Contrasting an industry start to today;
1899: The first ship-to-shore wireless message in U.S. history is sent by Lightship No. 70 to a coastal receiving station at the Cliff House in San Francisco.
“Sherman is sighted,” the message said, referring to the troopship Sherman, which was returning a San Francisco regiment from the battlefields of the Spanish-American War. It marked the first use outside England of this technology, still in its infancy.
The name most closely associated with the invention of wireless telegraphy — what we now know simply as radio — is Guglielmo Marconi, but as with so many technologies, there were a number of hands stirring the pot, chief among them Heinrich Hertz, Alexander Popov and Nicola Tesla. Marconi’s claim to primacy was no doubt helped by the fact that he obtained the British patent for wireless in 1896, when Britannia still ruled the waves.
Radio communication at sea quickly evolved into an indispensable safety aid for mariners. By the early 20th century ships were able to communicate with each other as well as with shore-based stations. The Japanese navy used radio communication to scout the Russian fleet during the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, a crushing Japanese victory and a turning point in the Russo-Japanese War.
The failure of radio communication played a major role in the Titanic disaster in 1912. The lone radio operator aboard the Californian had switched off his set for the night (as was common aboard vessels carrying a single operator) and never received the Titanic‘s distress signals. Had someone been at his post, the Californian — by far the closest ship to the stricken liner — could have arrived soon enough to save many of the lives that were lost.
Sources: Various. This article first appeared on Wired.com Aug. 23, 2007.