The Great Wireless Hack of 1903

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marconi_school.jpg

Guglielmo Marconi is considered the father of modern radio, but his initial conception of the wireless broadcasting technology was as a point-to-point system like the telegraph. This, understandably, made wired telegraph operators nervous that their businesses were about to be disrupted by the Italian. One, the Eastern Telegraph Company, enlisted the services of a frustrated wireless pioneer, Nevil Maskelyne," who New Scientist related this week, was "a mustachioed 39-year-old British music hall magician" who played a nasty trick on Marconi and physicist John Ambrose Fleming.

The occasion was a big demo at the Royal Academy of Sciences. Marconi was stationed on a cliff in Poldhu, Cornwall and ready to transmit a message the 300 miles to Fleming's receiver in London. But just as the demonstration was about to begin, the receiving apparatus began to tap out a message in Morse code.

Someone... was beaming powerful wireless pulses into the theatre and they were strong enough to interfere with the projector's electric arc discharge lamp. Mentally decoding the missive, [Fleming's assistant Arthur] Blok realised it was spelling one facetious word, over and over: "Rats". A glance at the output of the nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: "There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily," it trilled. Further rude epithets - apposite lines from Shakespeare - followed.

That someone, as he soon happily announced, was Maskelyne. And his trick had a point: radio was not as private a channel as Marconi had made it out to be. Wireless messages could both be intercepted and interfered with. Like many good hacks, the mayhem had meaning.


Image: A Marconi radio school. The students are taking messages from ships at sea. Library of Congress.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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