The Emergence of the Wireless Age
On May 7, 1898, New York City’s Madison Square Garden held its first electrical convention. Standing before a crowd of thousands, Nikola Tesla, a well-respected inventor and electrical genius, demonstrated the wireless control of a four-foot long motorboat equipped with antennas and lights. As he walked around the side of the large indoor pool in the center arena, Tesla urged the audience to tell him in which direction they wanted the boat to travel. He ignited the crowd into frenzy by using his “mystery box” to remotely steer the small craft. Always the showman, Tesla pumped up the spectators by using the controls on his “mystery box” to flash the boat’s lights on and off as he wirelessly piloted the small craft.
At the same gathering, another electrical wizard, Professor William J. Clarke demonstrated his wireless telegraphy system by remotely exploding a submerged mine to sink a small replica of a Spanish galleon. After the model ship sank, Clarke showed the crowd a hand held brown box with no attached wires. When he had the full attention of the spectators, he tapped Morse code signals on a telegraph key strapped to the box. With each tap of the key, a large bell located 200 feet from where he stood rang out. The crowd went wild. They could clearly see that the bell was wirelessly mounted to a tall poll.
The first wireless demonstration in Madison Square Garden was a complete success. Besides being witnessed by several thousand New Yorkers, the event was covered by news reporters from all over the world.
Trickery, sorcery, and witchcraft were some of the words that crossed the lips of many observers as they left the Saturday evening exhibition. However, it is almost certain that none of the 19th century spectators could have imagined the future military or peaceful applications that would emerge from the demonstrations. The men, women, and children attending the electrical exposition were first-hand witnesses to the embryonic sparks that would someday guide armed military drones and create devices to remotely set off roadside bombs.
In May of 1898, Tesla filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office for his wireless controlled motor boat. Two weeks later Tesla’s attorney, Parker Page, received a letter of rejection. The patent was not approved because none of the examiners at the patent office believed what Tesla claimed in his application. Parker Page resubmitted the application, along with a dozen affidavits from prominent citizens who declared under oath that they had observed the wireless operation of the motorboat. On November 3rd of the same year, Charles Holland Duell, the head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office traveled from Washington D.C. to New York City in order to see the boat in action. On November 8, 1898 U.S. patent number 613,809 was issued for Tesla’s remote controlled boat.
For the next ten years, Tesla demonstrated his wireless magic at electrical expositions across America. In addition, with the financial backing of J.P. Morgan, he was able to continue his experiments and research. Nikola Tesla eventually received more the 300 worldwide patents for his inventions.
During an interview printed in The New York Times on May 23, 1909 Tesla stated; “The practical applications of the revolutionary principles of the wireless art have only just begun. What will be accomplished in the future baffles one’s comprehension. It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can operate and carry his own apparatus. For instance, it will be possible for a businessman in New York to dictate instructions and have them appear instantly in type in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up from his desk and talk with any telephone subscriber in the world. It will only be necessary to carry an inexpensive instrument not bigger than a watch, which will enable its bearer to hear on sea or land for distances of thousands of miles. One may listen or transmit speech from the uttermost parts of the world. In the same way, any kind of picture, drawing, or print can be transferred from one place to another. It will be possible to operate millions of such instruments from a single station. Thus, it will be a simple matter to keep the uttermost parts of the world in instant touch with each other. The song of a great singer, the speech of a political leader, the sermon of a great divine, the lecture of a man of science may thus be delivered to an audience scattered all over the world.”
While the flamboyant and well-funded Tesla made headlines around the world, the less pretentious Clarke toured America and Europe giving lectures and demonstrations. His 1898 springtime presentations at New York’s Madison Square Garden gave him some prominence and positive notoriety. In the autumn of 1899, Professor Clarke made a remarkable claim.
The following quoted account is from an article that appeared in Austin’s Hawaiian Weekly on October 7, 1899; “Mr. W. J. Clarke has suggested a means of detecting the presence of a ship or an iceberg by wireless telegraphy. The apparatus, which he proposes, is so arranged that when two ships approach each other a large vibrating gong will ring in each, and the transmitter is so arranged that the signal would be operated at a distance of from one to ten miles. Mr. Clarke claims that if it were made compulsory that sea going vessels should be so equipped with the necessary outfit, it could be carried out at a small cost.”
No one followed up on Clarke’s iceberg detection system. Research and development for such a grand endeavor cost money and the wealthy shipping companies felt that the existing visual detection methods sufficed. They refused to invest in wireless research.
On April 14, 1912 the largest ship in the world, struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage. More than 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
It would take another thirty years and two world wars before radar, a reliable wireless method for detecting icebergs and other ships became available to the commercial shipping industry. Today radar is just one of the many types of wireless safety features installed on sea going vessels.
As for Tesla; I am in awe. Every single prediction Tesla made in 1909 that pertained to the future of wireless technology has come to fruition. And, that makes me wonder—what new wireless innovations will the next 100 years bring?