16 October 2008

Marconi's demonstration

Today is the anniversary of a foundational event in the development of mass media of communication.

On October 16, 1899, 109 years ago, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his new wireless telegraph, what we call radio.

All radio could transmit at that time were the dots and dashes of telegraphy. Still, it was a marvel. And that first use, in the demonstration of October 1899, broadcast yacht racing results. He broadcast from Sandy Hook, Long Island, and the bulletins were received in Herald Square, New York City.

So give some thought to Mr. Marconi this day. And give some thought, too, while your thoughts are telegraphic, to Jack Phillips, the wireless operator who went down with the Titanic thirteen years later.

As the ship foundered, and as the captain knew the end was near, he released Phillips from his duty. A lesser man might have headed for the deck and the hope of a space on the rapidly-filling lifeboats. Phillips stayed in his seat, above and beyond the call of duty, and kept sending out the distress call until the ship's engines failed and there was no power with which to transmit.

All the lifeboats were gone by then.

Phillips' sacrifice has become myth-incrusted. Phillips was NOT, in fact, the first wireless operator to use the SOS call. The call had been proposed by a conference in Berlin in 1906, and adopted by Great Britain in 1908. The myth-busting website Snopes covers the general subject with its usual thoroughness. It documents seven examples of ships that sent out SOS calls between 1908 and April of 1912.

But the fact remains: Phillips did start the evening by sending out the older CQD call, later switching to the new-fangled SOS.

So when you toast Marconi and the invention of the wireless, make sure that whatever you're drinking is neat. No ice. Phillips would prefer it that way.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.