If anyone believes that the obsession with wireless connections are the culture of 21st century society, they are very much mistaken. There was a time, not so long ago in the 19th century, when civilisations began to display a frenetic lifestyle. Rapid changes in fashion, trade, conflicts, means of transport and industry, among other factors, defined the new sign of the times and changed consumer habits. The public’s demand for immediacy also shifted to the communications sector. Paper and telegraph were no longer sufficient and the century dreamed about cable-free communication a few years before the traditional methods were consigned to history. Leaders, strategists and tycoons aspired to the need for this new method. But it was the inventors who really got to work.
The race had begun to create and implement a wireless communication system that would be capable of transmitting information between two points separated by a great distance.
The fight to be the radio leader
The invention of the radio is one of humanities milestones that will always be associated with controversy. The fight for recognition that followed has generated hundreds of historical accounts that opted for one or the other as the creator, depending on the nationality of the narrator of the events. Nearly 125 years after the first official patent was granted for the radio station, the contest for ownership continues. The case given the most media, between Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi, has seen rivalry that has lasted over time and has made rivers of ink flow.
But they were not the only ones, there were other names who made their mark and are noteworthy in this legendary controversy.
In 1886, Heinrich Hertz a German physicist, was the pioneer who laid the foundations for future research and the consequent rivalry of talents by demonstrating the existence and spread of electromagnetic waves.
Ironically, Hertz never considered that his advances could shape a communication system. However this was an advantage seen by the “disciples” during the last decade of the nineteenth century: those already mentioned, Tesla and Marconi, the Russian, Aleksander Popov and the Spanish, Julio Cervera.
1891-1900: test transmissions
Nikola Tesla was enjoying double success in the spring of 1891 in New York. On a personal level, he had just been granted U.S. citizenship, while on a professional level he was beginning to dazzle half the planet with the, now archaic, coils that bear his name. With this new contribution to the world of electricity, the inventor not only revolutionised the sector, but also discovered that it was possible to emit and receive radio signals as long as they were tuned to the same frequency.
Motivated by the new skills of his latest creation, he began his journey into the world of radio until he succeeded in creating his first radio transmitter in 1893, when he managed to transmit electromagnetic energy without cables .
Unfortunately, Tesla was unable to perform all the tests he had scheduled to demonstrate the functionality and reliability of the device. A fire that completely destroyed his laboratory in 1895 not only caused him to lose all the work he had done so far, but also forced him out of the race for many months. The inventor did not reappear until 1897, when he applied for his first radio patent in the United States (No. 645,576). However by then, it was too late to stand out individually.
In 1895, as the Tesla universe collapsed in the United States, the race to develop the radio was continuing across the pond.
It was in May of the same year that Russia and some Eastern European countries began to consider Aleksander Popov as the inventor of the radio. The physicist’s compatriots awarded him the title after witnessing the transmission of signals between the mainland and a ship located 5 kilometres from the coast and between two buildings of the University of St. Petersburg. The inventor began to publicise his findings with an improved radio receiver, built from a lightning detector, which stored electrical discharges in a capacitor and transformed the impulses into telegraphic messages.
Months later, the apparatus became a complete system for the reception and emission of telegraphic messages. However, despite the good reception, the strong institutional support and the written record of his findings, Popov was complacent and did not apply for a patent for the invention.
At the same time, a twenty-year-old Italian named Guglielmo Marconi was conducting his own experiments with wireless transmissions, using the studies and advances published by Hertz and Tesla, as his main basis. With the help of his butler Mignani, the Italian nobleman built a storm alarm in the attic of the family residence he had in the town of Pontecchio. The device managed to sound after detecting the waves generated by a distant lightning strike.
It could have been the contributions from another local talent if it hadn’t been for the business and marketing skills demonstrated by his mother, Annie Jameson. Marconi´s mother took advantage of the contacts she had in England and sent her son there, so everyone knew the potential of the young inventor. In particular, Henry Jameson, his mother’s cousin, a colonel in the British army. That family visit lead to one of the most profitable promotional events of all time.
In record time, Marconi won the approval and patronage of the British press, nobility and even royalty. Everyone supported and applauded his work without reservation, such as the signal transmission demonstrations he did in the English Channel when he used an oscillator developed by Tesla.
As early as 1896, the young Italian caused enormous surprise by becoming the holder of the first patent application for wireless telegraphy in the United Kingdom.
1900- The radio patent trio: Tesla vs. Marconi + Cervera
In 1897, Nikola Tesla was recovering from the economic and creative downturn following the fire in his laboratory. Aware that many others had taken advantage of his absence to take the lead, he wanted to make up for the lost time and filed his first radio patent applications (Nos. 645,576 and 649,621) with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They were granted to him three years later, in 1900.
At the same time, in Great Britain, Marconi’s meteoric rise was marked by a major milestone on 2 July 1897, when he obtained the radio patent from the London Patent Office (No. 12,039).
A few days later, the Italian created the “Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company“, the starting point for his business career.
In 1899, the Spanish engineer, Julio Cervera, joined Marconi’s company, where he acquired new patents in wireless telegraphy and became the new actor in the history of radio.
The climax of the war to be the creator of the radio came at the end of 1900. In November, Marconi wanted to validate in America, everything that had been achieved in Europe. In preparation for his conquest of the American market, his company was renamed the “Wireless Telegraph Company”. However, the New World was not as welcoming as the Old Continent and patent applications were systematically rejected for 3 years.
Far from giving up, Marconi resorts again to the excellent aristocratic contacts that had given him such good results in the United Kingdom. Thanks to them, he received more funding for his company and it quickly shot up on the stock market, which attracted the attention of Thomas Edison (another great figure in conflict with Tesla) who agreed to work as a Consulting Engineer in the WTC.
The Italian-American alliance, added to the cooling of the relationship between Tesla and businessman George Westinghouse and ultimately left the Serbian inventor practically out of the game.
Before the end of 1901, Marconi managed to smooth out the failures in the United States with the first signal emission with reception on both sides of the Atlantic.
Uninterested in the fight of egos between Marconi and Tesla, Julio Cervera returned to Spain from the UK to focus fully on the investigation. The inventor from Castellón took refuge in the Mediterranean to create the Remote Control of Equipment and Systems, a precursor of remote control and one of his most important patents. He also improved wireless telephony. Until that point, Marconi and Tesla had transmitted sounds over long distances, but not voice.
Cervera managed to transmit the human voice in several tests carried out between December 1901 and January 1902 between Cabo de la Nao (Alicante) and Ibiza, points separated by an approximate distance of 85km.
The successful results were the seed for the Spanish Wireless Telegraphy and Telephone Company (Radio), established in 1902. However, conservatism and Spanish envy prevented the initiative from lasting. It closed after 4 years of activity. What could not be prevented was the contribution of Julio Cervera to society, backed by several patents in his name in Spain (nº 24,717, 24,899 and 25,038), Germany, Belgium or England. Expert voices, such as that of Professor Ángel Fous, assured that the one obtained in the United Kingdom (nº 20,084) was the most relevant, as it was achieved without opposition from the commercial support of Marconi, which meant that the creation of the Spaniard constituted a different system. However, Cervera was the great forgotten by history.
1904: the unexpected change of frequency
Back in America in 1903, the iron-clad American patent system was still reluctant to recognise Marconi’s advances, because they relied too much on the advances of Tesla and other inventors, such as Oliver Lodge or John Stone.
As a result, the American office gave priority to their fellow citizens, stating “many of the claims are not patentable over Tesla’s patents: 645,576 and 649,621. Marconi’s alleged ignorance of the existence of the “Tesla Oscillator” is nothing short of absurd”.
Surprisingly, history took a 180-degree turn in 1904 when, without explanation, the U.S. Patent Office changed its verdict in favour of Marconi, who became the international “inventor of radio” from that moment on.
If Tesla, as some testimonies of the time affirmed, really considered that Marconi was a good boy who used 17 of his patents, almost by way of flattery, surely such an institutional setback made him change his mind completely
There was never any justification for the ruling in favour of the Italian, although rumours both at the time and later attributed the shift to the immense financial support behind the young European inventor.
Tesla’s health and financial problems in the years to come left Marconi free to pursue his career as a researcher and entrepreneur
The Serbian-born inventor embarked on several lawsuits including his protest against awarding the Nobel Prize to his rival in 1909 and against the “Wireless Telegraph Company” for patent infringement in 1915. Both fell on deaf ears due to the lack of liquidity on the part of the plaintiff.
A collective invention
In June 1943, Marconi’s company sued the United States government for non-payment of patent rights arising from the use of transmission systems by the army during World War I. The Supreme Court settled the matter by restoring the priority of previous patents held by Tesla, Oliver Lodge or John Stone. Supporters of the former wanted to see their idol win over Marconi, even though the ruling did not proclaim any subject as the absolute inventor of the radio or invalidate the Italian’s work.
Perhaps, for this reason, the most just and correct thing, is to distribute the merit and classify the radio as the end product of a collective invention. Teamwork in which the names of Tesla, Marconi, Cervera and Popov (et al.) are the joint owners and the rest of humanity, are the main benefactors.