning was closed to private enterprise; ‘Such control is ascribed to radio’s technical complexity and military functions. Many democracies have outrun technical and military imperatives in their zeal to control the airwaves’. But Radio never lost its importance as documented by the Irish Times in 1897; “Nothing is of more importance to science than Wireless Telegraphy.”
Most public interest radio formats permit criticism of the state but the balance of political opinion is invariably tilted in the Government favour. The establishment of Irish radio fixed the state’s relationship to broadcasting. This may be partly due to the fact that Ireland’s first Postmaster General (Communications Minister) J.J. Walsh, was an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sympathiser. His legacy remains detrimental to Irish freedom of expression.
Marconi’s inventor status was persistently challenged but his genius was never questioned, “Marconi has large ideas but to what extent these ideas will be realised none can tell.” American Newspapers remained cynical about Marconi; “Edison and Tesla would smile at the promises made in Marconi’s name.” However, the power of Marconi’s invention was obvious and the birth of Irish radio was a war declaration between conservative rulers and liberal advocates of free expression.
As the 20th century unfolded each year brought developments demonstrating how the ‘Air Wars’ were fought. In these pages is a century long account of events leading to Irish radio broadcasting as it is today. It is the story of a nation in fear of technology that became determined to suppress freedoms to receive and give information, expression and speech. These important three F’s are the pivot of human development, essential if we are to share, analyse, understand, and move forward; ‘yet these three F’s are continually under attack’.
Although Marconi noted; ‘This form of communication could have some utility’ such ‘utility’ remained under the scrutiny of political pioneers in the pre-Independence era; ‘Britain’s Irish dominance was underpinned by control of Irish communications systems’. Arthur Griffith complained about this; ‘There is a ‘paper wall’ around Ireland’.
Griffith was always at heart a journalist and advocate of freedom of expression. He was a lucid writer with a vivid turn of phrase but as the century progressed, Griffith’s observation faded into oblivion, but the reality remains unchanged. Radio has come through a century of development that has brought about the medium as we know it today. The exploration of these events in the course of the 20th century reflects Marconi’s contention that; ‘Every day sees humanity more victorious in the struggle with space and time’.
Early Irish radio is often considered by Historians as a foil for television. Historians link the transformation of Irish society in the 20th century to television but dismiss radio as an agent of repression rather than social development. In post WW2 Irish Radio became interactive and consequently achieved Bertolt Brecht’s ideal of serving as a ‘system of communication’ based on audience response rather than being a unidirectional distribution system.
Until the 1960’s the primary source of information available to the world was radio and it influenced people. Common national culture was shaped more by radio than television or newsprint. By 1960 most European families owned a radio and it occupied prime space in the home. The arrival of battery transistor radio in the 1960’s increased mobility but contributed to radio’s new lowly status as an aural medium in a visual age. Young people drifted to television but for older people radio retained its charms.
What follows is an exploration of a century of European broadcasting documenting the most significant events in the age of global communication. It is a relentless story that began with the words of Guglielmo Marconi when he sent the first message across the Bristol Channel in 1897 stating, “Let it be so.” It is a story full of twists and turns, of a series of unfailing political regimes in fear of freedom. At the dawn of the digital age, these fears persist and it is as if history will repeat itself unless the lessons of the radio ages are learned.
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