By Andrei PREOBRAZHENSKY, Captain, Retired
Alexander Stepanovich POPOV, the father of radio, holds pride of place among the cohort of celebrities who have contributed to the glory of Russia and of St. Petersburg in particular.
Late in the 19th century many scientists weighed the prospects of technical uses of high-frequency electromagnetic modes discovered in 1886 - 1889 by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. In their works A. Stoletov, O. Khvolson (Russia), W. Crooks (Britain) and N. Tesle (USA) said it was possible to make use of the ambient environment for wireless transmission of energy and communication signals. It was Alexander Popov who put these ideas into practice.
A St. Petersburg University graduate (Department of Physics and Mathematics), Alexander Popov worked as instructor at the Naval Officers' School of Russia's Baltic Fleet (at Kronstadt), where cadets could get a good background in a range of areas, such as the use of mines and torpedoes, and the electrotechnical equipment of warships. The school boasted an excellent library in which Popov sat up for hours on end. Needless to say, he was abreast of theoretical problems that needed practical solution. For seamen out on the high seas it was essential to keep regular communications with the shore, especially in emergencies.
Popov, then a young researcher, had spent five years in strenuous work before designing a "device for detection and registration of electric oscillations" by a coherent* receiver that could be used in radiotelegraphy, i.e. in wireless communications. And on April 25 (May 7 Gregorian calendar), 1895, Popov demonstrated his invention in action. Years afterwards our country came to mark this date as Radio Day.
Wireless telegraphy spread like wildfire all over the world. In 1896 Popov published a communication on his invention. Unfortunately he failed to get a patent for it- the patent went to the Italian radio engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who had also been experimenting with the wireless telegraph and applied for a patent in 1897.
Wireless telegraphy was adopted by the merchant marine as well. Russia and other countries got down to the upgrading job-in Russia a workshop was opened at Kronstadt near St. Petersburg (1898), it was superintended by Popov. In the meantime Marconi started his business too.
Popov did not rest on his laurels-he was in constant search for new and better designs, parts and units. Once, during a communication session, he saw his apparatus picking electric charges, something that caused interferences (noises). Thus, one should always keep tabs on atmospheric conditions, he concluded. For this purpose Popov designed a receiver with a built-in automatic device registering on a paper tape signals received from the atmosphere. This kind of "lighting recorder" could monitor nonstop the air space around the earth.
Yet another side of Popov's activities. Coming to learn about the discovery by Wilhelm K. Roentgen in 1895 of the heretofore unknown kind of electromagnetic radiation capable of piercing materials opaque to visible light, our inventor repeated the German scientist's experiments and made an X-ray tube of his own which he used for obtaining the first X-ray shots in Russia. Popov handed over the apparatuses he had manufactured to the Kronstadt naval hospital and to ship surgeons of the Baltic Fleet.
Also, Popov upgraded the wireless telegraph system and, within a short time, put it to use in radio traffic. Soon after, he established a radio link among forts near Kronstadt, and among offshore and distant islands in the Gulf of Finland. Ships in distress made good use of Popov's invention. In 1898, when the steamboat Matthews hit the lightship East Goodwin a few miles off Dover, the crew sent a SOS signal for the first time in the history of sea navigation. Two years thereafter, Popov used the wireless to help out the Russian battleship Admiral Apraksin marooned off the island of Gogland in the Gulf of Finland. What with the heavy sea and storm, Popov had a radio link between the islands of Gogland and Kutsalo for directing rescue operations. The new apparatus of the "telephone-receiver-of-dispatches" type, which was patented in several countries, enabled its operator to pick radio signals by ear. Thereupon Alexander Popov was actively involved in fixing radio communications on board ships of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov Fleets to secure safe navigation in shallow waters.
Meanwhile wireless communications became a state-of-the-art technology for vessels. Therefore international radio traffic regulations were imperative; this also applied to a standard signal for ships in distress, and to rules for its broadcasting. To tackle this and related problems a Radiotelegraph Conference was convened in Berlin (1903) representing seven countries: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Russia and USA. Alexander Popov was among the Russian delegation. The Staatssekretaer of the German government honored his presence this way, "We owe him the first radiotelegraph apparatus."
The delegates, however, became divided on several issues. The Italians voiced their strong opposition to the motion to use radio sets manufactured by different producers- they insisted that only sets made by the Marconi firm be installed. So this issue was still up in the air. The delegates failed to agree on a standard SOS signal too. This matter awaited solution up until 1906 when the second Radiotelegraph Conference involving 29 countries adopted adequate international laws to this effect. Unfortunately, Popov did not attend.
Popov's fruitful work gained worldwide recognition. He merited a gold medal at the World Exhibition of 1900 for his main brainchild, the radio. The Russian inventor was awarded honorary titles and degrees by scientific and technical bodies at home and abroad.
* With reference to time-coordinated modes of oscillation and wave processes characterized by a regular shift of their phases.- Ed.
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