Wireless communication at SU

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By Ian Jones

The history of science is a history not often spotlighted by mainstream history, but it is a fascinating history that well deserves the recognition of historians. In the 21st century world we live in today we enjoy many comforts including but not limited by the microwave to quickly heat our food without huge fires, vaccines and germ theory to protect us against disease that might have wiped out entire continents a couple hundred years ago, and we live in an age where someone sitting on the Indian subcontinent can communicate with someone in their living room in Tucson Arizona almost instanously. The world of Twitter and other social media has linked the world in ways that would seem the world of science fiction a couple decades ago before the invention of the microchip. We live in a world that is so interconnected but yet so many people don’t know the story of how we got to this point in the year 2020. History has been argued by some scholars to be the study of stories. Essentially historians take primary accounts and sift through the data and find the puzzle that best matches the pieces. This is the same with the history of science, it is a story that doesn’t require the knowledge of the science being discovered by these great men and women of science it simply requires an understanding of how pieces fit together to compliment the whole. The globalized world of twitter and instant help from across the ocean had a starting place, and that starting place at least in the digital age began at Southwestern with an invention by a man named Robert Stewart Heyer in the year 1895[1] when he arguably for the first time in history sent a wireless message from his Southwestern laboratory to the jailhouse in Georgetown, a distance of over a mile.

            Robert Stewart Heyer, the man I knew is Heyer’s official autobiography written by his daughter Rey Heyer Brown and only 1000 copies were ever made. During his time, he was a professor of science’s, served as president of Southwestern and later served as president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Gugliemo Marconi is the Italian inventor and electrical engineer who went down in the history books as the first man in history to send a wireless transmission over a distance out of earshot. Marconi famously sent his transmission in the year 1901, Robert Heyer sent his signal in 1805[2], six whole years before Marconi. Why did the world give the spotlight to Marconi when Heyer was actually the first to send a wireless transmission? Heyer’s feat has been collaborated by the other professors at Southwestern during his time there as well as countless students and the jailer who received his signal[3]. It turns out geography itself may be why the spotlight was given to Marconi. Georgetown was taken from the Tonkawa Indians was taken and settled in 1848 by George Washington Glasscock and had a steadily growing population. Even though Georgetown the town where Southwestern was situated was growing, Texas in the late 1800’s was still wilderness and besides a few towns here and there it was sparse wilderness. Telegraph lines were present but not everywhere that meant that there was little communication between settlements. Marconi who was working In Europe, a man born in Italy but setting up his company The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in the United Kingdom was in the most interconnected, funded and scientific areas of the world at the time. In Robert Stewart Heyer, the Man I Knew his daughter talks about other reasons, according to her he didn’t even want credit for his invention. He was unable to get a proper patent for his invention and prioritized his family over his invention. He was a tinkerer at heart and that sufficed his needs.

            Heyer and Marconi’s wireless transmitters although revolutionary, were not the first attempts at wireless transmission in history. The advantage of long-distance communication from everything from military maneuvers to city to city communication was a feat that had recognized significance. The very first attempts at distance communication took place by the Greeks, Persians and Chinese, simultaneously reaching the conclusion the distance communication could be advantageous independently around the same time period. They would use smoke signals on top of hills to communicate. Later in history around the beginning of the scientific revolution the advantage of distance communication was still feat that was valued and an invention called the Semaphore would demonstrate this. The semaphore used giant lever operated hands to send messages in a format that is similar to morse code to semaphore stations up to 12 miles away. A string of these stations could be set up on hilltops with a telescope at each station. But like imagining modern science in a context today without computers distance communication was limited to the eyes, and for distance communication to work a force unseen and powerful would be needed to work. The invention of the telegraph by Robert Morse was this invention. [4]Thanks solely to the discovery of electromagnetism by Hans Oesrsted and the invention of the battery by Alessandro Volta, this unseen communication was brought to the world. “Hardly a day intervened when General Grant did not know the exact state of facts with me, more than fifteen-hundred miles off – William Tecumesh Sherman (civil war general)”, the civil war saw the unprecedented boom of telegraph technology on both Confederate and Union sides of the war[5]. There was a catch to this tech however and that was in order to communicate, telegraph lines would need to be set up. These lines would span hundreds, thousands of miles at times and would take the workforce of the nation in uncharted wilderness to erect, there had to be an easier way to do things and there was. Heyer followed by Marconi would start the ball rolling on an invention that used the same electrical pulses as the telegraph machine but sent the message without thousands of miles of cables, through the spark gap transmitter.

            Robert Heyer and Marconi both created a wireless transmitter that worked in almost the same way. what has been classified today as a Spark Gap Transmitter, this transmitter sent an electrical shock to an oscillatory circuit, consisting of an inductance/ capacitance in sequence, essentially an electrical shock was converted to a single radio wave of non-variable frequency and wave length. Controlling the electrical pulse on the sending end, Heyer and Marconi could send a message using morse code. This technology was immediately recognized for its full potential, in full by the US Navy.[6] Around 1910 the US Navy conducted a huge experiment with two of its ships which were outfitted with Marconi’s radio technology, using an evolved Spark Gap-transmitter (the same type of transmitter invented by Heyer) 1000 miles away these ships were able to broadcast a clear and distinct message to a massive radio antenna sitting on the US coastline.

What were the obstacles that prevented Heyer’s invention from becoming used worldwide as soon as they were invented before 1910? This was the Austin-Cohen theory, which stated radio waves decay at the inverse square root of a wavelength. This theory came into the mainstream scientific and engineering circles around the same time Heyer’s radio contraptions were being brought into the same circles. This theory actually soon had become a law, and for all early radio inventions, they all abided heavily by this theory. This theory basically inferred that a radio wave could not travel the length of the Atlantic Ocean because of this decay, and the only way to make this happen would be to create a receiver that is tall enough but the distances at stake are far too large and thus the receiver would need to be unfeasibly tall. Ultra-low frequency waves would change everything however, and the US navy demonstrated this in two tests the test in 1910 mentioned earlier and a later test in 1913. These ultra-low frequency waves (any wave between 300 hertz and 3 kilohertz) can be broadcast at a range between 100 and 1000KM. Extremely low frequency waves (ELF) waves are waves that broadcast at an even lower frequency (3 to 30 Hz) and these wavelengths can be broadcast at a range of 10,000 to 100,000 Kilometers. [7]These two wave discoveries opened up the door for long distance radio communication. In the 1890’s was the decade actually that the navy began to take notice, that science and engineering advancements could intertwine not just in industry but also with warfare quoting “this is the birth of a new navy”. Heyer did not invent radio and communication, but his invention is a crucial piece to an emerging science and technological puzzle that was being solved at the end of the 19the and beginning of the 20th century. Without his invention that for intents of this paper can be symbolized through Marconi (because Heyer invented the wireless transmitter first) the invention of the radio that we are most familiar with today could not have been reached if the crucial stepping stone that was Heyer’s invention was not invented first. 

In chapter 40 of a little history of science, it is the final chapter of the book and it concludes everything by talking about science in the digital age. This age we live in now has its own chapter, arguably it is as important in the history of science to Marie Curie’s advancements on radiation if not more so. The level of importance doesn’t matter for the case of this argument, from the early days of the Hollerieth machine and the punch card in the early 20th century to Alan Turning’s early computer work eventually that led to the invention of the microchip. Computers talk to one another, and more so now than ever in the 5G world we live in now It is almost unfathomable to imagine a world where communication with the nearest town or city is weeks of walking away, or a fire on a hilltop, even in the arms of a semaphore across the valley.

History of Science by Sean F. Johnson in his chapter 2 Big Ideas and Compelling approaches helps to put Marconi and Howe’s inventions in place in the global history of science. The global history of science started with astronomy with hunter gatherer populations. Astreo- archeology shows us their connection,  left behind by these people such as the ‘marriage of earth and sky’ when the serpent from Serpent Mound (a site in Ohio possibly created by the Fort Ancient culture who were hunter gatherers, but its creation remains a mystery of giant serpent with an oval in its mouth) is positioned precisely true north and every summer solstice the sun shines through a precise gap in a nearby hilltop right down the center of the serpent. Plato and his republic used their knowledge of their times to create explanations for the world that fit logically. The scientific revolution was another key point in the history of science, with scientists revising many of Plato’s and the other Greek philosophers’ ideas and creating the framework for science as we see it today. In their own subset Marconi and Heyer’s invention was one of these turning points in the history of science, they helped to create communication that’s instantaneous and global, and for that we thank them today.

[1] Robert Stewart Heyer, the man I knew

[2] Robert Stewart Heyer, the man I knew

[3] Robert Stewart Heyer, the man I knew

[4] Neuenfeldt, Eric. "Telegraph." In Wild Horse: Stories, 120-40. Amherst; Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1hd198v.12.

[5] Neuenfeldt, Eric. "Telegraph." In Wild Horse: Stories, 120-40. Amherst; Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1hd198v.12.

[6] Yeang, Chen-Pang. "Scientific Fact or Engineering Specification? The U.S. Navy's Experiments on Wireless Telegraphy circa 1910." Technology and Culture 45, no. 1 (2004): 1-29. Accessed April 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40060578.

[7]Yeang, Chen-Pang. "Scientific Fact or Engineering Specification? The U.S. Navy's Experiments on Wireless Telegraphy circa 1910." Technology and Culture 45, no. 1 (2004): 1-29. Accessed April 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40060578.