Friday, July 2, 2010

Marconi in Canada—Who Knew?

Glace Bay, Nova Scotia (near Sydney)

June 30, 2010

We vaguely remember learning that Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, and you probably do, too. Somehow, we thought the seat of the action was Italy. But, today we stood in the spot where history was made—a windswept rocky point in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. It was here on December 15, 1902 that Marconi sent the first successful radio transmission across the Atlantic (not to Italy, but to Poldhu, England).

Shortly thereafter, he disassembled the huge web of copper wire supported by four giant wooden towers that served as his broadcast aerial to move them to another site. Wildflowers are rapidly encroaching on the foundations that held the towers, so not much is left to mark the historic spot, except Canada's Marconi Museum honoring his work.

Here are a couple interesting twists to the Marconi story. When the cable company that had a monopoly on transatlantic communication at the time figured out the potential of Marconi's work, they tried to put him out of business through litigation (some things never change). Canada came to the rescue, offering him $80,000 for expenses, while Cape Breton communities vied to be the site of his station. Alexander Graham Bell even offered him the use of his estate in Baddeck. The Museum exhibits a copy of the telegram Bell sent, offering use of the estate, including lodging for Marconi and his assistants, and promising that his household staff would make them comfortable. This was a particularly gracious offer, we thought, which said a lot about the character of Bell. He could have seen Marconi as a competitor, been envious of his success, or just been indifferent to his plight. Instead, he offered a hand to a fellow communication pioneer.

What a great story, and who knew?

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