Texting Queen Vic

Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean a hundred years ago today. The transmission — the Morse code signal for the letter s — from Poldhu, Cornwall, to St. John’s, Newfoundland, verified Marconi’s belief that the earth’s curvature was not a barrier to radio communication.

Coincidentally, Marconi’s reception station in St. John’s was established on Signal Hill, so named centuries earlier to reflect the practice of flying flags and other objects to convey information about incoming ships. The sea flags continued to fly for a half century after Marconi’s broadcast — from Signal Hill’s Cabot Tower, in which the Marconi Company was receiving and sending the new radio transmissions.

Cabot Tower was intended to commemorate not only the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s landing in North America but also Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — Queen Victoria having been the recipient of some of the first-ever text messages. For example, this urgent note sent by Marconi in the summer of 1898 from aboard Osborne, the royal yacht, to Osborne House, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight:

Very anxious to have cricket match between Crescent and Royal Yachts Officers. Please ask the Queen whether she would allow match to be played at Osborne.

Invited aboard the royal yacht to witness the new technology, newspapermen reported that “stupendous results can be produced for the benefit of mankind” and that texting the unremarkable would become popular:

No sooner were we alive to the extraordinary fact that it was possible, without connecting wires, to communicate with a station which was miles away and quite invisible to us, than we began to send silly messages, such as to request the man in charge of the Kingston station to be sure to keep sober and not to take too many whiskey-and-sodas.

The excerpt above, and the idea that Queen Victoria set the royal precedent for texting, is taken from Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box (2003).

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.