The Operational Debut of Military Naval Wireless Telegraphy

The featured article, The Operational Debut of Military Naval Wireless Telegraphy, of this issue of Holistic History Monthly draws on the online presentation of the same name given on 25 September 2022. The rapid refinement and adoption of wireless electrical telegraphy in the late 1890s and early 1900s belies the idea that we live in a time of unparalleled technological progress. It also gives an indication of the preconditions that need to be met for a practical application to be found for a combination of scientific breakthroughs.

By : Peter Griffiths – Editor of Holistic History Monthly
East Rand Military History Society

Email: chairperson[@]

The Operational Debut of Military Naval Wireless

Telegraphy – What telegraphy entails

Telegraphy is the transmission of messages over long distances where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than sending a physical message. Semaphore flag signals, therefore, are a method of telegraphy, whereas messages attached to homing pigeons are not.

Optical telegraphy

The first telegraphic system to be widely adopted was Claude Chappe’s optical telegraphic system. Invented in the late 18th century, the system was used extensively in France and European nations occupied by France, during the Napoleonic era.

A replica of one of Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph towers, topped with semaphore arms.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

In Chappe’s optical telegraphic system, an observer at each intermediate optical telegraph tower would watch the preceding tower through a telescope and relay messages spelled out by the movements of its semaphore arms to the next tower. The high cost of setting up the required infrastructure and the need for visibility between each optical telegraph tower, which could easily be lost in poor weather conditions, were inherent limitations with Chappe’s communication system.

Electrical telegraphy

Electrical telegraphy, in which long and short electrical signals are combined in different ways to form text messages that are transmitted along wires between telegraph stations, started taking over from optical telegraphy from the 1840s.
The picture below is an artist’s impression from 1900 of Samuel Morse, the co-developer of the Morse code used for electrical telegraphy, sending the first long-distance electrical telegraphic message – “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” – on 24 May 1844.

An artist’s impression from 1900 of the sending of the first long-distance electrical telegraphic message.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

By the latter half of the 19th century, most developed countries had commercial telegraph networks with local telegraph stations in most cities and towns. Beginning in 1854, submarine telegraph cables allowed for the first rapid communication between continents. In 1865, a modified version of Morse code was adopted as the international standard version of the code.

Electrical telegraphy in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, which lasted from 12 April 1861 to 26 May 1865, electrical telegraphy proved its value as an important contributor to Union victory. More than 80 467 kilometres of telegraph wire, with 1 400 telegraph stations employing 10 000 people, were already in place across the United States at the outbreak of war. Only about ten percent of this infrastructure was located within the Confederate States.
Within six months of the start of the war, the United States Military Telegraph Corps (USMTC from now on) had strung approximately 480 kilometres of new telegraph wires.

USMTC personnel preparing to string new telegraph wires for a front line telegraph station.
W.H. Price, The Civil War Handbook, Prince Lithograph Co., Inc., 8900 Lee Hwy, Fairfax, Virginia, 1961.

Galvanic batteries transported by wagon, supplied the electricity needed for front line telegraph stations.
By the end of the war, the USMTC had strung 24 000 kilometres of new telegraph wires and had handled approximately 6.5 million messages. Electrical telegraphy helped secure such Union victories as the Battle of Antietam in 1862, the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863 and General Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864.

Electrical telegraphy adoption by the British Army

In 1870, the British Army established a regular army electrical telegraph unit to provide telegraph communications for the British Army in the field. From then on, members of this unit were to accompany the British Army on all its operations. The unit took part in many small wars and skirmishes, including the Zulu War of 1879 and the Anglo Boer War of 1880 to 1881.
The British Army Telegraph Battalion that arrived in South Africa upon the outbreak of the South African War in October 1899, therefore, had plenty of active field experience to draw upon. As South Africa also had both well established inland and undersea telegraph links, the battalion was soon able to provide a fast and reliable electrical telegraphy service for the British and British colonial land forces.
As telegraph wires were typically strung between upright poles, however, it was all too easy for enemy forces to cut these wires, and thereby disable telegraphic connections. Telegraph wires were also easy to tap, making it necessary to encrypt messages sent along wires within reach of the enemy.

Often remembered as the war that marked the end of the Victorian era, the South African War of 1899 to 1902 also closely coincided with attempts by both Boer and British land forces to use wireless electrical telegraphy militarily. These attempts failed, for very different reasons, as I will presently discuss. The South African War, however, would also witness the operational debut of shipboard military naval wireless electrical telegraphy. It is this success story that inspired the present article.

The birth of wireless electrical telegraphy

In 1865, a Scottish mathematician and scientist named James Clerk Maxwell, theorised that electrical and magnetic fields travel through space as waves at the speed of light. This supposition led Maxwell to predict the existence of the electromagnetic spectrum shown below.

The electromagnetic spectrum predicted by Maxwell.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

On the left of the electromagnetic spectrum diagram are the long radio waves used for wireless electrical telegraphy. The longest of these waves are over a 100 kilometres long. The shortest waves, on the right of the electromagnetic spectrum diagram, are less than a billionth of a millimetre long.

Guglielmo Marconi, who built upon Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic waves and the experimental proof of their existence supplied by Heinrich Hertz in 1887, in his own wireless electricity telegraphy experiments from 1894 onwards, is almost universally regarded as the father of wireless radio communication.

The first known occurrence of wireless aerial communication

The first known occurrence of wireless aerial communication was conducted in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside of Lynchburg in the United States, by a Dr. Mahlon Loomis in October 1866, a full eight years before Marconi was even born.

Dr. Mahlon Loomis in about 1865.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

Mahlon Loomis, who lived from 21 July 1826 to 13 October 1886, was an American dentist and inventor. By the mid 1800s, it had been well established that the Earth was surrounded by a significant electrical field. Loomis believed passionately that this field was an overlooked resource of vast potential, both for generating electrical energy and as a conduit that would support worldwide wireless communications.

Although the ionosphere, the electrically conductive region of the atmosphere, is now known to be located hundreds of kilometres above sea level, Loomis incorrectly believed it was actually only a few
kilometres above the Earth’s surface. As such, Loomis believed, it was well within the range of the highest mountaintops. Ironically, the successful outcome of Loomis’ wireless aerial communication experiment, described below, did not prove his theory of atmospheric electricity but Maxwell’s electromagnetic wave theory, of which Loomis, almost certainly, had no knowledge.

Loomis described his successful October 1866 experiment in an entry in one of his notebooks as follows:
From two mountain peaks of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, which are only about two thousand feet [610 metres] above tidewater, two kites were let up—one from each summit—eighteen or twenty miles [29 or 32 kilometres] apart. These kites had each a small piece of fine copper wire gauze about fifteen inches [38 centimetres] square attached to their under-side and connected also with the wire six hundred feet [183 metres] in length which held the kites when they were up.
The day was clear and cool in the month of October, with breeze enough to hold the kites firmly at anchor when they were flown. Good connection was made with the ground by laying in a wet place a coil of wire one end of which was secured to the binding post of a galvanometer. The equipments and apparatus at both stations were exactly alike; it was arranged that at precisely such an hour and minute the galvanometer at one station should be attached, to be in circuit with the ground and kite wires.

At the opposite station the ground wire, being already fast to the galvanometer, three separate and deliberate halfminute connections were made with the kite wire and the instrument. This deflected or moved the needle at the other station with the same vigor and precision as if it had been attached to an ordinary battery. After a lapse of five minutes, as previously arranged, the same performance was repeated with the same results until the third time. Then fifteen minutes precisely were allowed to elapse, during which time the instrument at the first station was put in circuit with both wires while the opposite one was detached from its upper wire, thus reversing the arrangements at each station. At the expiration of the fifteen minutes the message or signals came in to the initial station, a perfect duplicate of those sent from it, as by previous agreement. And although no ‘transmitting key’ was made use of, nor any ‘sounder’ to voice the messages, yet they were just as exact and distinct as any that ever traveled over a metallic conductor.

A solemn feeling seemed to be impressed upon those who witnessed the little performance as if some grave mystery hovered there around the simple scene, notwithstanding the results were confidently expected, although the experiments had been continued for nearly two days before the line would ‘work,’ and even then it continued to transmit signals only about three hours, when the circuit
became suddenly inoperative by the moving away of the upper electric body. Hence it is that high regions must be sought where disturbing influences cannot invade, where statical energy is stored in a vast unbroken element, enabling a line to be worked without interruption or possible failure. No speculation need be indulged as to whether the theory is correct, for theory and speculation must stand aside whether they will or not, and square themselves with the demonstrated truth.

Loomis‘ notebook included the following sketch of his experiment:

A sketch by Mahlon Loomis of his wireless electrical telegraphy experiment of October 1866.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

Although Loomis obtained a patent for “Improvements in Telegraphy” in 1873, the same year saw the beginning of a six-year long economic depression in the United States and abroad. Loomis was never able to obtain the finances to commercialise his discovery and Marconi was unaware of it when he conducted his own experiments.

Guglielmo Marconi’s contribution

Guglielmo Marconi was born into the Italian nobility in Bologna on 25 April 1874, the second son of an Italian aristocratic landowner and his Irish wife, Annie Jameson, the granddaughter of John Jameson, the founder of the Jameson & Sons whiskey distillers. Marconi had a brother, Alfonso, and a stepbrother, Luigi.

Guglielmo Marconi in 1909.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

Marconi was not sent to school as a child and did not go on to formal higher education. Instead, he learned chemistry, mathematics and physics at home from a series of private tutors hired by his parents. Marconi’s parents hired different tutors for him when they left Bologna in winter for the warmer climate of Tuscany. One of these tutors, Vincenzo Rosa, a high school physics teacher in Livorno, Marconi remembered being an important mentor in later life. Rosa taught the 17-year-old Marconi the basics of physical phenomena as well as new theories on electricity. Upon returning to Bologna at the age of eighteen, Marconi became acquainted with University of Bologna physicist Augusto Righi, who had done research on Heinrich Hertz’s work. Righi permitted Marconi to attend lectures at the university and use its laboratory and library.
Hertz’s contribution to the development of wireless electrical telegraphy was to prove the existence of the radio waves Maxwell had theorised by transmitting and receiving radio waves across a distance of twelve metres in 1887.

Here you see circuit diagrams of the transmitter and receiver Hertz used for his radio wave experiments.

Circuit diagrams of the radio wave transmitter and receiver Hertz used for his 1887 radio wave experiments. [Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

The spark gap transmitter circuit diagram on the left consists of a dipole antenna made of two horizontal wires with metal plates on the ends (marked with a C) to add capacitance. Between the two horizontal wires of the antenna is a spark gap (marked with an S), attached to an induction coil (marked with a T) powered by a battery (marked with a B).
Whenever Hertz completed the circuit, by closing the switch (marked with an SW), pulses of high voltage would be applied to the antenna by the induction coil. These would cause sparks across the spark gap, which would excite standing waves of current in the antenna and cause it to radiate electromagnetic radio waves. The spark gap radio receiver circuit diagram on the right consists of a resonant loop antenna, made of a circuit of wire, with a micrometer spark gap (marked with an M) between its ends.
Whenever Hertz closed the spark gap transmitter switch, a single spark would jump across the transmitting antenna, creating a radio wave pulse that would induce a tiny spark in the receiver loop antenna. The short antennas Hertz used produced high frequency waves in the ultra high frequency band, about the frequency of modern television transmitters.

There was much interest in radio waves in the physics community, but this interest was in the scientific phenomenon, not in its potential as a communication method. Physicists generally looked on radio waves as an invisible form of light that could only travel along a line of sight path, limiting its range to the visual horizon, like existing forms of visual signalling.

Hertz’s death in 1894 brought published reviews of his earlier discoveries. It also gave rise to a demonstration on the transmission and detection of radio waves by the British physicist, Oliver Lodge, and an article about Hertz’s work by Marconi’s acquaintance, Augusto Righi.
Reports of Lodge’s demonstration and Righi’s article prompted Marconi’s interest in developing a wireless electrical telegraphy system based on radio waves, a line of enquiry Marconi noted other inventors did not seem to be pursuing.

Aged 20, Marconi began to conduct experiments on radio waves that drew on those of Hertz, building much of the equipment he needed in the attic of his home. At Righi’s suggestion, Marconi started using a coherer, an early radio signal detector invented by a French physicist named Édouard Branly. The coherer consisted of a glass tube containing two metal terminals. Scattered around these terminals were loose metal filings. Whenever the electrical field from a radio wave flowed across the coherer, these metal filings would cohere, or stick together, and an electrical current would pass through them. Used together with the coherer was a tapper, an electrical device that gave the coherer a physical tap to decohere the filings between each radio wave.

In the summer of 1894, Marconi built a storm alarm made up of a battery, a coherer, and an electric bell, which went off when it picked up the radio waves generated by lightning.
Late one night, in December 1894, Marconi demonstrated a radio transmitter and receiver to his mother, a set-up that made a bell ring on the other side of the room by pushing a telegraphic button on a bench.

In remarkably little time, Marconi proceeded to transform what had essentially been laboratory experiment equipment into a useful wireless communication system with the following components:

  • A relatively simple oscillator or spark-producing radio transmitter.
  • A wire or metal sheet capacity area suspended at a height above the ground that functioned as an antenna. Marconi later replaced this with a vertical monopole antenna.
  • An improved version of Édouard Branly’s coherer receiver with refinements to increase sensitivity and reliability.
  • A telegraph key to operate the transmitter to send short and long pulses, corresponding to the dots-and-dashes of Morse code.
  • A telegraph register activated by the coherer which recorded the received Morse code dots and dashes onto a roll of paper tape.

In the summer of 1895, Marconi moved his experiments outdoors. He tried different arrangements and shapes of antenna, but even with improvements he was able to transmit signals only up to 800 metres, a distance Oliver Lodge had predicted in 1894 as the maximum transmission distance for radio waves.

A breakthrough came in the summer of 1895, when Marconi found he could transmit radio signals over distances of as much as 3 200 metres and over hills by raising the height of his antenna and grounding his transmitter and receiver. The monopole antenna Marconi adopted reduced the frequency of the radio waves sent and transmitted compared to the dipole antennas used by Hertz, and radiated vertically polarized radio waves that could travel longer distances.

Finding little interest or appreciation for his work in Italy, Marconi travelled to London in early 1896 at the age of 21, accompanied by his mother. Fortunately, Marconi spoke fluent English as well as Italian. Marconi quickly gained the interest and support of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the General Post Office of the United Kingdom. Having first applied for a patent for his wireless electrical telegraphy system, British Patent number 12039 titled “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefore” on 2 June 1896, Marconi gave the first demonstration of his system in Britain in July 1896.
A further series of demonstrations for British civilian and military observers followed, and, by March 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of about 6 kilometres across Salisbury Plain.

An artist’s impression of one of Marconi’s electrical wireless telegraphy demonstrations on Salisbury Plain.
[Source] Accessed 21 October 2022

The illustration above is inaccurate in that it shows Marconi using a sheet metal dipole antenna instead of the vertical antenna he had adopted at this stage. It does, however, correctly show that Marconi’s Salisbury Plain demonstrations were attended by British Army and Royal Navy personnel as well as civilians. Captain J.N.C. Kennedy of the Royal Engineers, although not specifically shown in the illustration, was a regular attendee at these demonstrations who was to play an important role in the deployment of Marconi’s equipment in South Africa at the start of the South African War in 1899.

The version of Marconi’s wireless electrical telegraphy equipment available at the outset of the South African War was able to communicate over distances of forty kilometres using earthed vertical wire antennas thirty-seven metres long. We now come to the respective stories of attempts by Boer and British land forces to use wireless electrical telegraphy during the war and its successful operational debut with the Royal Navy during the same conflict.

Wireless electrical telegraphy and the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek

The discovery of massive gold deposits on the Witwatersrand of the former Transvaal, then known as the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR from now on), in 1886 gave rise to a gold mining industry of unprecedented scale. The gold mine owners at the head of this new industry organized themselves into an employers’ association, called the Chamber of Mines (the Chamber from now on), to safeguard their interests as early as 1888. The Chamber was soon at loggerheads with the ZAR government over the latter’s failure to meet its business needs. The Chamber consequently used the ZAR government’s reluctance to grant voting rights to mainly English-speaking white men who had streamed into the ZAR after 1886 as a pretext for forming a Reform Committee in Johannesburg, ostensibly to secure voting rights for the newcomers.
Two British multi-millionaires who had made their fortunes in South Africa, Cecil John Rhodes and Alfred Beit, conspired with the Reform Committee to overthrow the ZAR government. An armed force of 480 men accordingly entered the Transvaal from what was then Bechuanaland on 29 December 1895, under the command of Doctor Leander Star Jameson. The invasion was a disaster from the outset, ending with Jameson’s surrender outside Johannesburg on 2 January 1896.

Jameson’s unsuccessful raid brought the possibility of war with Britain much closer. The ZAR government realised that immediate steps would have to be taken to enlarge its army. As part of this expansion programme, five forts: Klapperkop, Wonderboom, Schanskop, Daspoortrand and later Johannesburg, were built at enormous expense to protect Pretoria, the ZAR capital. Although these forts were to fall to the British without a shot being fired, they were at the time of their construction considered impregnable. The government imported only the best Europe could offer to equip them.
Not only were the forts armed with 16 inch (40 centimetre) Creusot guns and and Maxim machine guns, they also possessed their own electricity dynamos to provide lighting and to power searchlights, steam powered pump stations, and lightning conductors, to prevent the accidental detonation of ordinance.

Fort Wonderboom was linked directly by means of telephone to the artillery camp and the Commandant Generals office. Originally it had been planned to link all the forts to the artillery camp using underground cable, but the cost of laying such a cable was very high. The four and a half miles [ 7,2 kilometres] of cable already laid had cost the government over £9,000. Moreover, laying such cables was a very labour intensive task, which made it impossible to keep the location of such cables a secret. This would make them vulnerable to enemy action and tapping in time of war.

The ZAR government, therefore, acted on the recommendations of the General Manager of Telegraphs in the ZAR, Mr C.K. van Trotsenburg, and cancelled plans to lay cable links to the other forts. All of the forts could use heliography to communicate with one another. Heliography is a visual signalling technique that uses mirrors to send Morse code signals as they are alternatively exposed to and hidden from direct sunlight.
After dark, lanterns could be used to send signals between the forts. Visual signalling of this sort, however, had serious drawbacks. Firstly, message security was problematic as all the messages sent could be clearly seen from the city and unencrypted messages could be read by the general public. There was also no site of suitable elevation within the artillery camp that would allow heliographic messages to be sent out to the forts.

Van Trotsenburg’s solution to the communications dilemma concerning the forts and the arillery camp was to propose using the recently patented technology of wireless electrical telegraphy. He accordingly offered to write to various companies in Europe who were producing wireless electrical communications equipment to see if it would meet the ZAR’s needs.
In February 1898, therefore, van Trotsenburg contacted Siemens Brothers of London (a subsidiary of the Company Siemens and Halske of Berlin.)

A copy of van Trotsenburg’s map, showing the disposition of forts for which communication by wireless electrical telegraphy was required. 1 – Fort Schanskop, 2 – Fort Daspoortrand, 3 – Fort Klapperkop, 4 – Fort Wonderboompoort, A – State artillery camp. [Source] Accessed 21 October 2022.

Van Trotsenburg described his requirements, with reference to a map on the lines of the one shown above, as follows:

“Gentlemen, A certain place ‘A’ in a valley is surrounded by hills. I wish to correspond telegraphically without wires between this place ‘A’ and those hills as marked in margin ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ and ‘4. Are there any difficulties[?], if so, which? If not, can you supply us with the necessary instruments complete[?] If you can supply them, please send one set (two instruments) for taking a trial, for use between ‘A’ and ‘1’, or ‘1’ and ‘2’, etc; the most exhaustive directions for use should accompany the instruments.
Of course we require the best known instruments of this class with all the improvements which have since been introduced in the instruments of Marconi. We will be pleased to learn by return post of what you can do for us. In case you send the instruments, please send them via Durban.
If the trial is in any way successful, we will give you a further order. Please indicate certain cablewords in order to place us in a position to give you an order by cable.
I have the honour to be, your obed’t servant.
CK van Trotensburg
General Manager of Telegraphs”

Siemens replied that they could foresee no problems, as recent British experiments had proved that a distance of 13 miles (21 kilometres) could be achieved as long as the word speed (Morse not speech) did not exceed 20 words per minute. A problem, however, lay in the fact that Marconi held all the rights to his equipment, which he would only allow to be hired, not purchased outright. Marconi’s Company, being British, realised that war against the Boer Republics was in the offing and and wanted to know who the prospective clients were to be. This Siemens naturally had refused to divulge.

Van Trotsenburg was sent to Europe in June 1899, to view the various types of equipment at first hand. He visited companies in London, Paris and Siemens and Halske of Berlin, where he was very impressed with what he saw. Siemens and Halske guaranteed that their equipment could cover a range of 9½ miles (15 kilometres) providing the sets were operated by experts and that atmospheric conditions did not prove too hard to overcome. The price of the equipment was £110 per set which included a 120 foot (37 metre) mast. Siemens & Halske had an established agency in Johannesburg through which both Republics had ordered large amounts of visual signalling equipment in the past. It was suggested that, should they receive the order, all further negotiations be entered into through this agency.

On 24 August 1899, van Trotsenburg, with the approval of the ZAR government, placed an order for six ‘vonkentelegraafinstrumenten’ (spark telegraph instruments) and accessories with the Johannesburg agency of Siemens & Halske. For security reasons, it was agreed that Siemens & Halske – Berlin, would decide on the safest route for the shipment, either via Cape Town, Durban or Delagoa Bay and that the equipment would only be transported in a German ship and addressed to the Siemens & Halske Agency in Johannesburg.

Despite all these precautions, what the ZAR government had feared most took place. The shipment of equipment, only arrived in Cape Town, after the declaration of war, and was confiscated by the British customs authorities. Had the war broken out a few months later, allowing for the system to be delivered and installed, the ZAR would have been the first country in the world to have had a network of wireless telegraphy posts available for military purposes.

Wireless electrical telegraphy and the British Army in the South African War

Marconi lost no time in suggesting to the War Office that wireless telegraphy would be of great use to its forces, now heading for South Africa, upon the outbreak of the South African War. This would be especially true for ship to shore communications in Durban and Cape Town where troopships were arriving daily, causing massive congestion and delay in the harbours.

Marconi’s suggestion, added to glowing reports on the success of the Marconi equipment used during Royal Navy manoeuvres earlier in the year, a topic I will discuss later, convinced the War Office to hire five wireless sets and six operators on a six month contract, commencing on 1 November 1899. The agreement was that the equipment would be used to control shipping in the ports.
However, on their arrival in Cape Town on 24 November 1899, the six Marconi engineers discovered that the original agreement had been changed, when local military authorities invited them to volunteer for active service in the field. The men were prepared to do this, but stressed that modifications would have to be made to their equipment as it had been designed for permanent rather than field installation.

Captain J.N.C. Kennedy of the Telegraphic Section of the Royal Engineers, who, as earlier noted, had been present at Marconi’s early demonstrations and who knew him personally, was serving in South Africa at the time and was appointed to assist the Marconi engineers with the modifications.
The major problem to be overcome, was how to transport the large battery power supplies for the equipment into the field. It was decided to install the equipment into wagons. The power supplies, which comprised large capacity dry cells and jelly accumulators were secured to the bottom of the wagon, with the transmitting apparatus. The key was arranged so as to enable the operator to stand on the ground at the back of the wagon while sending messages, well away from the dangerous arc of the spark coil! The coherer and receiving instrument were suspended in a tray from two bale hoops in the centre of the wagon.
Trials were then undertaken to test the sensitivity of the equipment. A demonstration of the equipment was also arranged for the military staff and foreign attachés, and took place on 4 December at the Castle in Cape Town. Captain Kennedy described this demonstration “as proceeding with entire success”.

While these tests and installations were being completed, Captain Kennedy went to examine the confiscated ZAR wireless electrical apparatus that was being stored in the customs sheds. He noted that there was “little difference in appearance, but as the sets were not encased in metal, they would not be suitable for use in the field.” He did, however, take the oscillators and mast head keys, which he considered were of “more substantial design.” As Marconi’s engineers had presumed that their equipment would be installed onto ships, no suitable antennas had been brought out from England. Captain Kennedy had examined the steel masts which had accompanied the Siemens & Halske sets, but as there were no accompanying instructions and little time available, it was decided that bamboo poles of 30 feet (9 metres) in length would be adequate.

The engineers left for De Aar, the main supply and dispersal depot for British troops moving north, on 11th December 1899. From here the technicians and equipment would be assigned to the various British columns operating in the area, with the intention of creating a wireless network to link them. On their arrival in De Aar, it was found that the type of wagon, supplied in Cape Town, was totally unsuitable, and that Australian pattern sprung wagons were needed. Further delays were then experienced while the equipment was installed into the new wagons.The field trials finally commenced on 22 December 1899.

Soon after the start of the tests, the bamboo spars, which were untreated, began to develop large cracks. Every attempt was made to stop this process, but without effect This was a serious setback as the antenna formed a vital part of the equipment, the transmitter relying almost entirely on the natural resonance of its antenna for any degree of tuning or selectivity. The decision was then taken to replace the bamboo poles with 6 foot (1.8 metre) linen kites, that had been loaned from the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers, to be flown with conducting wires to serve as replacement antennas. These were found to be impractical owing to South Africa’s unstable weather conditions.

“Captain Kennedy wrote in his report:
The weather conditions were so variable that it was either dead calm with revolving dust storms or blowing a gale and raining hard. “

It frequently happened when a fairly suitable wind was obtained at one station that quiet weather conditions existed at the other. It therefore seldom happened that the sending and receiving kites were flying simultlaneously. On the few occasions that the kites were flown successfully, communications between the Orange River and De Aar, a distance of about fifty miles (80.5 kilometres) were achieved, but only by using a relay station at Belmont. This, however, was a rare occurrence.

Marconi’s systems were un-serviceable for three of the six-week test period. Adding to the problem, it seems that some of the equipment had also suffered during transportation to South Africa. Set No 1, which was stationed in the Kimberley area, gave constant problems.

In his report, Mr. Taylor, one of the Marconi engineers, wrote:

“Set No 1 is not to be relied upon. All instruments except the coils and accumulators went overboard by accident. Receivers were not very good before that.”

Marconi was quick to defend his engineers and equipment. In a talk that he delivered at the Royal Institution on 2 February 1900, he criticised the military authorities in South Africa, saying that although the results obtained were at first not altogether satisfactory, this was due to the fact that the tests were attempted without the proper antennas. Marconi went on to state it is, therefore manifest that their partial failure was due to the lack of proper preparation on the part of local military authorities and has no bearing on the practicability and utility of the system, when carried out under normal conditions. Had the light bamboo poles not collapsed from the dryness there is no doubt that a very practicable arrangement existed.

These statements infuriated the Director of Army Telegraphs who, on hearing them, personally gave the order for the three Kimberley line stations to be dismantled immediately. Two of the five sets of equipment, had been sent to join General Buller’s force in Natal a month earlier and were to experience the same fate shortly afterwards.

Marconi had, without realising it, already discovered the reason why his equipment had performed so badly in South Africa, when he advised the Royal Institute that the trials had “no bearing on the practicability and utility of the system, when carried out under normal conditions”. The environmental conditions in the Northern Cape were far from normal when compared to the weather conditions in England, where most of Marconi’s experimentation had taken place.
Firstly the intensity of lightning storms on the South African veld had a paralysing effect on the coherers within the receivers, these storms were for the duration of the trials, almost a daily event.

Secondly, the importance of a good earth connection had not yet been fully realised. The quality of the earth connection was seriously impaired by the nature of the ground in the Northern Cape, although Marconi had scoffed at the idea that “the iron in the hills’ was hindering the equipment’s performance. With hindsight we can see that this was true. The poor earth connections would have decreased the amount of power actually being radiated by the antenna and would have affected the ground wave which was almost certainly the mode of propagation used, if the distances and frequencies involved are taken
into consideration.

As Marconi’s receiver was basically a coherer, its performance and therefore its range was entirely dependent on the power radiated by the transmitting antenna, as well as the degree of tuning achieved by the length of it’s receiving antenna and the quality of the ground between the stations.
Captain Kennedy reported that the engineers tried to rectify the problem of poor ground connection by burying sheets of tin below the antenna masts but apparently without success. Added to this, no two sets were ever likely to be operating on exactly the same frequency owing to variability in the heights of their respective antennas.

Wireless electrical telegraphy and the Royal Navy in the South African War

The appearance of wireless electrical telegraphy on the battlefield did not revolutionise the whole concept of land warfare as Marconi had hoped. The spark transmitters of that time, however, worked most effectively on long waves, which made them ideal for naval applications.
As prevously mentioned, shipboard installations of Marconi’s equipment had been an integral part of the annual manoeuvres of the Royal Navy Channel Fleet earlier in 1899. Three of Marconi’s wireless telegraphy sets had been fitted in the old battleship Alexandra and the cruisers Juno and Europa.

The cruisers, employed as scouts by the commander-in-chief embarked in Alexandra, made valuable reports over distances up to 67 miles (125 kilometres). These ranges showed that in spite of Hertz’s assertion that these waves moved only in straight lines, they were also producing a ground wave which followed the curvature of the earth. This raised the possibility of much longer ranges.

The Royal Navy’s positive experience with Marconi’s wireless electrical telegraphy sets and the army’s obvious dissatisfaction with them led the navy to offer to take over the contracts for the five sets. By March 1900, the sets had been installed onto the ships Forte, Thetis, Dwarf, Racoon and Magicienne of the Delagoa Bay Squadron who were operating between Durban and Delagoa Bay on blockade duties.

On board ship, the equipment enjoyed a more permanent installation. The masts of the cruisers had been extended to accommodate the long wire antennas, and aided by the higher conductivity of the sea, the
equipment worked well. Later an experimental twin wire horizontal aerial, rigged on the Thetis, proved to be so successful that it eventually became a standard feature on all Marconi shipboard installations.
Once fitted with wireless electrical telegraphy apparatus, the operational area and effectiveness of the blockading ships – could be drastically increased as they no longer needed to maintain sight of each other in order to exchange signals.

Successful wireless transmissions over a range of 85 kilometres were recorded on 13 April 1900 and unsubstantiated claims were made for communication between Delagoa Bay and Durban, a distance of nearly 460 kilometres.

The equipment remained in Naval service in South Africa until November 1900. By this stage of the war, the Boer forces had implemented their guerilla tactics and the need for ports to be blockaded had diminished. This had been sufficient time, however, to prove beyond all doubt that wireless telegraphy was indispensable for a ship at sea. The Admiralty, realising this, placed an order with the Marconi Company on 4th July 1900 for supply and installation of equipment aboard 26 of its naval vessels and at 6 of its coastal stations.

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DC Baker, ‘Wireless Telegraphy During the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902’, Military History Journal, Vol. 11, No.2, December 1998. Accessed 21 October 2022. Accessed 21 October 2022. Accessed 21 October 2022.

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