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Long IslandHistory

A battle over the air waves

Italian electrical engineer and nobel laureate Guglielmo Marconi

Italian electrical engineer and nobel laureate Guglielmo Marconi with the wireless apparatus which he brought to England. Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

As the 20th Century was dawning, two pioneers in the birth of almost neck-and-neck race to develop radio as a "wireless" communication system, a revolutionary development destined to radically alter the path of history.

The younger Marconi eventually won the laurels, including the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics, for inventing radio, even though Tesla eventually prevailed in a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming that Marconi had infringed on his patents.

Part of the battle was fought on Long Island, where Tesla set up a large research and manufacturing facility in Shoreham, and Marconi's company established some of the first ship-to-shore radio relay stations.

As for the invention of radio communications, it is clear that the brilliant, Croatian-born Tesla had demonstrated transmission of pulsed radio signals through the air in 1893, during a lecture in St. Louis. Others, in Europe as early as 1842, also had sent detectable signals over relatively short distances. But it was Marconi, a native of Italy, who cobbled together several toy-like inventions to create a viable system.

In fact, in 1901 Marconi finally succeeded in transmitting a coded Cornwall, England, to St. John's, Newfoundland. That essentially clinched it for Marconi, who is considered the father of radio.

In contrast, despite his enormous achievements, Tesla finished his life in poverty. Though he lived for years in New York City's posh Waldorf- Astoria Hotel, and created the major research and manufacturing facility in Shoreham, legal battles, personal conflicts and professional jealousies eventually drained his money and sapped his effervescence.

During the years of wrangling, neither side cared much for niceties: According to Tesla biographer Marc Seifer, he even referred once to Marconi as a "parasite and microbe of a nasty disease," although not by name.

In any case, the name Marconi is now almost synonymous with radio, essentially sank into obscurity. Only recently have biographers begun to resurrect the quixotic inventor's story. Two important ones are "Wizard," by Marc J. Seifer (Birch Lane Press, 1996), and "Tesla, Man Out of Time," by Margaret Cheney (Dorset Press, 1981).

In all, it took more than half a century of legal maneuvering, courtroom battles and public wrangling before the Supreme Court affirmed that Tesla, not Marconi, was actually radio's inventor. In 1943, the court affirmed that Marconi had infringed on Tesla's patent, a judgment that arrived belatedly, just three months after Tesla's death.

In England, too, Marconi's priority was vigorously contested by the friends and supporters of Oliver Lodge, who demonstrated "wireless telegraphy" in 1894.

These bitter struggles over the origins of radio came at a tumultuous time in the history of technology, and was joined by some of the biggest names in science and invention. Into the competition between Marconi and Tesla came America's most famous technological wizard, Thomas Edison, plus the well-known inventor of the air brake, George Westinghouse.

Ironically, Tesla originally came to the United States in 1884, to work in New Jersey for Edison. Tesla once recalled that, "I was thrilled to the marrow by meeting Edison." While working with Edison, Tesla advanced his own ideas about alternating current vs. direct current electricity.

Eventually, Tesla and Westinghouse were united, via the pocketbook, after Westinghouse bought the rights to Tesla's brilliant discoveries using alternating current to run electric motors, incandescent lights and other devices. Edison, wedded to his own competing direct current system, was in Marconi's corner in the brouhaha over radio.

On Long Island, Tesla's imprint was far deeper than Marconi's. Tesla's big laboratory still stands in Shoreham, and Tesla actually spent much time on Long Island, some of it commuting back and forth to the city.

Marconi's impact here was largely through the installation of equipment. According to Natalie Stiefel of Sayville, who is involved in the Friends of Long Island Wireless and the Rocky Point Historical Society, "The first Marconi station on Long Island was built at Sagaponack in 1902, for communication with ships nearer New York than Marconi's station at Nantucket Island."

Old news reports also indicate the first radio message to Long Island came from a departing steamship, the Wilhelmader der Grosse, on June 20, 1902.

A second Marconi station for communicating with inbound and outbound ships was set up several months later, a "radio shack" on Fire Island Avenue in Babylon. The facility also served as a training site for Marconi wireless operators. the last communication with ships before they docked in New York, or the first radio link for ships leaving the harbor.

The Babylon shack was used only briefly, but it was salvaged as a historical artifact and stored for years at Rocky Point. It was finally restored, and now sits in front of the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School, on the road renamed Marconi Boulevard.

Tesla, who ran his own laboratory in New York City for years, won substantial backing from famed industrialist J.P. Morgan. He then moved his work to a big laboratory on Long Island, in the area now called Shoreham.

The property, a potato farm that Tesla named Wardenclyffe after its previous owner, was a 200-acre tract on Long Island Sound, nine miles east of Port Jefferson. It sold for $150,000 and was financed by Morgan.

The major facilities erected for Tesla on the site were designed by the famed architect Stanford White, a close associate of Tesla's.

Tesla's ultimate goal was to create a "world telegraphy center" that included his laboratory, a huge radio transmitter system, plusmanufacturing facilities to make his oscillators and vacuum tubes.

Unfortunately, Tesla's dreams for Wardenclyffe never fully matured. Deep in debt and living on credit at the Waldorf-Astoria, the inventor was finally forced to sign over his big property to the hotel's owners, who in 1917 ordered that the tall radio tower be dynamited and the steel be sold for scrap. li Learn about 15 influential people in the history of radio, get important dates in radio history and read notbale quotes about Marconi's invention on the Internet at


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