Aerial Assistance With a Kite
Kiting, The Journal of the American Kitefliers Association
Vol. 23, Issue 5 - Winter 2002
© - November 2001 - Robert (Bob) White
Background to the Article - Tracing Kite History:
My life-long love of kites combines a passion for flying and building with an intense interest in history. Sometimes the record on kite events is clear, but all too frequently it is frought with incomplete sections or erroneous assumpions. The stories of the amazing contributions that kites have made to technology and science should be historically accurate.
Every time I try to satisfy my desire to fill in the gaps I find that it is necessary to go back to source materials in order to truly learn about the kite event. Each project requires research on the person, the era in which he lived, and the context for the use of the kite. Invariably, I find myself being pulled across time by the line of the historical kite into a personal relationship with the kiter. Each of these 'forensics kiting forays' involves more time and the pursuit of more resources than could ever be imagined at the outset. The pull of the historical kite become real.
So it was with my interest in Guglielmo Marconi. His use of a kite to help receive the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal is well noted in many books, but none of the details sought by serious kiters can easily be found.
For me, the Marconi kite quest started in 1996 with three simple questions:
- Why did he use a kite as a tool to lift the aerial?
- Why did he choose the particular type of kite?
- How did he become so acquainted with kites that he would rely on on one for such a critical event?
The journey to find answers took me on travels of several thousand kilometres. I have visited Signal Hill, in St. Johns, Newfoundland, worked in the archive conservation areas of museums, photographed and measured artifact kites, interviewed experts and acquired source materials from the era. Globally, I have exchanged hundreds of e-mails and made several new friends while chasing the facts.
Hopefully, the fully researched story of "Mr Marconi's Kites" will one day be published as an historical monograph booklet. The story spans a period of 26 year's of Marconi's career. The final account will detail the use of different types of kites, contain original photographs, provide a complete bibliography of references and include accurate plans for making a replica of the kites used at Signal Hill and in other locations during Marconi's work lifting temporary wireless antennas.
December 12, 2001, was the 100th anniversary of the major milestone of bridging the Atlantic with a wireless signal. Here is a salute to the role of a visionary scientist and entrepreneur as well as one of the kites that helped too launch the global wireless communication system that we enjoy today.
© - November 2001 - Robert (Bob) White
Guglielmo Marconi - A brief biographical overview
Marconi was born on April 25, 1874, the son of a wealthy Italian businessman, Giuseppe Marconi and his second wife, a younger Irish woman, Anna Jamieson. He received home schooling until the age of twelve and was encouraged to read widely and to experiment with ideas and equipment available to him in the family villa. Working with a neighbor, who was a physics professor at the University of Bologna, Marconi gained access to University lectures and resources.
Continuing his experiments, Marconi was able to extend wireless signals based on Herzian waves over ever increasing distances. Encouraged by the potential of sending signals without the expense of connecting wires, Marconi sought to convince others to invest in the fledgling technology. Being very patriotic, he initially took his ideas to the Italian Navy. His concepts were in 1895 as being interesting, but not practical. His mother suggested that he take his work to England where she had both family and business connections.
Marconi moved to London and pursued his work with the British Post Office. There, he secured his patent in 1896 and formed the Marconi Company to develop his invention into a commercial enterprise in 1897.
By 1899 Marconi successfully sent wireless signals across the English Channel. He planned for greater distances to assist ships at sea and to make communication easier than by using expensive land line networks.
After spanning the Atlantic with a wireless signal in December 1901 Marconi was lauded as a major scientific figure. The Marconi Company prospered and wireless communication was of great interest to the navies and military of many nations. His celebrity was capped with the Nobel prize for phsyicsm which he shared with German electronics pioneer Karl Ferdinand Braun, in 1909.
Later, Marconi worked on short wave and beam technologies. Modern radio and television broadcasting as well as current wireless communications devices are all based on his work.
Marconi had a daughter Degna and a son Guilio Giovanni by his first wife Beatrice O’Brien. In later years, he married Christina Bezzi-Scali and had another daughter, Elettra. She remains a spokesperson for his accomplishments to this day. Marconi died, a national hero and world famous, on July 20, 1937 in Rome.
On Signal Hill . . . Against the wind.
The Story of William Holwell, St. Johns, Newfoundland.
Mr. Holwell was one of the local men hired by Marconi to assist with his work in St. John's, NF in December of 1901. The following account is based on information provided in July 2001 by Hal Holwell, of St. Johns, NL. His father William, was one of the crew Marconi used to fly the kite that lifted the wireless aerial on Signal Hill. In the photo below, William Holwell is the tall crew member immediately to the left of the kite.
William Holwell, along with two other local men, held the line attached to the large kite sail. On the leeward side of the kite sail was Marconi's assistant, William Paget. Feeling the biting wind that whipped constant and cold, he glanced down from Signal Hill towards the St. John’s, harbour. To the west and north the sky was a slate grey. It was unlikely that the near gale force winds would soon abate. Holwell looked toward Mr. Paget as for his signal to raise the kite into the late fall sky.
Here he was, working quite unexpectedly, in the midst of Guglielmo Marconi’s team of wireless communicators. Holwell marvelled at the men, Marconi, George Kemp and Paget, and their determination to defy distance with strange equipment and an idea that was difficult to fully comprehend.
A seasonally unemployed cooper’s apprentice, Holwell had been hired to help move equipment crates from the harbour to the top of Signal Hill, a large promontory of rock overlooking the vast Atlantic Ocean on one side and the protected harbour of St. John’s on the other. After helping to move the crates from the SS Sardinian, Mr. Marconi had asked him to stay on and help raise the balloons and kites which were intended to lift a long wire aerial. He had explained to Holwell that an attempt was to be made to grab wireless signals from the air; signals that were being sent a distance of over 2170 miles from a transmitter at the Poldhu station in Cornwall, England.
“All right,” said Paget, “let’s try again.” Holwell and the men moved down the kite line about fifty feet. He and the others pulled as Paget let go of the kite. The heavy cord went taut, the kite rose and pitched wildly from side to side. Tumultuous winds, a constant feature of Signal Hill, made it difficult to steady the kite and maintain the required altitude for the aerial. An aerial wire was attached to the kite at one end and to a ground plate in the earth at the other. Flying the kite with this extra anchor point and in these strong winds was an arduous task. Assisted by George Kemp, Paget and other local labourers, Holwell’s arms ached with the strain of the large kite.
The kite flyers hung on in the bone chilling wind. Marconi and Kemp entered the building and closed the door. Inside, a wireless receiving device, known as a coherer, was attached to a wire running through the window frame and to the wavering and unsteady aerial suspended by the kite. In the warmth by the wood stove, with the wind howling outside, Marconi and Kemp listened intently for a signal transmitted from the far shore of the Atlantic.
The kite continued to buck in the strong wind. It pulled roughly against Holwell’s grip. Today, December 12, 1901 was only half over. Already his hands hurt through the gloves as he clutched doggedly to the line. He would be glad for his daily pay of $1.00 that Mr. Marconi personally presented at the end of work.
Inside, Marconi picked up a candlestick-type telephone receiver. He held it close to his ear and listened for the signal that he believed could span the Atlantic. It had not been detected on the previous day. The tension was palpable, but the wireless pioneers remained calm and intent, fervently hoping for a sound.
Then, out of the ether, faint but distinguishable - came the sound of three dots - the International Morse Code signal for the letter “S”. The pre-arranged signal was audible over the atmospheric static also sounding in the receiver. There it was again. Marconi quietly passed the receiver to George Kemp. He listened. Once more the signal came and Kemp nodded.
Outside, the kite with trailing aerial continued to pull and move from side to side. It remained anchored firmly in the grip of Holwell and two other St. John’s men, Jim Hohan and Peter Edstrom, under the direction of Paget. The Atlantic had been crossed by a wireless signal! It had reached the aerial held aloft by the kite. Nations of the world were bound closer by communication than ever before.
—Marconi uses a kite to complete his plan!
The plan to bridge the Atlantic by wireless was carefully conceived. Marconi had presented his vision to the his Company in early 1900. He undertook carefully planned steps to achieve the goal over the course of the next two years. Like most bold plans there were setbacks on the road to achievement.
The Marconi Company was a mere three years old. It had been formed on July 20, 1897. It was vested with the first patent ever granted for a wireless communication system and was striving to maintain a lead in the field.
Marconi’s wireless system attracted much attention. Scientists and investors in other nations saw enormous business potential. A German firm working with Dr. Karl Braun was also making strides with the development of wireless telegraphy. The German consortium began pursuing wireless innovation using other systems that were not protected by the patent. Being able to reliably span significant distances without wire connections was the issue that lie at the heart of establishing dominance in the marketplace. To ensure the success of his company in the marketplace Marconi realized that a dramatic demonstration of wireless technology was essential.
Marconi’s ability to span greater distances had grown with improved instruments, greater spark power and large aerial arrays. He was convinced that wave transmissions were not limited to line of sight. Even though he was able to demonstrate reception over the horizon at a record distance of 225 miles, there was still much scepticism among members of the scientific community that longer distances could be bridged.
Nevertheless, Marconi moved ahead with planning for what he called “the big thing”. At the same time, work was carried out by the Company to earn money through contracts with agencies that adopted wireless communication over shorter ranges.
A pair of autumn gales played havoc with Marconi’s original plan. First the complicated Poldhu sending aerial tower array, near Cornwall in England, was laid flat on September 17, 1901. Resources were gathered to rebuild the Poldhu towers in a simpler configuration and the station was readied for trial. Just as the Poldhu station was about to be ready to send signals, a second gale demolished the Cape Cod station in October.
With time marching on and company funds very low, thoughts of rebuilding the American station were abandoned. Marconi’s fear of being overtaken by the German competitors forced development of an alternate plan: - find a site on the Western side of the Atlantic that was closer to Poldhu. A signal crossing of a shorter trans-Atlantic distance would still secure his Company’s hold on the wireless market.
Marconi settled on the point of nearest landfall to Cornwall – the eastern most tip of Newfoundland and it’s capital, St. John’s. The distance was 2,170 miles, more than 1,000 miles closer than Cape Cod. It was still a very formidable distance, especially with no stationary aerial array in place on the North American side.
Marconi’s mind turned to methods that he had employed a number of times before. Kites and hydrogen balloons had been successfully used to provide height for aerials in earlier transmission situations. A supply of both was quickly ordered from a trusted supplier.
With all necessary receiving equipment assembled, Marconi, George Kemp and William Paget sailed from Liverpool on November 26, 1901 aboard the freighter SS Sardinian, bound for St. John’s. The passage was rough, a harbinger of the brutal north Atlantic winds that buffet Newfoundland from November through late spring each year.
Arriving in Newfoundland on Friday, December 6, Marconi announced to the local papers that he was there to test transmissions to ships out on the Atlantic that were nearing the North American shore. He attracted attention wherever he went. His story was contrived to shield his true intentions from his competitors.
Marconi met with local dignitaries on Dec. 7, and after touring potential sites for his apparatus he selected Signal Hill. It had been used for over 400 years as a signal post for ships at sea. The height of the hill, its remote location by the ocean, and available space for an equipment room in an unused, old army hospital was perfect.
On Monday, Dec. 9, Marconi's boxes of material were relocated from the ship to the facility atop Signal Hill. Receiving equipment, aerial wire, six kites, two hydrogen balloon skins and twenty-five cylinders of hydrogen gas were moved by the crew of local men hired by Marconi. Zinc plates were installed in the earth near the hospital building to act as the necessary ground for the aerial.
On Tuesday testing began. One kite was raised with 600 feet of aerial wire to ensure that the system would function. A Morse code cable message, using the under water TransAtlantic Cable, was sent to Poldhu instructing that wireless signal transmission should begin the next day, Dec. 11, 1901.
On Wednesday, in foggy conditions, a balloon, 14 feet in diameter and holding 1000 cubic feet of hydrogen, was tested. The wind suddenly increased with an approaching weather system. The balloon tore away and was lost into the Atlantic Ocean. Carefully considering the strong winds atop Signal Hill, it was determined that the kites would be most likely to withstand the elements.
On Thursday, Dec. 12, a kite was raised to 400 feet, trailing an aerial attached to the ground point. George Kemp described the winds in his detailed diary as “…a gusty gale…”. Due to the high wind velocity the kites flew at a lower altitude than the previous day. The first kite up broke away in the strong winds and carried into the water at the foot of the cliffs. Another was launched and bobbed in the tumultuous winds at the crown of the hill.
Across the ocean in Cornwall the Poldhu station again began transmitting the pre-arranged Morse telegraph signal “s” – three dots – at precisely 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, December 12. In St. John’s it was 11:30 a.m.
For over an hour the kite darted to and fro in the wind. Marconi’s crew attempted to hold the kite borne aerial wire at a constant elevation so as to maximize the possibility of receiving a signal. It was an immense struggle for the men, battered by the cold and straining against the full effects of gale force winds.
Since the aerial fluctuated wildly, Marconi could not use the intended receiving device to give full proof of any signal reception. A Morse recorder, which was capable of receiving signals and inking them on a strip of paper, would not work with the unstable antenna. Marconi improvised and used a telephone receiver, listening intently. At 12:30 p.m., Newfoundland time, he distinctly heard three faint clicks in the receiver. After hearing it for a second time, he passed the receiver to Kemp for confirmation.
Writing in his journal, Marconi described the important milestone in communications history this way:
“Kemp heard the same thing that I did, and I knew then that I was absolutely right in my anticipation. Electric waves which had been sent out from Poldhu had traversed the Atlantic. Serenely ignoring the curvature of the earth which so many doubters considered would be a fatal obstacle. … Distance had been overcome, and further developments of the sending and receiving apparatus were all that were required. ”
Later that afternoon, at 1:10 p.m., additional signals were received. Around 1:45 the kite dropped for a short time as the wind declined. William Holwell and the others flying the kite were invited inside to warm themselves and have some hot cocoa. Holwell related to his son Hal, many years later, that Marconi seemed very calm and was pleased to receive the quiet congratulations of the men from St. John’s.
Shortly after 2:00 p.m. the wind came up strong and again the kite was raised for the final time that afternoon. At 2:20 p.m. another set of signals was received.
The testing resumed on Thursday Dec. 13 in a gale accompanied by snow and bitter cold. Signals were detected at 1:38 p.m. Once more, the following day, Friday, December 14, signals were received on at least one occasion although there is no published record of the time.
Only two people had heard the signals through the receiver. None had been recorded on the Morse inker device. Marconi debated about releasing the news. Finally he decided to visit the Governor of Newfoundland and advised him of his success. Cables were sent to the British Government, the Italian government, the Russian Admiralty and to key scientific friends. Marconi also cabled the London Times and New York Herald. The news spread quickly. Around the world the press heralded the story of the event. The focus was on the triumph of wireless and the rudimentary electronic equipment that had achieved the feat.
The kites were quietly packed in shipping crates and sent back to the Marconi Company in Chelmsford, England. Their role completed, they went into storage.
- There were six kites in the kit brought to St. John’s. They may have been of varying sizes since there is mention of one kite being 9 feet (275 cm) tall. Others measure out at about 6’2” in height.
- All of the kites were of the Baden-Powell type (Capt. B.F.S. Baden-Powell: 1860-1937).
- The Marconi Company first became acquainted with the Baden-Powell kite design during a wireless assignment for the British Government during the Boer War in South Africa.
- The kites were manufactured by G.C. Spencer and Bros. Ltd., Highbury, London, England. Spencer and Company was a well known supplier of balloons and kites. The company no longer exists.
- An examination of the Baden-Powell patent and comparison to an extant kite shows that some design modification was made by Spencer and Company.
- At least two of the kites broke away during the four days of flight in St. John’s. One was recovered from the Captain of a fishing boat and the other from a valley on the north side of Signal Hill.
- Only two kites are known to remain from the set. One consists of only the sail; the other is complete with sail, frame and part of the bridle intact. The complete kite was on display for the centenary celebrations in St. Johns NL from July 2001 through January 2002. It is pictured below.
- The sail of the complete kite measures 183.5 cm (6’ 2.4”) high by 177 cm (5’ 9.5”) wide.
- The sails are of heavy cotton cloth. All outside edges were reinforced with linen tape and sewn with cotton thread. Five separate cloth panels were sewn together to make each kite sail.
- At key stress point locations, where the frame and bridle attached to the kite sail, additional cotton cloth reinforcing panels were sewn in place.
- Brass grommets were used to provide access points to attach the frame and bridle to the kite sail.
- The frame consists of three bamboo poles. The longeron is 199 cm (6’ 6’’) in length and the cross spars are 215 cm (7’) in length. Thus, when fully assembled, the spars extend beyond the height and width of the sail.
- The bridle was made of strong hemp cordage and was attached to the kite in six places (at the outside cross spars and at mid-points where the cross spars meet the longeron).
- There is no evidence of a bowing system for the kite in any photos or archival documents extant.
On December 12, 2001 at precisely 12:00 p.m. E.S.T (12:30 p.m. Newfoundland time) the centenary of long distance wireless communication was reached.
The world is a very different place today because of the work of Marconi and his wireless pioneers. A kite provided the critical aerial support for the amazing first wireless signal to leap across the Atlantic Ocean.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following in providing source documents, archival information, personal assistance and encouragement in assembling all of the materials for this portion of the tale of “Mr. Marconi’s Kites”:
- Louise Weymouth, Archivist, Marconi plc, Chelmsford, England.
- Patti Bannister, Curator - P.A.N.L. The Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s Newfoundland.
- Don Parsons, Interpretation Specialist, Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada – Parks Canada.
- Mr. Hal Holwell, St. John’s, Newfoundland, for taking the time to provide me with a personal interview on July 1, 2001, about the recollections of his father, William Holwell, a kite flier with the Marconi crew at Signal Hill.
- Jacques Lariviere, BAE Systems Canada Inc (former Marconi Canada Inc.), Ville Saint-Laurent, Quebec.
- William Holwell, St. Johns, NL for his interview on June 29, 2001. In the interview Mr. Holwell recounted the tale of kite flying on Signal Hill on Dec. 12, 1901 as told by his father, William Holwell, who was employed by Marconi to assist with the project.
Special thanks to my good friend and mentor Eden Maxwell, who challenges me to “look through the window” created by kites in the sky. Peering through that window has enriched my knowledge and built many connections to other dedicated kiters and fine people who share their knowledge and resources in order to keep the record of kite history an enthralling one.
Marconi – Kite Research – Bibliography
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___________. “Bridging the Atlantic.” London, England: Electronics World, December 1991.
___________. The Marconi Company. (Jubilee Year – Special Publication.) Chelmsford, England: Marconi’s Wireles Telegraph Company Limited, 1947.
Baker, W. J. The History of the Marconi Company. London, England: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1970
Buehr, Walter. The Genie and the Word. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.
Bussey, Gordon. Marconi’s Atlantic Leap. Coventry, England: Marconi Communications, 2000. (Printed by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.)Collins, A. Frederick.
Manual of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony 2nd ed. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1909
Gunston, David. Marconi: Father of Radio. (Illustrations by Eric J. Woodley) Pathfinder Biographies series: Gen. Ed. E. Royston Pike. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson (Educational) Ltd., 1965.
Gray, T. “The B. P. Kite.” _______: The Leader, June/July 1988. Pp. 10-11/ (Journal of Scout Leaders ).
Hart, Clive. Kites: An Historical Survey. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967.
Jolly, W. P. Marconi – A Biography. London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1973
Kreuzer, James H. and Felicia A. “Marconi: The Man and His Apparatus.” The AWA Review, Vol.IX 1995. Bloomsfield, NY: The Antique Wireless Association, Inc., 1995. Pp. 7-96.
Marconi, Degna. My Father, Marconi (2nd ed. Rev.) Ottawa, Canada: Balmuir Publishing Ltd., 1982.
Marconi, Guglielmo. “A Radio Dream Come True.” Jamaica, N.Y. Radio News, March 1930. Pp.n 784-85; 849-850.
Masini, Giancarlo. Marconi. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. (Translated from the original Italian version, 1976.)Morgan, Nina.
Guglielmo Marconi. East Sussex, England: Wayland (Publishers) Ltd., 1990.
Pelham, David. The Penguin Book of Kites. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976.
Reynolds, Pam. Guglielmo Marconi. London, Endland: The Marconi Company Ltd., 1984.
Rhue, Ben. “How Kites Aided the Birth of Radio.” Seattle, WA.: Drachen Foundation – Kite Journal, Vol. 2, Spring 1999.
Wagenvoord, J. Flying Kites in Fun, Art, and War. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1968.
Yolen, Jane. World on a String – The Story of Kites. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968.
Yolen, Will. The Complete Book of Kites and Kite Flying. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
• Isted, G.A., M.I.E.E. ” Guglielmo Marconi and the History of Radio – Part I.” GEC Review, Vol. 7, No.1, 1991.
• Isted, G.A., M.I.E.E. ” Guglielmo Marconi and the History of Radio – Part II.” GEC Review, Vol. 7, No.2, 1991.
• Simons, R. W., OBE, C.Eng. “Guglielmo Marconi and Early Systems of Wireless Communication.” .” GEC Review, Vol. 11, No.1, 1996.
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