Wireless Systems Design

Marconi Did Not Invent Radio

To some of you it may be blasphemy to say that Marconi was not the inventor of radio. But if you think that, you may as well start getting over it, because he didn't. All these years you probably heard about how Marconi single-handedly created wireless. Well, so did I. Yet as I found out recently, Marconi did not originate the idea. On the other hand, Marconi did indeed contribute considerably to the technology at the time. What he did was to take the basic concepts of others and make it into a practical workable system. That's called engineering. So if Marconi didn't invent radio, who did?

The History of Wireless

The basic concepts of radio were actually predicted and proved mathematically by British physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. Then German physicist Heinrich Hertz took Maxwell's ideas and demonstrated them in practice in the 1885-1886 time frame. He used UHF waves to do this in his lab using a spark gap type apparatus. At that point lots of others, encouraged by Hertz's work, experimented with various systems of wireless telegraphy. Some of those include Russian Alexander Popov, Brit Oliver Lodge and Indian Jagadish Chandra Bose. And, of course, Marconi. Marconi actually received the famous British patent 7777 for inventing radio in 1897.

Most of this early work was spark gap technology that generated an signal like ultra wideband (UWB) that covered a huge bandwidth. It worked well with telegraphy. But perhaps the unsung hero in all of this development, in my opinion, is Edouard Branly, who invented the coherer. For those of you who have not followed the development of radio, a coherer is the early version of what we would call a diode today. The coherer was a glass tube filled with metallic filings. It actually performed like a rectifier, albeit a lousy one, but it did work. The key was to make it sensitive enough to respond to very low-level signals of early radio. Without a coherer on the receiving end, radio would have never gotten off the ground.

Marconi was very successful in assembling a system for wireless telegraphy. Although he was born in Italy, Marconi spent a great deal of his life in England. It was there that he got the patent and formed the British wireless service. He later formed the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Then in 1901, Marconi demonstrated trans-Atlantic wireless by sending the letter S (dot-dot-dot) from his station in Poldhu, Cornwall to Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland. Marconi went on to become very successful (and rich) selling early wireless services and products and gathering royalties from his patents.

The Weird Genius Thought Of It First

The real inventor of radio in now considered to be Nikola Tesla. Tesla was born in Croatia, educated in Europe, and eventually immigrated to the US in 1884. Tesla was a genius. He invented so much stuff that it is hard to catalog all of it (much less understand it). This process is still going on today, as Tesla's claims of "death rays" and the transmission of electrical power wirelessly are still being examined. One of his earliest successes was the invention of the AC induction motor. He also helped George Westinghouse defeat Thomas Edison in the battle of AC vs. DC in the electrical power distribution war of the late 1800's. AC eventually won simply because you could step AC up with a transformer and transmit it over long distances then step it back down. This was a more efficient and economic way to transmit power than Edison's DC system, which required many more generation stations close to the customers. Tesla also worked on the first big AC generating plant at Niagara Falls.

In any case, Tesla got the idea for radio back in 1892 and demonstrated a remotely controlled boat in 1898. He did get basic US patents in 1897; these were for single-frequency radio, not spark gap. Yet somehow, he never got recognition for this work. While Marconi took the basic idea and ran with it, Tesla was always on to something new. Once he invented something, his overly active mind had him creating some other fabulous new invention. So Marconi and others got all of the credit...and the money. Tesla's big shot at wireless glory was the worldwide radio transmission system he invented and built at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. A huge tower was built, along with most of the apparatus, to make it work. But he ran out of money and went bankrupt. Everyone else got the glory.

Tesla was a certified genius, but he was a terrible businessman. While he lived comfortably for most of his life, he never got rich. Yet he did make many others very rich. He died penniless in 1943, eight months before the U.S. Supreme court threw out all other radio patents and granted them to Tesla. Reading the whole history of wireless today, it is easy see that Tesla was really the father of radio.

The Rest Of The Story

As with any technology, lots of people are involved in creating and developing it. That is certainly true of wireless. So while Tesla should really get the credit for the concept, we have many others to thank for their work, especially Marconi. After that early work, Edison invents the light bulb (along with Swan of England), Fleming creates the first vacuum tube diode in 1904, and Lee DeForest then develops the first triode tube in 1907. Once we got the tube, amplification made radio even better. Fessenden creates amplitude modulation in 1906 and by the 1920's there are hundreds of radio stations on the air in the U.S. alone. Armstrong invents FM in 1933 and commits suicide after RCA steals his patents. Then comes the transistor in 1947 and the integrated circuit in 1957-1958, thanks to Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild and later Intel. And here we are today. I wonder if Tesla or Marconi would even recognize our current versions of wireless, advanced as they are.

In any case, thanks guys. We owe you our careers.

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