The British Bring Wireless to America


Michael Marinaro WN1M focuses on some significant ‘firsts’ in transatlantic wireless communications.

Signor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) achieved many ‘firsts’ during his career as physicist and world esteemed inventor extraordinaire. The conduct of the first two way wireless message exchange between the US and Europe was accomplished from the major Marconi station, CC, erected at South Wellfleet, Massachusetts. This particular achievement in early 1903 received great notoriety. But, contrary to common belief, this station at Cape Cod was not the very first Marconi wireless installation in the United States or on the North American continent. In 1895 Marconi began to engage in serious experimentation to perfect his discoveries to generate and detect electromagnetic waves. Efforts to interest the Italian Government were unsuccessful and Marconi brought his concepts and models to Britain. A favourable reception led to the formation of The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd in 1897, which organisation supported both Marconi’s continuing experimentation and the initial objective of communication with ships at sea. The latter endeavour was eminently successful as wireless signals reached further and further around the British Isles and to France with excellent reliability. The enterprise was commercially successful as well, with the number of coastal shore and shipboard stations increasing and revenues growing. By the end of 1904, the period covered here, the Company had 69 land and 24 ship stations in operation. The value of wireless communication was widely accepted in Britain and the scope of activity widened. With domestic acceptance ever-increasing Marconi’s attention was drawn to bridging the Atlantic and, significantly, the ships that sailed thereon. Transatlantic communications was the evolving goal. A number of events were to contribute to the achievement of this aim and the introduction of wireless to the North American continent, some occurring simultaneously. The western sites selected were in Canada at Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; and in the United States on the shores of Long Island, New York and the state of Massachusetts. But first it would be necessary to establish a base station in Britain to anchor the eastern end of the project.


The site for the world’s first permanent great wireless station was selected for its westernmost location and nearness to the New World. The headlands overlooking Poldhu cove in south-western Cornwall were ideal and work began in 1900 there and at a complementary monitoring and domestic coastal service station at the Lizard, six miles distant. Initially, Polhdu was configured with a 25kW spark gap transmitter and an antenna of 60 wires strung fan-wise between two 170ft masts − unique and extraordinary for the time, Figs. 1 and 2. 

Fig. 1: The towers at Poldhu.

Fig. 2: Marconi operating position at Poldhu, 1906


Three dots (the letter S) was the Morse code letter that Marconi used to preface and identify his experimentally transmitted signals. It was this letter, sent repeatedly from Poldhu, that Marconi monitored at Signal Hill, St John’s, Newfoundland, Fig. 3, in 1901 even as the Poldhu works neared completion. Anxious to prove his theories Marconi had sailed to St John’s with his team, receiving gear and a long antenna wire, which was to be lifted aloft by helium balloons or kites. He awed the world with the news that he had heard the signals, on a kite-supported 600ft antenna, from a distance of 2,200 miles over the Atlantic. Marconi set out to prove that two-way commercial service could span the Atlantic reliably. Steps were taken to establish a permanent installation in Canada and with the cooperation and support of the Canadian government a site was selected. Not unlike at Poldhu, the site was atop a cliff-hung headland, Table Head, on Cape Breton Island, in the province of Nova Scotia. Similar in layout to Poldhu, the new station was more powerful and used a unique
vertically-polarised antenna with 400 wires forming a cone The station was operational on December 14th 1902 when messages began to be exchanged with Poldhu to inaugurate the first regular transatlantic wireless service. In 1905 this facility  was dismantled and moved to a larger site, five miles to the southwest. Known today as the Marconi Towers, the giant station involved an enormous horizontally-polarised antenna exhibiting highly directional radiation characteristics.

Fig. 3: Cabot Tower, Newfoundland.

United States

While these various events were evolving, Marconi and his teams were concurrently establishing wireless on the US east coast. At first the effort, using their unique expertise, afforded sea-to-land communication. The New York Herald newspaper contracted with the Marconi entity to furnish news of shipping transiting the sea lanes off Nantucket Island. Two stations were equipped with current design two-way equipment and antennas. One station was located in the town of Sconset (Siasconset) at the east end of the island and the other was installed aboard the Nantucket Shoals’ lightship, Fig. 4, 42 miles at sea southeast of the island. Service began in mid-1901. Reports received at the island station, call letters MSC, were relayed via undersea telegraph cable and the conventional land pole strung telegraph system to the newspaper’s offices in New York. Approximately 250 vessels transited these sea lanes daily and the knowledge of vessels passing was of commercial and social value. As passing vessels became equipped with on-board stations, they were able to engage in twoway communication directly with the island station passing messages. But, neither Nantucket nor Long Island was the absolute first US location of Marconi wireless activity. Both could be termed temporary stations because they were shortly superseded by major transatlantic stations at Glace Bay, Fig. 5, and Cape Cod. Another temporary station was the true first instance of wireless being generated in North America. As mentioned previously, as the century was to close Marconi’s short-range demonstration transmissions in Europe had begun to dispel scepticism. However, his ‘space telegraph’ was still considered a novelty and was not well recognised in North America. In the late summer of 1899 Marconi set out to gain publicity for his invention. He sailed to New York City and established a syndicate with the major newspapers there. He was to report the conduct of the America’s Cup yacht race, to be held in September in lower New York harbour off New Jersey’s Sandy Hook. His receiving station with linkage to telegraph and telephone lines was situated in a signal tower on the shore. The yacht Ponce was fitted out as the transmitting station with appropriate antenna. From this vessel Marconi, with yachtsman like precision, personally keyed in 1200 messages describing the sailing duel between the Columbia and Shamrock, moment by moment, Fig. 6. The reporting of the event was flawless and created a sensation. Wireless had come to the North American Continent and was received most positively. The Marconi Company began immediately to scout for temporary and permanent station locations along the U.S. north-eastern beaches. The temporary stations were to serve as local, limited distance, shore-to-sea messaging facilities with integral operator training schools. Two such posts were in operation by 1902 at the towns at Sagaponack, and Babylon, Fig. 7, on the south shore of Long Island, New York. While the two lesser Long Island locations were coming on the air a permanent US transatlantic-class station was sited on the desolate bluffs of Cape Cod, near the town of South Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Larger in design and scale CC was to complete the first transatlantic circuit linking with her sister stations at Poldhu and Glace Bay. And, consequently this was the station from which the first two- way wireless communication was accomplished between the US and Europe. This event was so broadly publicised that it became popularly known as the very first actual wireless activity within the USA. The detailed drawing, Fig. 8, prepared by the US National Park Service illustrates the station arrangement upon completion in February 1902. The major components are the three buildings and the four 210ft wooden towers. The original pole antenna arrangement was destroyed in a storm before the station came on the air and Poldhu had suffered a similar antenna loss about the same time. It is worthy of note that the towers were set on square concrete slabs with the bases of the most easterly two towers set about 165ft from the edge of the bluff. The station began transmitting on a wavelength of 1500m using the call letters CC. A spark of 20kV was created, a spark so powerful that it could be heard in the neighbouring village. The station was linked directly by telegraph line to the local main landline telegraph station in the town of South Wellfleet and beyond that to the New York Times newspaper in New York City. Messages to be sent by radio transmission were received in this manner and likewise messages received by radio were so dispatched for delivery. Additionally, daily news stories, primarily from Boston and New York, were accumulated and condensed into a newspaper format, punched into a paper tape, and transmitted to ships at sea three times each night on 1500m. Ocean liners such as the Cunard Lines RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, subscribing to the service, presented their passengers with a ship-published newspaper the following morning. This news service was a main activity of the station throughout its existence. Shortly after the station was in full operation a momentous exchange of messages took place from the station. On January 18th 1903 a message was successfully sent by CC from President Theodore Roosevelt addressed to King Edward VII. The message was received by ZZ at Poldhu and a response from the King, then residing at Sandringham House, was received in turn at the Cape Cod station. It is purported that Marconi, who was in attendance at the station, actually keyed in the message. This was the first instance of a two-way US transatlantic communication and the first wireless telegram exchange between the US and Europe. Advances in technology pointing to the use of short wavelengths and the demise of spark gap; and the forces of nature evident in the rapidly eroding cliffs, were beginning, to combine to doom the long term existence of the station. In 1908 the call letters were changed to MCC (Marconi Cape Cod) and in late 1912 or early 1913 they were changed again to the final WCC. By 1910 operations had begun from two new Cape locations. A receiving site was situated at sheltered Chatham, Massachusetts at the ‘elbow’ of Cape Cod 34 miles south of Wellfleet To reduce the overloading of the then poorly selective receivers and permit simultaneous receiving and transmitting, the transmitters were located separately at a location 40 miles west in Marion, Massachusetts. The two sites were linked by telephone and telegraph. American Marconi established two additional major stations in the US in 1913 and 1914. Both deployed in pairs to operate in duplex fashion. One was constructed on Cape Reyes, California with the transmitting station KPH at Bolinas and the receiving site at the town of Marshall. The second, an enormous state-of-the-art facility, was situated in the state of New Jersey with the transmitting site in the town of New Brunswick and the receiving location at Belmar. The last of the great facilities, New Brunswick, was the most technologically advanced. By 1918, after four years of experimentation and progressive improvements, it included a mile long receiving antenna, a 5,000ft long transmitting array supported by eight 400ft masts and by mid year an Alexanderson alternator transmitter with an output power of 200kW at 17kHz (17,500m).

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Fig. 4: Nantucket Shoals lightship.

Fig. 5: The great station at Glace Bay.

Fig. 6: Contestants in 1899 America’s cup race – yachts Columbia and Shamrock.

Fig. 7: Signage at Babylon on site of station, Long Island.

World War One

With the advent of World War One, this, the best of the foreign commercial installations on the US mainland, was commandeered by the US Navy. The US entered the war in April 1917. After the partial failure of transatlantic telegraph cables, the New Brunswick facility was confiscated by the Navy in January 1918 to provide vital transatlantic communications. New Brunswick Naval Radio Station became the principal wartime communication link between the USA and Europe, using the call sign NFF. After the war, ownership of the station, along with that of American Marconi’s other US stations, was transferred from the Navy to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). American Marconi disappeared as an entity as the US Government legislated that all commercial wireless be conducted by US companies. Over a period of 18 years Marconi, his associates and colleagues, had built phenomenal transoceanic stations on both US coasts and in Hawaii. These stations maintained regular communications with Europe, Hawaii and Japan and were the initial links in the wireless chain that was envisioned to gird the globe. A world circling chain was indeed subsequently created by the British parent firm Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company. Promoted by the British government the system, completed by 1928, became known as the Imperial Wireless Chain and linked the countries of the British Empire. Concurrently, RCA, in competition, created their own worldwide network. Marconi had brought the marvel of wireless to America and a grateful enhanced world. And, as he himself said, “I too am but an amateur” 

Guglielmo Marconi posing in front of his early radio apparatus. (Smithsonian Institution Libraries)


This article was featured in the September 2019 issue of Practical Wireless