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Marconi's journey to Wellfleet

When Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean in 1903, it was an accomplishment that would change the world forever.


And it was from the outermost shore of Cape Cod that this feat was achieved.


It was in 1901 that the Italian inventor, who was all of 26 years old at the time, arrived in Provincetown by boat from New York. Marconi, who was working on his invention since 1894, established a transmitting station in Poldhu, England, and had his eye on the Cape for his next step.


Marconi was greeted on the Cape by Ed Cook, a 60-year-old salvager and wrecker. It was through Cook that Marconi would find his base, but it wasn’t going to be easy.


Cook and Marconi’s first stop was Barnstable, but the “Wizard of Wireless” had no interest in the inland location. Back to the Outer Cape they went, where Cook tried to work out a deal for land abutting Highland Light in Truro.


“The request was denied,” wrote historian Michael Whatley of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1987. “As word spread about Marconi’s plans, suspicious natives refused to sell him land anywhere on the Outer Cape.”


After coming up empty with several people, Marconi finally found someone willing to sell him eight acres of oceanfront property in Wellfleet — none other than Ed Cook.


“I remember the day he stepped off the train at the South Wellfleet station,” recalled Charlie Paine, who worked at the station, for The Cape Codder in 1953. “All the big boys were lined up on the platform in their Sunday best ready to give him a fitting welcome. He never stopped for the reception, in fact didn’t pay much attention to the reception line, just asked somebody how to get to the station, jumped into the big carriage that was waiting for him and drove off, leaving his crew with nothing but a foolish look and a three-mile walk through the sand ahead of them.”


Locals flocked to the ocean side of Wellfleet to watch the construction of the transmitter towers. Many of them predicted a quick weather-related demise for the new structures, and they proved to be correct in November of 1901, when a storm blew them down.


The first transmission would actually go from England to Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.


“On Dec. 12, 1901, my father, Guglielmo Marconi, received the first transmission transatlantic signal from the St. John’s Newfoundland site,” Princess Elettra Marconi recalled during a visit to Cape Cod in June 2018. “I always remember my father’s excitement about receiving the letter “S” from Signal Hill.”


The Wellfleet station was rebuilt and ready to go in January of 1903. Finally, on the night of Jan. 18, messages from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII of England were exchanged via Marconi’s wireless route. History was made.


Marconi radio operators proved to be critical in many lives being saved during both the Titanic and Republic shipping disasters. The Marconi Station remained in operation on the Wellfleet bluff until 1917, when the operation was moved to Chatham. Marconi died in 1937.


Originally published in The Cape Codder, April 12, 2019.

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