Visitors to Mullion and the Lizard might not realise that the area once played a significant role in the development of a vital modern technology. At the turn of the 20th century, Poldhu Point achieved fame as the site of Guglielmo Marconi’s first ever transatlantic radio signal.
Wireless telegraphy offers the ability to signal, almost immediately, to others thousands of miles away. Marconi’s invention, freeing communications from the undersea cables that had previously been necessary, was groundbreaking technology. More than this, it would go on to feature in some of history’s most famous moments.
Before Marconi’s work, most people believed that the radio waves used for communication could only work within a line of sight; in the same way that light travels. For this reason, physicists thought that it was impossible for radio waves to reach over the horizon (or across the world).
From the 1890s, Marconi began experimenting with “wireless telegraphy”, using a transmitter and a receiver. In 1896, he travelled to Britain to demonstrate his system to the government, and in 1897 he was able to send the first ever message across the sea, transmitting across the Bristol Channel.
Various other experiments and demonstrations followed, leading up to the most difficult and daring of them all: sending a long-distance message across the world. For this to be even remotely possible, Marconi would need to choose his transmission site very carefully.
WHY THE LIZARD?
Marconi actually built two wireless stations on the Lizard (and, in an interesting quirk, stayed at the Polurrian during his time here). This area marks the southernmost point of the British mainland, and was therefore close to a busy shipping lane, passed by many vessels each day.
In January 1901, he built a simple telegraph station (the Lizard Wireless Station) at Bass Point, from which he was able to receive a transmission from the Isle of Wight, successfully passing radio waves over the horizon. For his transatlantic experiment, he then chose to build four 65-metre masts on the cliffs above Poldhu.
It was a pioneering experiment, and it paid off: on 12 December 1901, a wireless signal (the Morse code letter ‘S’) was successfully sent from Poldhu to St John’s in Newfoundland, covering a distance of 2,100 miles. Marconi had proven that it could be done.
Within years of his experiments on the Lizard, Marconi’s invention was being put to commercial use. Morse code was deployed to transmit news and weather summaries to ships at sea, and to relay messages from passengers to those back at home. But, in 1910, this form of communication found fame through its unexpected value in fighting crime.
In January of that year, Cora Crippen vanished from the home she shared with her husband, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. By the time Scotland Yard found Cora’s body in the cellar, her husband had boarded the liner SS Montrose with his lover Ethel Le Neve, and was on his way to Canada. What followed was the first ‘live action’ tracking of a criminal across the world. The Montrose’s captain, having recognised Crippen and his accomplice, was able to use Morse code to communicate with the British authorities. The authorities, in turn, sent a detective on a faster liner, who was waiting to arrest Crippen on arrival.
Crippen’s capture was a newspaper sensation, and in 1912, during one of the most famous tragedies in maritime history, wireless telegraphy hit the headlines once again.
When the RMS Titanic was lost in April 1912, it took over 1,500 lives with it. However, the 700 passengers that made it into open lifeboats on the bitterly cold Atlantic owed their survival to wireless technology. Titanic had been equipped with a radio room for the benefit of the passengers – on the night the ship hit an iceberg, its operator was busy sending a backlog of messages home. Thankfully, having a wireless telegraph also meant that the ship could send distress signals that enabled the RMS Carpathia to arrive within hours to safely collect its surviving passengers.
Marconi’s wireless telegraph became widely used and would go on to inform many other major developments such as radio, television, satellites and even the internet. From the tiny village of Poldhu, Marconi created a technology that would, like its radio waves, reach around the world; extending into many forms and generations.
Today, the Lizard Wireless Station has been restored to show how it would have looked in Marconi’s time. The site at Poldhu now houses the commemorative Marconi Centre, built in 2001, where you can also find out more (to check the opening times, visit the website).