THE MARCONI WIRELESS STATION AT WELLFLEET--100 YEARS LATER
By Dave Crocker
The "Wizard of the Waves" certainly wouldn't have been surprised at the cellphones in evidence among the celebrants of the centennial of his complete message from Wellfleet, Mass., to England in 1903. As his daughter who attended said, "He foresaw all this." We continue to marvel at his accomplishment. (Editor)
One of the nice things about living on Cape Cod is that we have a major milestone of radio history right here in our own "back yard." Such is the case of the Marconi Wireless Station (or what's left of it), at South Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
History notes that on December 12, 1901, at his receiving station in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Guglielmo Marconi received the letter "S" transmitted from Poldhu, England. The Atlantic had been bridged. Later, in the summer of 1902, he sent and received messages from ship-to-shore (250 miles), at another, smaller station on Nantucket. But, Marconi's goal was to send and receive complete wireless messages across the Atlantic Ocean. South Wellfleet is where he planned to make it happen.
A vintage postcard showing the Marconi Wireless transmitting building and the first 20 antenna masts erected and destroyed in 1903.
South Wellfleet is half-way up the outer arm of Cape Cod. On its sand dunes he constructed an antenna array consisting of 20 ship masts, each 150 feet high, in a circular pattern. Because this structure was blown down in November of 1902, Marconi changed the design to four wooden towers, each 210 feet tall. These he built high upon the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, a truly spectacular setting. However, this setting itself would be the station's downfall, for the sand cliffs are constantly eroded by the high winds, which eventually took their toll on the antenna towers.
Princess Elettra Marconi attending the celebration at the National Seashore Visitor's Center in Wellfleet, Mass., January 18, 2003.
The wooden pavilion housing the scale model at the actual Marconi Wireless site sits on the sand cliff shown at right overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Presently, the very edge of the sand cliff has eroded to more than halfway under the place where the central transmitting house was originally located. Erosion continues to advance further inland every day. All that remains now are two 10-foot sections of wooden tower beams bolted to concrete slabs, as well as a smaller brick segment of wall. Nearby is a Marconi visitor's center with a path leading to the very site. At the end of this path is a pavilion, a small, open- sided structure with a roof, under which there is a scale model of the 1903 wireless station enclosed in a glass case. No signals emanate from here now, only the peaceful sound of wind and waves below the cliffs. But what a historic spot!
For it was here that Marconi successfully sent, on January 18, 1903, a greeting from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of England. And, in reply, the king reciprocated "in the name of the people of the British Empire." Marconi had finally achieved his goal, and the world applauded.
100 years later
To celebrate this event, the South Wellfleet site, quite barren in winter, became alive with activities, including exhibits of Marconi equipment and demonstrations, commemorative postal stamp cancellations on site, and even a visit and dedication speech by Marconi's daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi, whom I met. Later, the Princess attended a dinner/reception which included state and local dignitaries, authors of wireless-related books and National Park Service people. The Marconi Radio Club and the Marconi Cape Cod Memorial Radio Club operated a Special Event Amateur Radio station KM1CC, from the former Coast Guard Station in nearby Eastham, Massachusetts during the period of January 11 to 19, 2003. On January 18, Princess Marconi sent greetings to the International Space Station via the Amateur Radio station. A great time honoring a great man.
Under this glass case is the scale model of the buildings and antennas as they appeared in 1903.
All is quiet again now at the cliffs, just a few visitors braving the winter snows and cold, but if you visit the Cape, make it a point to discover Marconi Beach. Over the sound of waves and wind you will stand in awe at what occurred here 100 years ago!
(Dave Crocker, 35 Santuit Pond Rd., #4B., Mashpee, Cape Cod, MA 02649)
Dave Crocker, a member of the A.R.C. staff, lends his skills as a graphic artist to the layout of the magazine. He has been collecting radios for 32 years, and many of these years have been spent researching and collecting radios made by the Crosley Radio Company.