12 January 2019

Lavernock : the Marconi connection

'Are you ready?' The world's first radio transmission over sea took place on 13 May 1897 over the Bristol Channel from the island of Flatholm to Lavernock, a little hamlet not far from where I live in south Wales.

I first discovered this somewhat surprising fact when I read the little plaque on the old stone wall that surrounds the Church of St Lawrence in Lavernock. It reads:

1897      1947
Near this spot
the first radio messages
were exchanged across water
Guglielmo Marconi
George Kemp
between Lavernock & Flat Holm 11th May,
Lavernock & Brean Down 18th May 1897

Erected by the Rotary Club of Cardiff 1947

The plaque was erected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this world-changing event, and also helped me understand why the large caravan park that now occupies much of the land at Lavernock Point is called the Marconi Holiday Village.

Not far from the church, as you head east along the coastal path towards Penarth, there is a small stone construction, sitting tower-like right on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the six kilometres to the island of Flat Holm (now usually written as one word, Flatholm) and, like many before me, I rather fancifully thought that this tower was where Marconi had sat to send his miraculous message.

Of course, it was not. I have yet to discover much about that old building, which now has a high fence around it to try to restrict access (there is a well-worn path around the end of the fence!) but I did find one reference to it online, dated January 2013, which mentioned that the interior, though derelict, contained ‘Penstock control panels and pumps, possibly for excess water or sewage’. 

His talent unappreciated in his native Italy, Guglielmo Marconi moved to Britain in 1896 to try to find a more receptive audience and support for his experiments in the use of wireless. His ideas generated interest from the British postal authorities and it was they who witnessed his success, after some initial failures, at Lavernock. 

(This image of Marconi is in the public domain; it is from the Time Life archive and bears the caption ‘Electrical engineer/inventor Guglielmo Marconi as a young man’. The photo was taken in 1896, the year before Marconi relocated to Britain.)

Here’s a report of what actually happened with those wireless experiments, extracted from the Evening Express newspaper, dated 15 May 1897:

The postal authorities of the country have evidently faith in the possibilities of the Marconi system of telegraphing without wires, and the Italian inventor (M. Marconi) has reason to feel proud of the success of the demonstrations, so far as they have yet been carried out. M Marconi, as was reported the other day, successfully carried out on Salisbury Plain a series of experiments with a couple of balloons attached by wires to the ground. For several days he has been engaged in conducting experiments at Lavernock Point, near Cardiff, in testing the effective working of his system of telegraphing without wires between the mainland and the Flat Holm, and the trials have been witnessed by Mr. Preece, engineer-in-chief of the General Post Office; Mr. Gavey (late of Cardiff), now second engineer in London; Mr. Fardo, Cardiff postmaster, and other officials of the department. For the purposes of the experiments, Mr Williams (of the engineering department, Cardiff) fixed upon Lavernock Point a pole 120 feet high, with a zinc cylinder at the summit, 5ft. 6in. by 4ft., insulated from the Flat Holm and Brean Down. The experiments on Tuesday were not so successful as might have been desired, but on Wednesday and Thursday the results were most satisfactory. On Friday afternoon there was a semi-public demonstration, when the system was explained in miniature, a transmitter facing a receiver at a distance of some twenty yards.

From those humble beginnings at Lavernock, Marconi went on to develop more fully his system for long-distance radio transmissions, he invented the radio, and, in 1909, jointly with Karl Ferdinand Braun, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.