There’s quite a view to be had from atop Signal hill. On one side you see St. John’s, the oldest European-Founded city in North America and, on the other, the cold Northwest Atlantic.
Signal hill was the receiving site in 1901 of the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. Guglielmo Marconi made his preparations up here in 1901. The antenna he had erected had been wrecked so he flew a kite–no easy task up here where it’s always windy–and used the 500 foot wire from it as an antenna. The high-powered sending station in Cornwall was sending Morse code “S” (dot-dot-dot) and that’s what Marconi was listening for. He said he did and, so people here claim dibs on it.
Frankly, I have to admit to a bit of sacrilege as I have my doubts about it all. The antenna was likely wrong–antennae need to be tuned (the right length) and this one was likely not. Worse, the test was done during the day and we now know that daytime natural phenomena caused by solar radiation causes far too much interference; the signal to noise ratio is not good during the daytime. It’s my belief that, while the experiment would work in principle, in practice what he likely got was a lot of static and a “result” that was really confirmation bias. He was listening for click-click-click and during the day, random static probably gave him exactly that.
Do you know what’s worse? Even though he set up his beach-head here, at the closest possible point of approach to Europe (more on that in a bit) , he could not set up his base here as the Anglo-American Telegraph Company already had reached a monopoly agreement with the Newfoundland government. They blocked the proposal; bad for business. Off Marconi went, then to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and we’ll end the story there, even though it’s a fascinating one.
People often assume that’s where Signal Hill got its name, but the truth is far older than that. In the days before radio, signal flags were an important form of communication between ships and for ship-to-shore communication. Those were the days before efficient container ships made shipping fairly straightforward. In those days, loading and unloading was labourious. “Longshoremen” had to be engaged for the task and preparations had to be made well in advance. The merchants, then, kept spotters on the hill and when ships were observed, they would be identified and the signal flags would be used to communicate between the ships and the merchants in the harbour so that things would be readied.
Of course, the hill was of military importance too. Not only could you observe any approaching invader but, also, you could use cannon to lob projectiles at any ship that tried to enter the narrows. If you look at the foreground of the image at the top you will see the Queen’s battery, still in good shape and now cared for Parks Canada.
A cannon is still fired off here at noon. No cannon ball, though, so its bark is worse than its bite.
Signal hill looks out at the ocean too. See the point of land dead centre in the image below. It’s Cape Spear, the most easterly point of land in North America. Ireland is 1984 miles from it; straight left. Africa is 6500 miles straight ahead!
It’s been a pretty good year for icebergs.
These guests have made a two-year voyage all the way from Greenland.
As you know nine-tenths of the ice is under water and all of these bergs are now likely grounded. They’ll slowly melt and break up. As they lost mass they may float away again, perhaps only to become grounded somewhere else.
If you look closer you can see the smaller bergy bits in the water too.
No whales today, though. They’re out there, just not in here by the shore today. They’re making their way north, following their food.
Bringing it back to Marconi, the most famous iceberg of all–the one that sank the Titanic–likely helped his own fortune. Wireless, on board that vessel and owned by Marconi, was used to signal for help and no doubt led to the saving of lives. The aftermath of the sinking did underline the need for marine radio, a tradition that continues to this day.