On Jan. 18, 1903, Guglielmo Marconi sent a message from his Cape Cod station, the first radio transmission to cross the Atlantic from the United States.
Nine years later, his Cape Cod wireless station would send a message to the Carpathian, requesting its help in rescuing survivors of the sinking Titanic.
Marconi was a 29-year-old Italian nobleman whose ambition, inventiveness and love of fine food took him to a windy cliff in South Wellfleet, Mass.
He aimed to transmit news and private messages to ships sailing the Atlantic that paid for the service. By the time his invention played a key role in rescuing the RMS Titanic‘s passengers, Marconi had a monopoly on the business.
Born April 25, 1874, Marconi made his first wireless transmission at the age of 20 by making a bell ring across a room.
After his successful bell experiment, he went outside on his father’s estate and transmitted signals a mile and a half away. He gradually figured out how to send wireless signals over longer and longer distances.
He moved to England with his mother, where he managed to send a signal 3.7 miles over Salisbury Plain in 1897. Two years later, his signal crossed the English Channel. He then went to the United States to demonstrate his wireless signal, sending reports of the America’s Cup race off Sandy Hook, N.J., to the New York Herald.
In December 1902, Marconi sent a signal from a station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, to his station in Cornwall, England, the first radio transmission to cross the Atlantic from North America.
But he had bigger ambitions: a U.S. wireless station that would compete with the undersea cables that crossed the Atlantic.
The inventor had spent months hunting for the right land on which to build his first U.S. station. He searched along the coasts of New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. He wanted a remote spot, but not too far from drinking water, labor, supplies, a rail line and a hotel.
In February 1901, Marconi arrived in Provincetown with his assistants. A Cape Codder named Ed Cook showed them around in his wagon.
When Cook took him to Highland Light in North Truro, Marconi believed he found his spot. But the locals thought Marconi was a charlatan and refused to sell him land.
Next they went to South Wellfleet, where Marconi found an eight-acre parcel of land on top of a 130-foot cliff. Wellfleet Harbor was nearby, and so was a railroad station and a telegraph office.
Cook owned the land. Marconi bought it from him for a song, then made him general contractor. While laying plans for the station, Marconi stayed at a nearby inn, but couldn’t stand the food. He earned a lasting reputation as a snob among the locals because he had food and wine shipped from Boston and New York.
Marconi left Richard Vyvyan to supervise construction of the station, including cottages, a transmitter building, a kerosene engine and an array of antennae mounted on 20 200-foot masts.
Men called riggers built the masts as they swayed in the slightest breeze. The locals predicted the masts wouldn’t withstand the first Atlantic storm. They were right.
When the station was finally finished, the transmitter sent off such a spark it could be seen four miles away. It made a sharp, deafening crack that forced workers to cover their ears. The electricity escaped through drainpipes and stove flues, even the clothesline. The housekeeper grew used to getting a shock when she hung up the washing.
In late November, a nor’easter struck Cape Cod and toppled the masts, nearly killing Richard Vyvyan. Another crashed through the roof of the transmitting room.
Success, And a Rescue
Marconi decided to rebuild the station, with four 210-foot towers that supported the antennae. By January 1903, it was ready.
He sent a message from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII in London. It praised wireless telegraphy and greeted the monarch.
Edward replied from Sandringham with thanks and good wishes.
Marconi raced to notify the press, and congratulations poured into Cape Cod.
Marconi realized the South Wellfleet station was unstable, and built a new station in Chatham.
The company had put its operators and equipment on board some of the most prestigious ocean liners of the day. Two Marconi operators aboard the Titanic sent distress messages for several hours after the ship struck an iceberg. A neighboring vessel, the Carpathia, received the messages and steamed 58 miles to rescue 700 passengers.
After an inquiry into the tragedy, the U.K.’s postmaster-general concluded, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi…and his marvelous invention.”
Today, little is left of the Wellfleet station. Much of it was dismantled during World War I as a security measure. The sea claimed much of the rest of it. The site is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo of the remains of the Marconi Station in Wellfleet by Flffy’d. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. With thanks to Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. This story was updated in 2022.