Entrenched interests tried to sue inventor of radio

by Andy Oram

This date marks a sterling moment in the history of technology: one hundred years ago, on December 12, 1901, Gugliemo Marconi became the first person to pick up radio signals transmitted across an ocean.

The triumph was quickly followed by one of the most ignominious acts in the history of technology: one of the most powerful firms in communications, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, tried to stop Marconi from developing his innovation by threatening a lawsuit.

We hear a lot these days of powerful companies with effective monopolies (like local telephone incumbents or copyright holders) using the law to squelch new technologies; it is a theme being debated particularly now with the appearance of Lawrence Lessig's book The Future of Ideas. To recognize what is at stake, it helps to recall earlier bouts in the fight between easy profits and long-term progress.

The controversy was brought to my attention by an article in today's Boston Globe newspaper; I filled in some details from a children's book (the best source my local library had to offer) called Marconi: Father of Radio, by David Gunston.

Before December 1901, radio had been used for short hops and even transmissions across the English Channel. But it was Marconi who tried a wildly audacious experiment: cross-Atlantic transmission. He set up one station in South Cornwall, England, and another in Newfoundland (not yet a province of Canada). The infrastructure required was formidable; Marconi had to send up kites to catch the signal, because the weather was too rough for a balloon. No theory predicted that the transmission would work. But on December 12, he sat in Newfoundland and heard the clicks of the letter S sent in Morse Code by his colleagues from England. He had serendipitously come across the band of atmospheric ions that bears the name of Heaviside, the scientist who identified it the following year.

All rights to telegraph transmission in Newfoundland. however, were legally held by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, which had invested enormous sums to lay cables across the Atlantic. Their threat of a lawsuit drove Marconi out of Newfoundland. He articulately and calmly pointed out the threat of innovation that still scares the cable companies of our day, along with telephone companies, music studios, and a host of other rich corporations: "The cost of laying cables is so large that the companies have to charge a high price for the service. My system will cheapen the cost very greatly."

Some things are very much the same one hundred years later. But certain key things are different: in Marconi's case, he was championed by governments instead of being crushed by them. In Newfoundland, support by the government did not help his case. But the Canadian government welcomed him and paid for a transmission tower to aid further experiments. There lies another difference between 1901 and 2001: rather than provide havens for experimenters, nations today are "harmonizing" their laws and signing cybercrime treaties that require them to act as each other's prosecutors.

There's a happy ending, of course: Marconi set up a company (which underwent a number of vicissitudes that are beyond the scope of this weblog) and radio became a key element of modern life. And guess what? Underwater cables are still a critical part of communications infrastructure too. Companies that are willing to adapt can find a path into the future. Let us remember this when we are told to fear what new ideas bring.