Marconi and Rathlin

The radio pioneer's early broadcasts on the island

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna in Italy on April 25, 1874. From an early age he developed a great interest in things electrical, being inspired by Hertz and others. He started experiments of his own, using electro-magnetic waves to send signals over a distance. Soon, he became the leading exponent of this new system. However, when he approached the Italian Post Office authorities they showed no interest.

In 1896, at the age of 22, Marconi moved to London. Through his mother's connections – she was Anne Jameson of the Irish whiskey family – he obtained an introduction to WH Preece, who was engineer-in-chief at the General Post Office in London, and who also had a keen interest in wireless telegraphy. Preece appointed one of his own assistants to work with Marconi and together they carried out a number of experiments.

In May 1898, Marconi met Sir Henry Hozier, secretary of Lloyd’s insurers of London. Lloyd’s issued a daily news sheet, known as ‘Lloyd’s First’. This was for the purpose of acquainting insurance underwriters of shipping movements and casualties which they might have insured.

Marconi was offered a contract by Lloyd’s to set up a wireless link between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle. Rathlin was the most important point in this chain of information, as all shipping inward bound from America or Canada passed by Rathlin East lighthouse en route for Liverpool (then the largest port in the UK) or Glasgow or Belfast. The lighthouse keepers kept a record of all ships passing, the problem was to get this valuable information to London in the quickest possible time.

A couple of methods were tried to get the ships names to Torr Point signal station and then relayed to Lloyd’s in London. The first method tried was by semaphore signals using two white flags. These could be seen at Torr by means of a powerful telescope, but this system was no use in bad or foggy weather.

Another method used was carrier pigeon. A number of pigeons were trained to carry messages fixed to their legs; they were released and flew to Ballycastle Coastguard Station, where upon arrival the pigeon would alight on wire netting which rang a bell, thus alerting the coastguard on duty. However, although this system was ingenious it did not take into account the opportunism of the Rathlin peregrine falcons. Most of the unfortunate pigeons were destroyed by the falcons.

Lloyd’s decided that this system was proving too expensive and unreliable for the limited amount of information which they were receiving, and so it was discontinued in 1893. This contract with Lloyd’s was very important to Marconi, as it not only brought in much needed finance, but gave him recognition as the leading expert in this new technology. Marconi was unable to come to Rathlin immediately, so he sent his assistant George Kemp with equipment for Rathlin.

Kemp arrived in Ballycastle on June 4, 1898 and met with Lloyd’s agent Mr Byrne. He travelled on to Rathlin in a sailing boat owned by Mr Wyse and surveyed the area at the East lighthouse, returning to Ballycastle at 6.10 pm. He met with Mr Hough from Lloyd’s on Friday June 10 and made arrangements to try an aerial at the coal store, which was situated where the present amusement centre is at Ballycastle seafront.

Kemp went to Rathlin on Saturday June 11 with Mr Hough where he fitted up 50 Obach cells in a hut at the East lighthouse, also a nearly vertical aerial, 80 feet long, from the tower to a point on the cliff. He instructed Michael Donovan, principal keeper at the lighthouse and his two sons John aged 16 and Charles aged 14, in the use of Morse code. He went to Rathlin again on July 5 with further stores of wire and insulators and improved the aerials and transmitter.

He went to the Coastguard house on Wednesday July 6 and received a few ‘V’s (Morse signals) from Rathlin, so this day is accepted as the starting point of the first commercial use of radio or wireless.
Kemp received instructions to go to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), near Dublin, to carry out some work for the Daily Express, an English newspaper, in connection with some yacht races.

They wanted to be the first newspaper with the race results. Whilst in Dublin, Marconi engaged the services of Edwin Glanville, a young engineering graduate from Trinity College.

When Kemp returned to Ballycastle on July 24, he brought young Glanville with him.

The next day, July 25, Edwin Glanville went to Rathlin with instructions to transmit every day. Kemp was busy finding a suitable site for a receiving aerial in Ballycastle. However, on August 22, he received a message he was not expecting. Young Edwin Glanville had fallen over a cliff and was killed in the fall. An inquest was held on the island, and afterwards the remains were taken to Ballycastle by steamer to be met by his father, and conveyed to Dublin by train for burial.

Kemp did not waste any time in getting back to work. On August 24, he set up a mast at the White Lodge on North Street, Ballycastle. This was 104 feet high and 104 feet out from a bedroom window. The next day he went to Rathlin and refitted the station, sending and receiving signals from Mr Byrne. He then left the station in charge of Mr Donovan and returned to Ballycastle. The crossing took four hours. The next day he sent and received signals from 10am until 6.30pm, reporting 12 ships to Lloyd’s, even though there was thick fog – the start of radio communications.

By Augustine McCurdy

Supported by EU Programme for Peace & Reconciliation and Rural Development Council