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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

1901: Marconi crosses the Atlantic

On Dec. 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, determined to prove that wireless waves were not affected by the curvature of the Earth, used his system for transmitting the first wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean between Poldhu, Cornwall, England, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, a distance of 2,100 miles.

“I always remember my father’s excitement about receiving the letter ’S’ from Signal Hill,” Princess Elettra Marconi, the inventor’s youngest daughter, recalled during a visit to Cape Cod earlier this year.

A little over a year later, on Jan. 18, 1903, Marconi sent a message from his Cape Cod station in South Wellfleet, a greeting from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. It was the first radio transmission to cross the Atlantic from the United States.

Marconi is generally recognized as radio’s inventor and shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun.

Here’s a few Cape Cod-based facts about Marconi:

  • Marconi was described as an Italian nobleman who was shy and aloof, ambitious, and loved fine Italian food, which he had specially ordered for the Wellfleet station;

  • Marconi first evaluated Barnstable for his Cape Cod station, but preferred land on the Outer Cape. He found that none of the locals were willing to sell their land to him, including a parcel next to Highland Light. Edward Cook, who was Marconi’s guide to the Cape, then sold the Italian inventor an eight-acre parcel on the bluff in South Wellfleet;

  • The first Wellfleet transmitter station was constructed in 1902, but the masts often swayed in the breeze and were destroyed in a storm;

  • The transmitter from the Wellfleet station set off such a spark that it could be seen from four miles away. Surfmen from the Nauset and Cahoon Hollow Lifesaving stations could often see the flashes while on their night patrols of the beach;

  • Charley Paine of Wellfleet was Marconi’s handyman, cook, and messenger from the seaside wireless station to Wellfleet center. The story is that, on that historic night in 1903, Marconi came running from the station like a mad man waving two envelopes. ‘Go like the wind, don’t spare your horse. I’ll pay for it.’ Charley and Diamond the horse bolted for downtown Wellfleet, where the message could be sent via telegraph to Washington. According to The Cape Codder, Charley, “with typical Cape Cod independence, was reported to have slowed to a normal trot once out of sight of Marconi.”

  • On April 19, 1912, the Marconi station played a role in the rescue of 740 people from the Titanic. Harold Thomas Cottam, the wireless operator aboard the nearby Carpathia, contacted the Titanic to verify a batch of messages that were coming from the ocean liner, and the response was “Come at once. We have struck a berg.”

Marconi’s operation was moved to Ryder Cove in Chatham in 1914. An observation deck and small scale model of the station were built on the Wellfleet site by the Cape Cod National Seashore, but were lost to erosion in recent years.

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Read more about Outer Cape history in Don’s books, A Brief History of Eastham: On the Outer Beach of Cape Cod, from The History Press, and Henry Beston’s Cape Cod: How The Outermost House Inspired a National Seashore, from the Henry Beston Society.

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