January is a good month to write about Marconi and the years his company operated in South Wellfleet. On January 19, 2013, we’ll be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his historic accomplishment. Marconi’s choice of South Wellfleet as his American site to carry out his venture was the village’s most important moment in history, and has put it on the world map forever. As I’ve pulled together this post on Marconi, I found that I needed to understand what he was trying to accomplish, as well as look for evidence of his impact on South Wellfleet.
When Guglielmo Marconi arrived in South Wellfleet in 1901 he was already quite famous. The Wellfleetians who helped him and his project, even if they did not fully understand what they were participating in, must have realized it was to be an important moment.
Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874, to Giuseppe Marconi, a successful businessman, and his wife, Annie Jameson, of the Irish distilling family. There are many books, journal articles, newspaper accounts and websites that provide details on the whole of Marconi’s life and work. Marconi was tutored at home as a child and learned English. He was brought up as an Anglican, which demonstrates his mother’s influence on his life. He showed an early interest in electricity and knew about Benjamin Franklin.
As a teenager, he attended the Technical Institute in Leghorn, where he learned the Morse Code and became interested in electronics. Recognizing his interest and abilities — after his stern father became convinced that his experiments were worth supporting — his parents hired a well-known Italian physicist, August Righi, of the University of Bologna, to tutor him. By the time he was 16, Marconi was sending wireless messages in Morse Code, using home-made electronic devices and tin plates hung in his parents’ vegetable garden.
Marconi had read about the possibility of signaling by electromagnetic waves first discovered by German Professor Hertz in 1888. Many inventors had thought that these waves could be a way to signal, but it was Marconi who worked-out the practicalities and disproved certain assumptions, like the fact that the transmission did not have to go in a straight line with nothing else in the way. Marconi worked out the issues of long-distance transmission, and by 1895 he successfully transmitted the Morse Code “S” to his brother on the other side of a hill, more than a mile away. This experiment gave him significant attention, and his work became well-known.
Unable to convince the Italian authorities to support him, Marconi moved to England and began to work with the British Post Office, where experiments with wireless had been underway, but thus far not successful.
Soon the government was supporting Marconi’s work. He gained the attention of Queen Victoria when he reported the outcome of a yachting regatta simply transmitting the immediate results of the race. Another story told of his reporting to the Queen the accounting of the Prince of Wales’ injured knee by transmitting between the royal yacht — which may have been at the Regatta — and the Queen. The Prince became King Edward VII soon after, and perhaps this event helped the King’s interest in becoming the first to receive President Roosevelt’s message a few years later.
The years in England were the important ones for Marconi’s work, and on March 27, 1899, he successfully transmitted across the English Channel. By that autumn, the New York Herald invited him to the United States to report on another yachting event, the America’s Cup. The investment paid off, getting the results of the race first. Next the United States
Navy called on him to transmit between two of their ships, and that was accomplished at a distance of 36 miles.
Marconi formed his American Marconi Company. In March 1900 he obtained a patent for his invention that allowed a wireless transmitter to be tuned to a particular station, just as a radio is tuned. That year, he set up his high-powered transmitting station at Poldhu, on the Cornwall Coast in England, and soon was transmitting up to 150 miles — and even further by increasing the station’s power. Then he began looking for a place on the American coast to set-up similar equipment.
In March 1901 Marconi and his engineer, R. N. Vyvyan, and perhaps his assistant, George Kemp, went to Cape Cod, which they had identified as the most suitable place on the North American coast to receive a wireless signal from Poldhu in Corwall. Several accounts tell of Marconi meeting Edwin P. Cook of Wellfleet at the Boston boat in Provincetown, and describe Cook as a “wrecker” to lend credence to Cook’s ability to know the coastline well. However, I think Cook was more than that; he was a businessman who saw Marconi’s plan as an opportunity both for himself and the town.
E. P. (Edwin Payson) Cook had lived in Wellfleet all of his adult life, after growing up in Scituate, Massachusetts. The 1860 Federal Census records show that his father was not in the home there, and his mother was listed as the head of the family. The father had been a mariner, and he may have died at a young age.
As the oldest son, Cook may have felt a particular need to succeed and support his family. He married Eliza Hopkins in Wellfleet in 1864, at age 20, and in that record and those of the birth of their sons, he is listed as a “caulker,” a likely occupation in a town that lived on the work of its ships and schooners. Nevertheless, Cook undertook a number of other businesses: lumber, fish, wrecker and oil manufacturer, collecting the oil of the blackfish that regularly grounded there.
By the 1890s he was a Selectman of the town. He also had multiple real estate holdings. He and Eliza had three sons: Arthur, Herbert, and Ralph. We do not know how Cook came to be the man who met Marconi in Provincetown, but it makes sense that this Wellfleet businessman would be the one to guide Marconi.
There had been some thought given to Barnstable as a place to locate the Marconi station, because materials could easily reach there from Boston. However, upon inspection, it was found to be too close to the mainland, and the arm of the Cape extending father out into the ocean looked more suitable. Florence Cook is quoted in an article that her father-in-law “…drove Marconi from Provincetown to Chatham” looking for a likely spot.
They made an effort to locate near Highland Light, but were rebuffed. Accounts of the search indicate that the Highland Light staff were not welcoming, and they thought Marconi a “foreigner” and a “charlatan.” The Lighthouse had been the site for many years of the ship-spotters who made visual contact with a ship headed to Boston, and telegraphed its arrival. A wireless transmission would take that task away from them.
Eventually, Cook took Marconi to South Wellfleet to some land he owned, and a deal was made to sell him the 8 acres on the dune for $250. When I looked for the deed for the transaction, I found it to be between Herbert and Florence Cook, Ed Cook’s son and daughter-in-law, who were the owners at that point. Marconi was represented by a John Bottomly, who my research discovered was the Vice President and General Manager of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. In a separate transaction, the land tranferred to the Marconi Company.
Marconi, Degna, My Father Marconi, on line at www.archive.org
Barnstable Patriot online archive: http://www.sturgislibrary.org
Massachusetts Vital Records on line at www.americanancestors.org
David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org.