This is the first of a series of articles in which the first Chief Engineer of the BBC indulges in what he describes as anecdote, filling in the background with an account of how the nineteenth century scientists established the foundations upon which pioneering inventors built their systems, In a second article the author will be concerned with the progress of the revolution caused by the invention of the valve, a progress during which he was intimately concerned with the beginnings of broadcasting. He will round off his contribution with some predictions about the future.
Spark and Arc
I first heard about wireless in 1902; Welsh Ethel said 'whatever will they think of next I should wonder'. Nannie thought it was flying in the face of Providence; I disbelieved the whole story; how could the signals persist in spite of a thick fog in the Channel?
We called it wireless in those days; in spite of the almost universal adoption of the term radio there are some respectable survivals. 'As well', said a pompous young friend, 'call a motor car a horseless'; that was more or less what we did call it sixty or so years ago - a 'horseless carriage', which was despised by carriage folk. No one despised wireless - it frightened the Cable Interests not the horses.
A fifteen year old schoolboy contemporary circa 1906 is boasting his acquaintances; turning to me he says 'I know the man who invented wireless' - he meant, of course, Marconi. By this time I had become passionately interested in the subject of wireless and I replied, sententiously, 'No- one, not even Marconi, invented wireless'.
Try to trace the origins of any important technical development and you will follow a path, getting ever fainter, but often without any obvious end. Wireless, radio, what you will, uses electricity for its consummation. Who discovered electricity? Was it some dry Egyptian priest rubbing a dry cat with a dry cloth? Is this myth of some Greek playing about with amber viable? Can we cite Galvani jabbing at spasmodic frogs, or Cavendish emptying the electric fluid from his jars through his body (also convulsive) as the 'onlie begetters'?
In fact it was all these and more: it was the inquisitive experimenters, towards the end of the Middle Ages, breaking away from the domination of the schoolmen; it was these who created the climate in which discovery and invention flourished and may now overwhelm us.
There are, to my way of thinking, four names which prick out the main course of the original development of wireless. They are Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and Lodge; Faraday and electromagnetic induction, Maxwell and his famous equations, Hertz and his experimental confirmation, Lodge, the one who saw the importance of what he called syntony, what we know as tuning; these established the fundamentals.
It would, however, give an altogether wrong impression to say that these four were the only ones. Even before Faraday we find a few predictions, while Contemporary with Hertz and Maxwell was a growing awareness of the possibilities of signalling without wires.
Here is Huygens in 1678 propounding the undulatory theory of light (I always thought the postulate was due to Young in England who got into trouble for challenging Newtons corpuscular theory, but this by the way); Joseph Henry (1843) magnetizing needles at a distance of 200 feet; Ruhmkorff and his invaluable 'coil', which we know as 'The Induction Coil', inventing one of the essential components of a wireless system long before it was needed for that purpose.
Perhaps the most remarkable among the prophets was Professor R E Hughes who, in 1879, gave a private demonstration of the transmission and reception of Wireless signals over a path some sixty feet in length. Tragically enough Hughes met with a member of that self-perpetuating species 'the inverted Micawbers waiting for something to turn down'; this time a Cambridge professor who told Hughes that his demonstration was no more than a phenomenon of electromagnetic induction. Hughes, discouraged, did no more; he did not even publish his results (could one not wish for a like self-denial in unlike cases?). I underline the date, it was nearly eighty years ago that Hughes gave his (alas!) private demonstration.
In 1885 Edison was convinced that it was possible to signal over short distances without using an interconnecting conductor, he was also explicit on the mechanism which was truly based on electromagnetic induction - not the wireless waves which Hughes had generated and detected. Nevertheless Edison describes aerials earthed at one end - he showed pictures of yachts equipped with such as suitable for this novel means of communication.
In 1892 Sir William Crookes is quoted as saying that 'electromagnetic waves of a yard or more in length' will penetrate material impervious to light waves. This implication of the use of the indoor aerial was, however, after Hertz had published his results; results which proved that it was possible to generate waves having the same nature but far greater length than light waves - waves susceptible to reflection, refraction, focusing albeit on la larger scale but fundamentally in the same way as light.
The essential features of what we now call radio are means to transmit and means to receive electromagnetic waves so that the basic inventions cover the generator, the radiator and the detector. In as much as the system would have no value were it not possible to pick up wanted and reject unwanted signals, so tuning stands out as a fundamental necessity. We cannot say that any one person invented wireless but we should give all possible credit to Sir Oliver Lodge who was the first to point out the principles and patent the method for achieving what we now call selectivity.
Lodges patent 'Improvements in Syntonized Telegraphy Without Line Wires' was applied for in May 1897 and granted on February 1st, 1898. Later on the invention was regarded as having such outstanding merit that its life was extended from the normal date of expiry in 1911 by seven years. It was then that the Marconi company bought it. Still concerned with the pioneers, I believe that had it been possible to create continuous waves as easily as those arising from the damped trains of spark generation then Fessendens clear appreciation of beat, or as we say heterodyne reception, would have received a wider recognition than in fact it did.
But Marconi, the 'inventor' of wireless, how far can he be so acclaimed? There is this to be said in support, that the Marconi patents, remarkably 'The Four Sevens', strengthened by Lodges patent on tuning, did for some time give the company a virtual monopoly of wireless. So much for genesis.
Maybe an incident, maybe some predilection, maybe some inborn and therefore latent talent determines a career. 'Whats your Alf goin to be when e grows up, Mrs. Blank?' 'Oh! es that fond of hanimals well make im a butcher' - thus Punch many years ago.
I am not sure about any latent talent or predilection that I might have had, but like a great many boys, I made inventions (among them perpetual motion), but I doubt I could have followed the career I was driven to had it not been for the influence of my brother T L Eckersley. The triggering incident is clear to me still. Returning from school, I was walking up the drive (so steep that we children would suffer dire penalties did we not spare the horses) when standing on the porch steps I saw my brother engaged upon winding startlingly green wire upon a rod of shining black ebonite. My excited question drew the answer: 'Its for some experiments with wireless, come and see.'
Hardly pausing to receive my mothers affectionate greetings, I hurried upstairs to the Play-room - now no longer rocking horsed nor dolls housed - to see it filled with what were at once to me sensually exciting things, things of beauty, fearfully and wonderfully made, black polished, smooth to the touch, awful in danger, exciting in mystery.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that I became, in the summer of 1905, one of only a few thousands who knew something about wireless. Today tens of millions!
My youth, otherwise 'bathed in a celestial light', was illumined by a fascinated interest that even the prison walls has failed to dim: I sometimes wonder whether todays chartered engineers enjoy the same delights.
My brother it was, from an immeasurable height above, who taught me principles and practice. I was, I am still, more interested in the latter, an aspect of incurable romanticism, even in 'the first fine careless rapture' I wanted to witness transmissions over distances greater than the compass of the play-rooms forty feet. Was there not talk of bridging the Atlantic by these same wireless waves that were proclaimed by our crackling spark? But brother Tom was more interested in their measurement and the mathematical interpretation of experimental results; a clear pressage of that genius which has now made 'T L' the recognized expert in wave propagation throughout the wireless world.
I went to school at Bedales; a school in many other ways remarkable and, in relation to my story, particularly so in that it encouraged its pupils to indulge such enthusiasms as seemed to authority to be worth encouraging. With this new-found interest in wireless it was not long before Robert Best and I had set up what was, in effect, a wireless experimental station in the school grounds, a station christened by some wag as 'Wavy Lodge'.
The name was apt because Best supported what was then known as the Lodge-Muirhead system (the counterpoise aerial being one of the distinctions). In schoolboy rivalry I proselytized the Marconi system, the earthed aerial, in fact. There was no serious clash of opinion between us (it was typical of the Oxford - Cambridge, Harrow - Eton, Blue Fleet versus Red Fleet contentions of those days), but it did give our enterprise a certain cachet and so made it the easier for us to attract the necessary financial backing from our parents.
From the little hut 'Wavy Lodge' (presaging perhaps another hut in a field at Writtle - another story) we transmitted signals and were delighted when these were picked up by the receiver at distances of transmission greater than that over which the spark, generating our waves, was audible; we listened to the grunting of the Eiffel Tower station and experimented with detectors. It was proved that a rusty pair of pliers was a better detector than carborundum (invented by one Dun-woody of Washington, DC, in 1906), but was rivalled, because of a greater reliability, by a piece of arc-lamp carbon bearing upon a hack-saw blade - slightly oxidized. We also built a wavemeter to a design due to Fleming, who called it a cymometer (from cyma, a wave). An accompanying photograph shows the earnest young experimenter, with an expression reminiscent of the HMV dog, supposedly hearing wireless signals rectified by some loose contact embodied in the 'Wavy Lodge' receiver.
Photograph taken circa 1907 of Mr Eckersley receiving signals on a receiver he constructed and installed in 'Wavy Lodge', an experimental station set up in the grounds of Bedales School.
My vade-mecum at this time was Flemings 'Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy' (first published April, 1906; I still have the 1916 edition). Therein I read of exciting developments in which I longed to participate.
There was the Poulsen arc capable of generating continuous waves, an altogether too expensive and seemingly too dangerous an equipment for schoolboy handling; many high-frequency alternators - Tesla before the turn of the century producing frequencies of 40,000 to 50,000 Hz, Duddell, 1905, Fessenden, Alexanderson, 1908, Goldschmidt, 1912 (200 kW at 50,000 Hz), but all so complex and expensive as to be quite impracticable for amateur use. Among detectors, one of which we bought, the Ferrié electrolytic was exciting. A very fine wire was in contact with an electrolyte; applying a direct potential polarized it, the high-frequency currents broke down the insulating bubble and released current so long as the signals persisted.
A painful recollection is of a despair in getting parental sanction to buy a Marconi magnetic detector and a decision to make one. I was never any good with my hands. I find matter altogether vicious and troublesome. Machinery of all kinds, from electronic complexes to fountain pens, wilts in my presence and so the magnetic detector finished up in a heap of broken bits. In a more serious scientific category (was I not the secretary of the Bedales Scientific Society?) I experimented on the resistance of a loose contact and adumbrated Eckersleys law that the breakdown was equal to the product of mechanical and electrical pressure. Unlike Hughes I published my results, in the journal of the Bedales Scientific Society.
And so between the fascination of receiving the powerful long wave European stations - Nauen, Eiffel Tower - (no British station!) and building portable transmitters the years passed until examinations intervened and the sterner facts of life dominated.
I suppose it is fair to characterize this first decade in the practical development of wireless as a failure to make it, because of atmospheric interference, a world communicator, but a triumphant vindication of its powers to link ship and shore and, for military purposes, isolated combat forces with a base. It is also fair to see Marconi as the presiding genius. Marconi was neither a great inventor like Edison nor a great physicist like Sir Oliver Lodge. However, he had quintessentially that rare power to distinguish the wood from the trees. He said in effect 'If Hertz can signal across a laboratory I can signal round the world' - in the end he was proved right. Marconi may have done no more than collect the mosaic pieces of invention, due to others, and use them to form his system, but it was this system that held the field and, by its protective inventions, successfully stood up against attacks from all quarters. The 'Titanic' disaster in 1912 caused the installation of wireless on ships to be obligatory and it was the Marconi system which was universally installed - some claim with the popular belief that Marconi invented wireless does lie.
'Progress' is, more often than not, due rather to a kick on the backside than a clear foreknowledge of where to go but, whatever the stimulus, it will always be with us. It is my hope that the readers brief encounter with some of the pioneers, woven into some personal reminiscence, will impress him with the time scale and the astonishing prevision of those men of science, who, interested in discovery as well as invention, so clearly saw the possibility of signalling without wires long before practice made imperfect.