A saving grace on the Titanic
Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi is probably best known for being the first person to send a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the doors to today’s wireless world.
“There’s a direct line from
Marconi to where we are today”
“There’s a direct line from Marconi to where we are today,” says McGill University professor Marc Raboy, author of Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World. “Radio and television were derived from Marconi. When we use our laptops and smartphones, they originate from the experiments he did in his parent’s attic in 1895.”
He was born in Bologna on April 25, 1874 to Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian aristocrat, and Annie Jameson, a descendant of the Jameson whiskey distillery family of Ireland. He had always shown a keen interest in electrical science and was conducting experiments with wireless technology by the early 1890s.
Wireless was not a new phenomenon at the time; many scientists and amateur inventors were tinkering with the technology. He had his first big success in 1895, when he managed to send his first wireless signal over a distance of half a mile on his parents’ Italian estate.
The Canadian connection
Convinced that wireless signals could cover increasingly larger distances – by then, he had already sent a signal across the Irish Sea – he set up a receiving station on Signal Hill overlooking St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1901. He chose Newfoundland because it was the closest North American point to Europe. On December 12, his dream was realized when, thanks to a 500-foot kite-supported antenna, he received a wireless signal sent from his transmitting station in Cornwall, England.
The achievement made him an instant global celebrity. With that came a near monopoly over wireless communication, particularly on passenger ships, where the technology was used primarily to send paying telegrams to passengers’ friends and family on land.
A disaster of Titanic proportions
The technology was also used to signal emergencies like the one that occurred on the Titanic on the night of April 15, 1912.
The Titanic was lauded as the most high-tech ship ever built when it set sail from Southampton, England for New York City with much fanfare – and Marconi technology on board. In an ironic twist of fate, Marconi himself was invited to sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage but opted to head to New York earlier on the Lusitania. His wife and children were also scheduled to follow him on the Titanic but cancelled when one of the children fell ill.
Marconi’s business model required passenger ships to lease the equipment and manpower from him. The Titanic had two Marconi Men, as they were known, on board on the night it hit an iceberg. “Though the men were employed by Marconi, the captain had the authority to decide how the equipment should be used,” explains Raboy. “On the Titanic, the Marconi Men had to submit to the authority of the captain.”
“On the Titanic, the Marconi Men had to submit to the authority of the captain.”
Once the ship hit the iceberg, the captain instructed the men to send out the distress signal, which was picked up by other ships. Though over 1,500 people perished in the Titanic sinking, Marconi’s technology was able to save hundreds, and in the aftermath of the tragedy he was regarded as a hero.
“Though over 1,500 people perished in the Titanic sinking, Marconi’s technology was able to save hundreds, and in the aftermath of the tragedy he was regarded as a hero.”
“He was a rock star,” said Raboy. “Media followed him everywhere. This event elevated him even to a higher level. So many lives were saved because the Titanic was equipped with wireless technology. Because of him, all ships were eventually equipped with wireless transmitters and operators on guard 24 hours a day.”
A new museum dedicated to the Titanic disaster is scheduled to open in Niagara Falls in 2019. Guests will be able to experience what it was like aboard the fated ship thanks to attractions like a vibrating platform that re-enacts the feeling of hitting an iceberg and a recreation of the different passenger classes and engine room.
The choice of Niagara Falls was no accident. James Cameron, director of the 1997 movie Titanic, grew up in nearby Chippawa.