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World War Engineers and Scientists (part one)

My favourites are Maxwell (electromagnetic waves), Hertz (existence of radio waves), Rutherford (coining alpha, beta and gamma), Einstein (the theory of relativity), Bohr (electron orbit), Planck (quantum theory), Marconi (radio telegraphy), Wilhelm Röntgen (X-Rays), Barnes Wallis (the bouncing bomb), Sir Frank Whittle (jet propulsion), Thomas Edison (thermionic effect), Nikola Tesla (wireless), Ambrose Fleming (thermionic diode), Lee de Forest (tube amplifier), Albert Hull, John Randall and Harold Boot (cavity magnetron), Russell and Sigurd Varian (klystron), John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, William Shockley (germanium transistor) to name a few.

  • Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi patented the first wireless telegraphy system which was used extensively in the royal navy. Having a means to communicate inter-ship and ship to shore made shipping safer but in it lay also the darker side. Radio direction finding, although primitive, enabled enemy vessels to lock onto vessels transmitting any form of electromagnetic wave in the ‘wireless’ frequency spectrum. Fixed frequency carrier wave communication was simple and highly effective but lengthy transmissions allowed the enemy to triangulate and calculate a vessel’s position. Of course another problem was also apparent – ‘wireless’equipment also radiated their own form of interference.

The local oscillators used in hetrodyning ‘wireless’ sets could radiate via the receiving antenna and also be picked up by sensitive receiving equipment.  But Marconi wasn’t the inventor of wireless as we know it, this has been accredited time and again to Nicholas Tesla. Note the links between the discoveries and experiments of Edison, Tesla, Lee de Forest, Fleming and Marconi.  There is an overlap and no doubt any one of them could have been the pioneer of modern communication. Wireless or radio as we now know it played an instrumental part in saving and destroying lives through the last century, the maiden voyage of the Titanic is oft used to describe the use of radio in peace time to save lives. In war however radio stations are instructed by government law to shut down. Even in peace time radio stations onboard ships are shut down while the ship is in port, some authorities even sealing the radio office. In most cases this is an interference or security issue, in the two world wars it was illegal to possess a radio transmitter. The USA effectively commissioned all radio stations in WW1.

Due to the ever increasing danger of submarine activity in WW1 merchant vessels started carrying radio operators, called ‘wirelessmen’ – merchant vessels did not stand a chance against these awesome predators of the sea.  In the first world war radio direction finding found it’s mark but Marconi remained the hero.


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