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Mon 14 Jul 2008

From Marconi to the iPhone 3G
- Reaching Across 100 years, Wirelessly

Category : Technology/Marconi.txt

The iPhone 3G is here (though not where I am). But are we so blasé that we don't retain a sense of wonder that the thing could even work at all - as a telephone - without wires?

It was in 1894 that Guglielmo (Goo-yee-ail-mo) Marconi first had the idea that messages could be sent over long distance through thin air. He was, then, just twenty years old.

If you're interested in how we got from there to here, read Erik Larson's Thunderstruck which brings that age of discovery to life, when giants like Marconi and Nikola Tesla competed to create those inventions that we now take for granted, yet can't live without. How I love books like these.

That was when I first saw a great new way open before me," Marconi said later. "Not a triumph. Triumph was far distant. But I understood in that moment that I was on a good road. My invention had taken life. I had made an important discovery."

It was a "practician's" discovery. He had so little grasp of the underlying physics that later he would contend that the waves he now harnessed were not Hertzian waves at all but something different and previously unidentified.

Enlisting the help of his older brother, Alfonso, and some of the estate's workers, he experimented now with different heights for his antennas and different configurations. He grounded each by embedding a copper plate in the earth. At the top he attached a cube or cylinder of tin. He put Alfonso in charge of the receiver and had him carry it into the fields in front of the house.

He began to see a pattern. Each increase in the height of his antenna seemed to bring with it an increase in distance that was proportionately far greater. A six-foot antenna allowed him to send a signal sixty feet. With a twelve-foot antenna, he sent it three hundred feet. This relationship seemed to have the force of physical law, though at this point even he could not have imagined the extremes to which he would go to test it.

Eventually Marconi sent Alfonso so far out, he had to equip him with a tall pole topped with a handkerchief, which Alfonso waved upon receipt of a signal.

The gain in distance was encouraging. "But," Marconi said, "I knew my invention would have no importance unless it could make communication possible across natural obstacles like hills and mountains."

Now it was September 1895, and the moment had come for the most important test thus far.

He sat at the window of his attic laboratory and watched as his brother and two workers, a farmer named Mignani and a carpenter named Vornelli, set off across the sun-blasted field in front of the house. The carpenter and the farmer carried a receiver and a tall antenna. Alfonso carried a shotgun.

The plan called for the men to climb a distant hill, the Celestine Hill, and continue down the opposite flank until completely out of sight of the house, at which point Marconi was to transmit a signal. The distance was greater than anything he had yet attempted - about fifteen hundred yards - but far more important was the fact that it would be his first at sending a signal to a receiver out of sight and thus beyond the reach any existing optical means of communication. If Alfonso received signal, he was to fire his shotgun.

The attic was hot, as always. Bees snapped past at high velocity and confettied the banks of flowers below. In a nearby grove silver-gray trees stood stippled with olives.

Slowly the figures in the field shrank with distance and began climbing the Celestine Hill. They continued walking and eventually disappeared over its brow, into a haze of gold.

The house was silent, the air hot and still. Marconi pressed the key on his transmitter.

An instant later a gunshot echoed through the sun-blazed air.

At that moment the world changed, though a good deal of time an turmoil would have to pass before anyone was able to appreciate the true meaning of what just had occurred.

"At that moment, the world changed". The other person at the time who saw the world as we have it today was that great, though tragic, figure Nikola Tesla. There's this passage in Thunderstruck :

In a much-read article in the 1900 issue of The Century Magazine, Tesla alluded to things he had learned from experiments at his laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which he claimed could generate millions of volts of electricity, the equal of lightning. He wrote that in the course of his experiments he had found proof - "absolute certitude," as he put it - that "communication without wires to any point of the globe is practicable."

The article prompted J. P. Morgan to invite Tesla to his home, where Tesla revealed his idea for a "world system" of wireless that would transmit far more than just Morse code. "We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly irrespective of distance," Tesla wrote in the Century article. "Not only this, but through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face."

That word: television. In 1900.

"That word: television. In 1900."

"Not only this, but through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face."

... and now we have iChat AV.

Leonardo, Marconi, Tesla, Jobs :-) Visionaries all.

Posted at 9:00AM UTC | permalink


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