The Marconi Saga
Whenever I hear about the power of the press, I think about Alec Johnston and Guglielmo Marconi.
Many advances in communications had been made in the centuries between Prince Edward's Distant Early Warning System and the arrival in Sydney, Cape Breton of Guglielmo Marconi, a dapper young pioneering scientist, on Christmas Day, 1901.
Marconi was unlike the starving inventors of his time who dressed in rags and lived hand to mouth. His daughter, Dena, candidly described him as the type of man that would be wearing a Panama hat, topcoat and spats in a row boat. She also admitted that he strayed as well, "but never for more than five hours at a time". His father was Italian, his mother Irish, and he also married an Irish lass, Beatrice O'Brien, whom he met in England. Beatrice was never able to get her tongue around her husband's first name 'Guglielmo' (gug-lee-elmo) so she always called him "Marky".
Triumph and Disappointment
In keeping with a "prophet not being accepted in his own country", Marconi had gone to England because he could not get funding in Italy for his scientific experiments in radio communication. He had found support for his work in England. His research led him to the British colony of Newfoundland where he met both triumph and disappointment. It was there on December 11th that Marconi established that "wireless" signals did not disappearoff in a straight line out to the "ether" but followed the curvature of the earth. Of course, he did not really understand exactly "how" it worked, but the "experts" were wrong and he was right and perhaps there is no
greater satisfaction than this.
That was the triumph; disappointment came with the notice from the AngloAmerican Cable company which claimed to have exclusive rights to "telegraphy" in the colony. They threatened to get an injunction to stop his work if Marconi persisted on their territory. I suspect the fact that they were worried gave Marconi the encouragement that he was indeed on the right track even though he would have to change stations.
He had determined that Cape Cod would be an ideal place to setup the first permanent Radio station in North America and began negotiations to acquire a site there. The 27 year old pioneer stepped down from the Steamer "Bruce" at North Sydney with the full intention of continuing his trip to New York City via rail road. That would have
been the end of it, had it not been for Alec Johnston, publisher of the "Record" newspaper and, coincidentally, Member of Parliament.
Johnston believed. that the experiments Marconi had begun in Newfoundland could be continued in Cape Breton as the difference in distance to England was negligible. He left the comfort of a family Christmas, to spend the cold blustery December day pacing the docks in anticipation of Marconi's arrival. After a brief introduction, he explained that he was there for more than an interview for his newspaper and urged Marconi to consider Cape Breton as a project site.
Marconi questioned whether the Anglo-American Cable Company would raise the same objections as they had in Newfoundland, but Mr. Johnston had done his homework. He assured the scientist that there would not be the same problems in Nova Scotia.
Johnston secured the use of a train from Dominion Coal Company (a company not noted for its philanthropy) so that Marconi could view the coastal area for a suitable site.
As Marconi sat in the rail car with the general manager of the coal company surrounded with maps and charts, he saw a flat headland between Glace Bay and Bridgeport: "This looks like a fine location," Marconi exclaimed. The general manager pulled the brake signal and the train screeched to a halt. "Its yours!" he said.
Although Canada in 1901 was a small country in terms of population and conservative in its approach to industry, there was still a spirit of adventure that seemed to overcome any reservations when it came to Marconi's experiment. Johnston stated confidently "financing can be arranged with the Federal Government, but, if they are unwilling, then we will find the money here in Nova Scotia". True to his promise, Ottawa provided funding of $75,000.00 (1902 dollars) to finance not only the Glace Bay site but also to complete the work begun at Cape Cod (our first aid to developing nations).
Since the days of Marconi, wireless has escaped the Earth to communicate with space probes millions of miles away. At Table Head, Cape Breton, where Marconi set up this first station, a newly constructed historic site bears his name. The Marconi National Historic Site stands as a tribute to those who have vision, who are not afraid to take a chance, who accept only challenges and not defeat.
Marconi National Historic Site stands as a tribute to those who are willing to accept challenges.
A bust of Marconi is displayed at the Marconi National Historic Site at Table Head, Cape Breton.