The Marconi Company

Wireless Goes to War

1914 -1918

Researched and Written



The  value  of  Wireless  Telegraphy  may  one  day  be  put  to  a  great  practical  and  critical  test;  then  perhaps  there  will  be  a  true  appreciation  of  the  magnitude  of  our  work.'

Guglielmo Marconi, 26th July 1914.

Radio shall contribute to the progress and common good of people

in time of peace.

It shall contribute to the triumph of justice and mankind

in time of war.’

Guglielmo Marconi,

just before his death in 1937, said to his good friend Luigi Solari

Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?’
Guglielmo Marconi

... My inventions are for saving humanity,

not for destroying her ...’ 
Guglielmo Marconi

'The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible,

....because it will make war ridiculous.'

Guglielmo Marconi , October 1912

© T.R. Wander.


Parts of this text have been extracted from :

2MT Writtle - The Birth of British Broadcasting’

by Tim Wander, Authors Online. ISBN 978-0-7552-0607- 0 © T.R. Wander 2010


Marconi’s New Street Works 1912-2012. Birthplace of the Wireless Age.'

by Tim Wander, Authors Online. ISBN 978-0-7552-0693-3 © T.R. Wander 2013

Photographs marked (MWT) are reproduced by kind permission of GEC-Marconi. The others are © T.R. Wander.


Wireless goes to War - For the First Time

The name of Marconi is now forever associated throughout the world with the invention, or perhaps more correctly the development, of wireless as a practical communication system. Today we know it as radio. Marconi built his first wireless telegraphy sets at his home in Bologna, Italy, but as he could enlist no official support there he came to London in 1896, determined to prove that wireless communication was a viable tool for long distance communication.

For the next five years he demonstrated his wireless system throughout Britain and the world, using the events to raise publicity, support and money. He also, crucially, at each step, worked to improve his equipment and the ranges he could reliably obtain.

Marconi patented his system in June 1896, the first ever true wireless patent when he was just 22 years old. His company, formed in 1897 to use his patents, was at first called the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Co Ltd. This was changed to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd. in 1901.

Over the first five incredible years of his career Marconi took an obscure laboratory experiment that had been all but discarded by the best scientists of the day and turned it into a communications technology that would change the world.

In December 1901, against all the odds, Marconi managed to receive a wireless message sent across the Atlantic ocean, over 2,000 miles. After this it seemed the world was at his feet, but at times it was to be a desperate struggle as for many years Marconi struggled to find paying customers for his new 'wire-less' system.

But from the earliest experiments with the GPO in London in 1896 representatives of the War Office and the Admiralty had always been keen observers at Marconi's earliest demonstrations and had regularly visited his wireless stations and factorys. The Royal Navy also funded a research program using the work of its own Captain Henry Jackson working at the Torpedo school HMS Vernon. Despite his own success Jackson soon came to realise that Marconi had the vision and experience, and his Company the resources to make wireless a practical system that could serve at sea and operate in all weather.

The British Naval and Military machines also took notice when the Italian, French, German and American authorities began to take a keen interest in Marconi's rapid success and growing ranges achieved. The Italian Navy was the first to test and purchase Marconi's system in 1897. In 1898 the Russian Navy and the French Navy had started to equip its vessels with equipment manufactured by the Ducretet Company in Paris by 1899.

From his earliest days Marconi had recognised that the British Royal Navy was a key customer and in the summer of 1899 he conducted a series of highly successful trials and tests at sea with his equipment installed in various warships of the British navy. The success of the trials proved beyond all doubt that wireless would be essential to the operation of any navy as the world entered the new century.

Once its strategic and tactical value had been recognised, wireless soon became part of the arms race. It also sharpened the growing imperial rivalry between Britain and Germany and, in the process, fermented a cut-throat commercial and patent war between the British Marconi and German Telefunken companies.

Marconi always believed that his system would be used for peaceful means, indeed he firmly believed that it was so powerful that it might even bring an end to war. But he was to be sadly mistaken.

On 11th October 1899, the second Boer War broke out after Britain rejected the 'Transvaal ultimatum' that demanded that all disputes between the two states be settled by arbitration; that British troops on the borders be withdrawn; and that troops bound for South Africa by ship should not disembark.

In theory, the British forces in the Boer War should have had an overwhelming superiority, mobilising some 450,000 trained troops against just 60,000 Boer irregulars in South Africa. However the Boers were excellent horsemen, masters of field craft and sharp shooting, they knew the terrain intimately and were to prove a hardy, resourceful and dangerous enemy. The Boers also had the latest artillery with German-trained gunners, their excellent handling of horses and supply wagons made them highly manoeuvrable and independent of the railways. They were also the first army in the world to recognise the potential of wireless equipment and purchased six complete sets from Germany before the war started, although these were confiscated by the British forces before they could be delivered.

In contrast the British forces entered the Boer War with tactics and organisation unchanged from the Crimean War, some fifty years earlier. They possessed little of the military intelligence or even map making facilities that were essential for military operations in such rough terrain. To match the very mobile Boer forces the British Army was forced to rely on infantry as it had inadequate cavalry, and had to fight a war with antique arms, archaic medical services and with a class-ridden and inexperienced officer system.

Faced with the Boers’ guerrilla tactics and locked into a vicious hit and run war of attrition, the British Army now looked hopefully to wireless to provide a means of coordinating the massed ranks of British infantry. During twelve weary months the celebrated guerrilla leader De Wet became almost legendary for his rapid appearances and disappearances and wireless communication seemed to offer the only means of gaining immediate information on Boer attacks.

Persuaded by the success of the trials with Marconi's system during the naval manoeuvres earlier in 1899, the War Office agreed to hire five wireless sets and operators on a six month contract, with effect from 1st November 1899. The equipment was to be land based with the British army and was to be used to control shipping movements around the ports.

On November 1st 1899 Marconi wireless equipment was deployed to South Africa for the Boer War. It is the first time wireless equipment would be used in a war. On Friday 24th November the Marconi wireless engineering team arrived in South Africa and were immediately conscripted into the British Army.

Within a very short space of time each engineer found himself in charge of a 'unit', consisting of soldiers drawn from a newly formed Wireless Telegraph Section of the Royal Engineers, under the command of Captain Kennedy, R.E.

Each unit was issued with a horse-drawn wagon into which the apparatus and its power supply of large capacity dry cells and jelly filled accumulators were somewhat crudely mounted. The power supplies were secured to the bottom of a wagon, along with the spark transmitter. The Morse key was to be operated at the back of the wagon to keep the operator away from the spark, which could be as long as 3 cm, probably why the military wireless operators started to become known as sparkers or sparks. Despite the haste and confusion surrounding the conversion and installation of the equipment, a successful demonstration of the equipment was held at the Castle in Cape Town on 4th December, and was described by Kennedy as ‘a success’.

It was to be a true baptism of fire for the embryonic science of wireless telegraphy on the battlefield. The Marconi engineers were given very little time to set up and calibrate their equipment, nor any time to confer amongst themselves before being hastily sent into the field. They also had no time to train the Royal Engineers’ personnel or personally adjust to the rigours of wartime service life. It quickly became clear that the harsh climate and conditions of war torn South Africa were to prove more than the experimental communication systems could cope with. The ironstone studded, dry sandy plains of the Northern Karroo in South Africa proved to be extremely difficult to cross with continual shocks, vibration, exposure to dust and extremes of temperature often rendering the equipment unusable.

The bamboo aerial poles soon began to split and break in the arid conditions. As the masts failed, kites and balloons were used in an attempt to provide the spark transmitters with suitable length aerial wires as the aerial length was crucial for tuning the system. When the wind was favourable and the kites flew well, communication was possible between the Orange River and the railhead at De Aar nearly 60 miles away although it was omitted from early reports that this required the use of a relay station at Belmont.

Wireless Stations were subsequently established not only at Belmont but also at the Modder River in the west and at Natal in the east. An additional station was established at Enslin, some 17 miles from Modder River, to provide advance warning of a possible Boer attack.

But under the very harsh conditions establishing communications between the various sites using poles, balloons or kites proved to be difficult and the many thunderstorms caused considerable interference at the receivers. But the Marconi engineers persevered and by the end of December 1899, wireless contact had been established between Orange River and Modder River, a distance of some 50 miles, via a manually operated relay station at Belmont.

However this was a rare success. Almost constant static discharges from sand storms and cyclones continued to desensitise the coherers, while intense lightning storms across the South African veldt also had a paralysing effect on the sensitive 'coherer' devices within the receivers. These storms were almost a daily event. They also wrecked the bamboo masts and the kites carrying aerial wires aloft that were difficult to synchronise at the two stations at the best of times.

The Army were not impressed and leaked the problems with Marconi's equipment to the British press. In response Marconi personally reacted with an uncharacteristic outburst, openly replying in the press and to the British scientific community, outlining the mistakes made by the army in implementing a new and unproven technology with such haste and lack of planning.

But the fact that this open rebuke to the all powerful British army came from a 'foreigner', representing a commercial interest, meant that the army retaliated. Taking great umbrage at this very public criticism, the Director of Army Telegraphs simply ordered the sets to be dismantled and returned and ordered that two further sets, which had been sent to accompany General Buller's forces in Natal, were also to be withdrawn from service.

At this point the Royal Navy stepped in and on Saturday 17th March 1900 all the Wireless equipment in British Army service in the Boer War was transferred to the Delagoa Bay Squadron of the Royal Navy for blockade duties against the Boer forces. HMS Thetis became the first ship to be equipped with wireless in a theatre of war.

It was not until June 1900 that reports began to emerge of their successful and reliable use, maintaining communication between the Delagoa Bay station and the blockading fleet, which could also communicate with each other with ease. The Royal Navy used the systems extensively and managed to overcome numerous practical difficulties involved with wireless operation at sea while on active duty. During the Delagoa Bay 'experiments' the Marconi engineers proved that wire guys for aerial masts were practicable and any possible screening or absorption effects were prevented by breaking them at intervals with porcelain insulators.

Overall the ships proved to be ideal experimental and operational platforms for the equipment. It was clear that the early spark transmitters of that time worked most effectively on long waves, which made them ideal for naval application. On board ship, the equipment enjoyed a more permanent installation. The masts of the cruisers had been extended to accommodate the long wire aerials, and aided by the higher conductivity of the sea, greatly improved the performance and range of the wireless telegraphy sets. The operational area and effectiveness of the ships could be drastically increased with ranges of over 70 miles easily obtained.

In service with the navy the wireless apparatus quickly proved itself to be a very useful tool. On several occasions fast blockade runners were captured by the slower naval vessels converging on them from different points, acting in unison by use of wireless. A wide area of search could be covered in concerted action while the ships were out of view of each other and the quarry.

At the same time as the Boer War wireless operations were underway with the Royal Navy, in July they also despatched three wireless sets to be used in another conflict zone with the China naval squadron for use during the Boxer Rising. One of the sets was installed on board the battleship HMS Barfleur when the ship took part in Allied operations in north China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 and 1900. Between 31st May 1900 and September 1900 she supported the storming of the Peking forts and the relief of the foreign legations at Tientsin.

Wireless had gone to war for the first time and it was now taking an active part in the battle. The ship borne systems were now working with military efficiency in the environment that they had been designed and developed for.

On Wednesday 8th May 1901 HM Treasury finally approved the purchase of Marconi wireless telegraphy equipment for the Royal Navy. It is the first large commercial order for the Company and initially consisted of 32 Marconi wireless sets, plus the five already in service from the Boer war. The order had to be delivered and tested before the end of December 1901. By 1905 the Royal navy had 105 ships equipped.

The Boer War experience had also given the Marconi Company sufficient time and experience to prove beyond all doubt that wireless telegraphy was indispensable for a ship at sea. The lessons learnt with the Delagoa Bay squadron would pave the way for the historic naval battle at Jutland in 1916, and the British Navy's eventual domination of the sea during the First World War.

Marconi was also given a clear indication as to where improvement was needed with his military apparatus for land use. Faced with the rapid progress of equipment design, the British Army was soon forced to concede that wireless did indeed have a place in the modern army. Eventually two of the remaining sets of Boer War equipment not taken over by the navy were brought into service with the army and Warrant Officers and signal ratings were successfully taught how to operate the equipment. By 1903 portable wireless stations had been attached to both the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Brigades of the Army Corps.

As Britain adopted Marconi's new system many other countries also established wireless communications services in their naval forces.

Wireless was used in the war between Russia (using Russian and French equipment) and Japan (who used Marconi equipment) in 1904. During the blockade of Port Arthur, the Japanese fleet was commanded from the Navy base distanced 110 km from the Port Arthur. In the battle of Tsushima, Japanese reconnaissance ships reported movements of Russian fleet by means of wireless.

Tentative experiments and trials were also carried out by the military at regular intervals until 1913 and during the Balkan wars of 19121913 wireless proved itself invaluable, especially during the siege of Adrianople.

Wireless was no longer a laboratory experiment forced into a battlefield environment for which it was neither suited nor designed.

The world's first purpose-built wireless factory, the Marconi New Street factory in Chelmsford had been completed in 1912. The next two years saw the Company go from strength to strength. Marconi was hailed as a hero for saving over 700 souls when the RMS Titanic struck an Iceberg in 1912 and the subsequent changes in maritime law saw his equipment start to be made compulsory in all sea going vessels. The now rapidly growing company even returned its first dividend to its more than patient shareholders in 1913.

The European war cloud was to burst at a critical moment in the history of wireless telegraphy. In reality it was only recently has the the science that had grown out of Marconi's laboratory experiments to harness Hertz's waves been moulded into the reliable basis of a sound industry that had the potential and capacity for mass production. It also had the economic inertia and industrial size along with qualified staff who could undertake rapid implementation of new designs and force rapid ongoing research and development.

Five years earlier, or even less, the wireless industry could not have responded to the exacting demands that a global world war would place on it. 

By the outbreak of the First World War wireless telegraphy was recognised by many as being an integral requirement for the British Expeditionary Force heading for France.

But as the world was about to be torn apart, the science and art of Wireless was ready for war. The Marconi Company was ready to build equipment and train operators for War and the Royal Navy was ready, fully equipped and trained with Marconi equipment.

Unfortunately the British Army was far from ready.