In 1894, across the Atlantic in Bologna, Italy, a young man by the name of Guglielmo Marconi began experimenting with Electromagnetic Waves (Radio Waves). In an unused portion of his parents' attic, Marconi constructed devices for sending and receiving Morse code across the room without the use of wires. Through trial and error he steadily improved the distances he was able to send a signal, and soon outgrew his attic laboratory. Within a year, Marconi was able to transmit a telegraph signal a distance of two miles. By 1897, he had increased the distance to 15 miles, proving that man-made and natural obstacles did not interfere with the transmission of radio waves. Marconi’s genius was in foreseeing the practical potential of radio transmission.
Marconi’s successes were rapid. In 1899, he successfully transmitted radio waves across the English Channel. In the same year, he was granted the English patent number 7777, the first radio patent ever issued. Marconi then sailed to the United States and used a ship-based wireless transmitter to report on the America’s Cup race. Soon after his arrival in the U.S., he established the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America and pursued two major goals. His first goal, a commercial radio empire, was achieved through a series of successful patent lawsuits against his competitors. His second goal was to push the boundary of accepted scientific theory and transmit radio signals across the Atlantic, which he did successfully in 1907, providing the Americas and Europe with regular wireless commercial communications.
The success of his transoceanic experiments led to the American and British companies' ambitious plan to establish a worldwide, high-power communications system. These high-power stations would encompass the world and provide virtually instantaneous communications to every point on the globe. In 1909, Marconi was awarded the Noble Prize for Physics and three years later would be credited with saving the 712 survivors of the Titanic disaster. By 1912, Marconi had aquired, through a lawsuit and merger, over 70 land stations and more then 500 ship-board installations. One of these stations was Station KPH, San Francisco’s first radio station.
In order to achieve a signal powerful enough to cross the Pacific Ocean, a new, more powerful station was built on the Marin Coast. This station was designed and constructed by J.G. White, a New York engineering firm. All of Marconi’s transoceanic stations were “duplex” stations, geographically separated complexes for transmitting and receiving. The geographic separation was necessary because the noise of transmission obstructed clear reception. By 1913-14, Marin had a new transmitting station in Bolinas on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a new receiving station in Marshall, on the hill overlooking Tomales Bay.
These sites formed the "KPH" Pacific Rim station and were the foundation for the most successful and powerful ship-to-shore communications. KPH would broadcast regular bulletins of news, weather and other general information to the shipping community, then relay business and personal messages to and from individual ships. Station operators also monitored the international distress frequencies for calls from ships in trouble. However, the experience of World War I and the recognition of the strategic importance of radio communication led to subsequent government actions to secure control over radio communication. Accordingly, in 1920, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was formed which bought the holdings of the American Marconi Company. RCA soon sold the majority of undeveloped land at the Marshall site, retaining only 62.7 acres surrounding the station buildings.
Although Marconi’s dream of heading a worldwide communication empire was over, he nonetheless continued experimenting with improving radio communications. In 1923, he developed a short-wave beam system. This system could not only be used for better long distance communication, but also for guiding ships safely into port even in dense fog. With the implementation of short-wave signals, the operation at Marshall (which was a long-wave station) was relocated across Tomales Bay to the Point Reyes Peninsula for superior short-wave reception. The Marshall station, which is now a State Historic Park, was replaced by a new Art Deco-designed facility located on "G" ranch just yards away from what today is known as North Beach. With the decline of Morse code and new ship and satellite technology, the station was retired in the late 1990s. By 2000, the National Park Service and volunteers from the Maritime Radio Historical Society (MRHS) partnered to care for the remaining artifacts and records and also preserve the sites in operating condition so that they can still be heard on the air on weekends and special occasions. Research indicates the combination of the transmitting (Bolinas) and receiving station (Point Reyes) may be the last intact Marconi-era coast station in North America.
A special thank you to the Marconi Conference Center and State Historic Park, Marconi Company Limited, England, Maritime Radio Historical Society, and the National Park Service for their help in compiling this history.
Night of Nights
Join real ship-to-shore communications operators and enthusiasts to learn more about this topic at the Night of Nights with the Maritime Radio Historical Society. This annual event is held at the Point Reyes Receiving Station near North Beach on July 12th to commemorate the history of maritime radio and the closing of commercial Morse operations in the USA. These on-the-air events are intended to honor the men and women who followed the radiotelegraph trade on ships and at coast stations around the world and made it one of honor and skill. The public are invited to visit the receiving station beginning at 3:00 pm. Learn more.