At 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, sitting in a makeshift radio shack on Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland, plucked from the ether the telltale dot-dot-dot that represents the letter s in Morse code from a transmission sent from Poldhu, England 2,200 miles away.
That moment proved that radio waves could indeed master the curvature of the earth and began the march toward the modern global communications still evolving today, 100 years later.
Before he received that simple s from the skies, Marconi experienced the kind of frustration in getting a complex system to work that many of today's wireless network users can appreciate.
For an antenna, Marconi used a wire attached to a kite -- only to have the first kite/antenna blown out to sea. But just as today's wireless users pack extra batteries for their cell phones, Marconi had extra kites. He promptly launched a spare nine-foot model, raising that kite on 600 feet of rope with the antenna attached, allowing him to receive the first trans-Atlantic transmission.
Since then, wireless as an industry has grown far beyond Marconi's expectations, serving as the bedrock first of the radio and television broadcasting industries and more recently for wireless LANs and data phones. Instead of the dots and dashes of Morse code, these newer inventions transmit bits and bytes of computer code, but with the same purpose: to bridge a geographic gap between people and nations.
The Thunderer Squadron of the Royal Navy, joined by midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., staged a reenactment of Marconi's original experiment today. They experienced some of the same frustrations that bedeviled Marconi, including breaks in their antenna wire.
Kathryn Bean, a Naval Academy spokeswoman, said Midshipmen 1st Class Tim Patterson, Phil Gift and George Roland, along with their adviser, electrical engineering professor Richard Martin and Capt. Robert Voigt, chairman of the Naval Academy's electrical engineering department, built the replica Marconi receiver used in today's reenactment.
CBC Radio in Canada is featuring broadcasts all day long to commemorate the first wireless transmission, while the province of Newfoundland has been engaged "in a yearlong celebration,'' according to John Soper, a CBC producer in St. Johns, adding that the province "has always been slightly ahead of its time."
The anniversary has also sparked interest in Marconi's first transmission among ham radio operators and online, where a number of Web sites, such as the Hammond Museum of Radio, are commemorating the event.