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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, June 27, 2010

Tribute to Canada: The Story of the First Wireless Transmission across the Atlantic

A few weeks back, the annual meetings for NASB and DRM were held in the Mohawk College, in Hamilton Ontario, in Canada. This was the first time that these annual events were held outside of the United States, and it was a privilege for us all to acquaint ourselves again with the radio scene in the Dominion of Canada.

The two acronyms, NASB and DRM, stand for National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters and Digital Radio Mondial. Both organizations were formed many years ago for the development of international shortwave broadcasting, particularly in the United States.

It was a pleasant experience to spend a few days again "north of the border," and as a tribute to Canada, we present the story of the first wireless message across the Atlantic as our opening feature in this edition of Wavescan.

History would suggest that Viking adventurers were the first Europeans to establish a settlement upon the island of Newfoundland, way back around the year 1000. The era of more recent history in Newfoundland began with the arrival of John Cabot, an Italian seaman sailing on behalf of England, and that was in the year 1497. In the year 1824, England officially recognized Newfoundland as a colony of the British Empire; and on March 31, 1949, Newfoundland, along with the mainland area in Labrador, was federated into the Dominion of Canada as the 10th province.

Lookout Hill, a prominent coastal hill at the seaward approach to the city of St John's, has featured in several major events over the past three hundred years or more. The British established a flag signaling station on the summit, it was the location for the final battle in what is known as the Seven Years' War, there was an infectious disease hospital nearby, and it was here that Marconi chose to receive the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic. At the end of this Seven Years' War, the name of the hill was changed officially to Signal Hill.

The famous citadel, known as Cabot Tower in honor of the European explorer who first landed in the area, was constructed in 1897, to honor both Cabot and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. This tower is constructed on the summit of Signal Hill and statisticians state that 97% of all tourists who visit the nearby city of St John's also visit this tower.

Marconi, together with his several fellow travelers and his consignment of primitive electrical equipment, arrived at Signal Hill on Monday December 9, 1912. And this was in the midst of the wintry and windy season in that area. Among the items of wireless equipment that Marconi brought from England, were six kites, two hydrogen balloons, twenty-five cylinders of hydrogen, together with several hundred feet of aerial wire, a telephone receiver, a coherer and other smaller electrical items.

Soon after his arrival in Newfoundland, Marconi sent off a cablegram to his transmitting wireless station in Poldhu, on the Cornish coast in England, in which he requested eight hours of transmission in Morse Code during the afternoons of December 11 and 12. The timing for these transmissions was from 1130 - 1530 British time, or UTC as we now designate it, and the Morse Code signal was made up of just three dots, the letter S.

On Tuesday, the Marconi crew raised a kite with 600 feet of aerial wire, but the kite was torn away by the strong winds. On Wednesday, a large 14 ft balloon was lost in the strong winds, and also another kite.

On Thursday, December 12, another large kite was launched into the blustery winds, this time successfully, though it rocked around wildly in the Newfoundland gale. There was a long aerial wire attached to the kite, and this lead through an open window into a vacant room in the abandoned hospital. Marconi was in there, listening on a telephone receiver.

Just before midday, at around 11:30 am local time, Marconi heard the faint signal of the letter S, the three dots, that were transmitted from Poldhu in England. He heard this signal several times and he handed the receiver to his assistant George Kemp, who affirmed that he also heard the same signal.

It had been declared in advance by knowledgeable critics, that it was impossible to receive a wireless signal from England in Newfoundland. In between for 2,000 miles, lay the waters of the Atlantic, and due to the curvature of the Earth, this presented a barrier of water, in the shape of a shallow conal pyramid, 125 miles high.

Other more recent critics have stated that the signal heard by Marconi was actually a harmonic, not the fundamental signal from the transmitter in England. It is estimated that the transmission frequency was 820 kHz and the power output was 35 kW. However, during the winter season, and at mid and late afternoon in England, it is suggested that a mediumwave signal in Morse Code from England could propagate across the salt water ocean to North America.

Subsequent to this triumph in Newfoundland, Marconi went on to achieve many other notable long distance transmissions in other parts of the world.

The Marconi company in Canada installed a wireless communication station on the second floor in this same Cabot Tower in 1915 and this was on the air under the Newfoundland callsign VON. This facility was in use during that era mainly for communication with nearby shipping. Back in the middle of the last century, station VON was transferred to the nearby airport, and finally a few years ago, it was incorporated into the Canadian Coast Guard base on the edge of St John's.

During the past quarter century, amateur radio equipment has been on the air from Cabot Tower under several different special event callsigns, such as VO1AA, VO1IMD and VO1S. During the month of October in the year 1996, Marconi's grandson, Prince Guglielmo Giovanelli Marconi visited Cabot Tower for a special TV sequence with BBC Television from England. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2 visited Cabot Tower in 1997, and she made a brief broadcast to England from this amateur radio station, under the special event callsign VO500JC.

Another radio station is also on the air from Cabot Tower, on Signal Hill on the edge of St John's in Newfoundland, and this is a low power information FM station under the Canadian callsign CJSH. This station gives out local tourist information on 90.9 MHz FM.