Marconi caught out in 1903 by John Heys G3BDQ

There are three leading characters in this story; Marconi, Dr. .John Ambrose Fleming and John Neville Maskelyne. In 1903 Marconi was basking in the role of Mr. Wireless following from his 1901 Transatlantic exploits and success just two years earlier. Fleming, the inventor of the diode valve in November 1904 became a colleague and assistant to Marconi in those early days. The third member of the trio, Maskelyne was a member of a famous and successful family of illusionists and magicians that had an ancestor named Nevil Maskelyne who was the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich between 1765 and 1811. During WW2 a later member of the Maskelyne family was responsible for the successful camouflaging of British and American tanks and other vehicles and the use of inflatable dummy military and Air force tanks and aircraft. This was an invaluable ploy used before the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

The Maskelyne this article is concerned with was an early experimenter with the new ‘wireless technology’ and used spark coils and coherers to perform some of his stage ‘magic’. This was Mind Reading and a clever ignition of gunpowder set off remotely from backstage. He had even transmitted signals from a hydrogen filled balloon to the ground. Like many others Maskelyne was frustrated by the growing catch all patents taken out by Marconi that seemed to limit or prevent any other development outside Marconi s sphere of activities.

Maskelyne often eavesdropped on the transmissions between ship and shore made with Marconi equipment. His clandestine spying upon activities allowed his transfer of information to the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) which was finding it increasingly difficult to become an effective rival of the growing ‘Marconi Empire’ which threatened to become the only Company to be involved in wireless communication.

The Marconi Company had developed and patented a circuit and system that they named ‘Syntony’. This was supposed to allow the tuning of a spark transmitter and receiver and so prevent other powerful transmissions from causing interference (we say QRM). Sadly the selectivity of the Syntony circuits was poor and was something that Maskelyne was about to demonstrate.

This new tuning arrangement was to be demonstrated before a selected audience at the Royal Institution and was touted by Marconi as an important breakthrough that would eliminate the spark transmissions of transmitters not owned by the Marconi Company. The new equipment was carefully set up at the ‘Royal’ by Dr. Fleming and the invited audience were soon seated and awaiting transmissions from the powerful Poldhu station. The receive Syntony circuit was tuned to eliminate transmissions that might interfere with the Poldhu signals. To the horror of Marconi and Fleming an unknown Morse signal was heard loud and clear on the Poldhu wavelength. Many of those invited to the demonstration were able to read the Morse signals which when decoded began:

“ There was a young fellow from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily …….. “

Marconi was silent and declined to make any comment but Fleming flew into a rage and later sent an irate letter to the Times, calling the incident one of scientific hooliganism…

Soon after this fiasco Maskelyne had a letter in the Times owning up to the offending signals but also defended his action saying it was done in the public interest to reveal the fact that the Marconi Syntonism was ineffective and flawed. He of course had been careful not to transmit when the Poldhu signals came through. There had not been any deliberate jamming. All spark transmissions are very broadband and have a multitude of harmonics and the simple Syntony circuits could not eliminate spark transmissions close to the receive wavelength.

Fleming continued his barrage of letters to the Press for several weeks, but Maskelyne and other users of Wireless systems knew that the Marconi claims were worthless. Despite this setback it was of only minor significance to the Marconi  ‘Empire‘ which continued to grow and dominate wireless communications. He also had the ear of the Admiralty and most of the workers in the field of wireless. The general public did not understand what the furor was all about and continued to support Marconi and his achievements without serious criticism.

NB. You can read more about this scenario in the December 2011 issue of the New Scientist magazine.

By John Heys G3BDQ – Vital Spark August 2012.

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