On this day, one hundred and eighteen years ago, a test signal was sent from Knowles Farm on the Isle of Wight to the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station on the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall. At 5.32pm (the same time that I now post this here) a Post Office Telegraph was handed in at the Lizard Village Office, confirming receipt of the signal and declaring Marconi’s test ‘completely successful.’ The transmission was ‘a world record for long-range wireless propagation’ and the first time a wireless signal had been transmitted ‘over the horizon’. Prior to this, it was believed that ‘the operating range of wireless would be restricted to the [optical] horizon.’ (Rowe) But on Wednesday the 23rd January, 1901, in what became known as ‘Marconi’s First Great Miracle’ the arrival of three Morse code dots at The Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station, signalled not only the letter ‘s’, but also an escape from the visible: a flight from the material into the airy immaterial.
In that same year, at Poldu, some six visible miles from the Wireless Telegraphy Station, Marconi had begun construction of the largest transmitter ever built. The Poldhu station was charged with determining if wireless signals could be transmitted and received over the fathomless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. On the 12th December 1901, the faint dit-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal transmitted from Poldhu, was heard some 2100 miles away, at a receiving point on the appropriately named Signal Hill, in St John, Newfoundland, Canada. The signal was too weak to operate the Morse printer and could only be confirmed by the (h)ear(ed) witness of Marconi and his assistant George Kemp. Without visible evidence, the existence of a signal was disputed, even today the authenticity of the transmission continues to be questioned. Pat Hawker, a writer for the journal Radio Communication, states: ‘[W]hatever clicks Marconi and Kemp heard on that windy Newfoundland cliff, they could not have originated from the three dots automatically transmitted from Poldhu.’ That the existence of this inaugural signal of wireless communication should be so spectral and suspect, seems appropriate for a medium in which the perimeters of the real and imagined, the here, there, then and now are so diffused.
Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is a recording of a micro-FM transmission, composed and performed live at the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station in August 2018.
The transmission was based on field-recordings collected on the Lizard Peninsular and surrounding environment; a landscape littered with the history and architectural remains of listening and communication technologies. The transmitted soundscape mingles local sounds with recordings made on the Isle of Wight and physically transported over the horizon to the Lizard station. The architectural ghosts of towers, wires and blast walls are sounded out by the air moving through them and the by the geological dit-dit-dit of Serpentine pebbles tapping out Marconi’s test signal upon them. The transmission began as the first illuminated arc of the Lizard Lighthouse signaled nightfall: weak signals lost in and to the visible landscape.
Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is featured on the NAISA Radio programme, Off the Beat(en) Track. Curated by Darren Copeland, Artistic Director of New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA), the programme is available online as part of the Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art.