Bergs and Radio at the Eastern Edge

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.


St. John’s, NL, viewed from Signal Hill. The Queen’s Battery is in the foreground.

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.


The mortar reminds you that signal hill was not just a place where merchant ships could be spotted in advance so that on-shore preparations could be made.

The mortar reminds you that signal hill was not just a place where merchant ships could be spotted in advance so that on-shore preparations could be made.

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.

Once, these were not for the tourists.

Once, these were not for the tourists.

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!

Icebergs outside St. John's

Icebergs outside St. John’s

It’s been a pretty good year for icebergs.

Iceberg off Fort Amherst. Note that it broke in two an hour or so before.

Iceberg off Fort Amherst. Note that it broke in two an hour or so before.

These guests have made a two-year voyage all the way from Greenland.

I figure the berg has a mass of around 300,000 tonnes. That's all fresh water.

I figure the berg has a mass of around 300,000 tonnes. That’s all fresh water, originally it fell as snow and slowly accumulated to form glaciers. Slowly, slowly, the ice flowed to the sea.

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.

Cape Spear--the most Easterly point in North America

Cape Spear–the most Easterly point in North America

If you look closer you can see the smaller bergy bits in the water too.

Iceberg off Cape Spear

Iceberg off Cape Spear

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.

Fort Amherst--my lunchtime walking destination for the past 7 months or so.

Fort Amherst, viewed from Signal Hill. It’s been my lunchtime walking destination for the past 7 months or so. That work contract is done now, though, and I’m busy lining up the next one, but not today…better things to do right now.

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.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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21 Responses to Bergs and Radio at the Eastern Edge

  1. Tiny says:

    Fascinating post, Maurice, interesting both geographically and historically. What majestic views you have there!! How often do you spot whales?

    • Thanks! The whales are common this time if the year as they follow their food north and if you go out in the boat you are almost sure that they will find you. As for spotting them from land, it’s much more of an item of chance. I’ve come out now three times but so far nothing.

  2. This post reminds me how much I miss St John’s.

  3. elkement says:

    Great post, Maurice! A really interesting blend of history of engineering and terrific images!

    Your assumption about Marconi sounds plausible – probably true for many heroes of experimental science. I recall that Eddington (of solar eclipse fame that vindicated Einstein) was also notorious of being “creative” in tweaking his data.

    That lunchtime walking destination will make most people jealous, I guess 😉

    • Indeed! I remember learning of how Milikin messed with his data too. I think in his case he omitted quite a few droplets. Actually, I’ve done that experiment quite a few times myself and can hardly blame him. The oil droplets are not really as uniform as we’d like them to be and they frequently pick up multiple charges.
      As for Marconi, at the time, wireless transmission was in its infancy. I doubt they knew much about the ionosphere at the time. The antenna was also pretty “shady” just a wire and likely the length was not tuned to the wavelength. It’s estimated that the wavelength was 350 m and that the length of the antenna was around 160 m, a bit short of a more ideal length of around 175 m. Nonetheless, Marconi did have considerable economic success, despite his insistence on using cruder tech (sparks) than was available.

    • Oh, and I walked up to the lighthouse today and took a few pics from there. I’ll post them later.

  4. Mary says:

    Great photos and article. I wonder where those bergs are heading after Nfld? Interesting theory on Marconi also.

    • Oftentimes the ones that come to the shores just stay, break up and melt away. What we get, though, is only a fraction of what’s there. The majority drift through the grand banks and are a hazard to shipping.

  5. Enjoyable to be sure … each of your NL posts teaches me something. And thank you, especially, for the beautiful images of bergs … totally lovely. I’ve been waiting and was not disappointed. Now .. I’m ready for the whales please. D

  6. SJ O'Hart says:

    So beautiful! Thank you for sharing these gorgeous (and interesting!) views of your world, Maurice. *waves from Ireland* 😀

    • I can almost see you from here! Speaking of which I’m looking forward to visiting Ireland later on the summer. I plan to spend 3 nights in Dublin (I spent a lot of time in Kilesteras a child and have not been back in a long time), then a night in Carlow (Kilkenney was too expensive), 2 nights in Cork (where my aunts used to live), 3 more in Galway (I’ve never been in the west) and finally 2 nights back in Dublin.

      • SJ O'Hart says:

        Cool! I hope you have a fantastic time. Maybe our paths will cross. 🙂 Galway’s gorgeous, and I love Cork, too. It’s a shame you won’t see Kilkenny as it is beautiful. There’s not a lot going on in Carlow, but it’s not far from my ancestral homeland so I feel I should big it up. *whoop whoop*

        And of course Dublin is brilliant.

        I really hope you have a great time. If you need any insider info, let me know.

  7. Thank you for the virtual vacation–I am truly enjoying my mini-visit to St. John’s. 🙂

  8. tw says:

    I learn so much from your blog Maurice. If history at school had been this interesting I might’ve paid more attention, chances are I’d have enjoyed it instead of wondering ‘what’s the point?’ I love your landscape, it feels like home to me even though I’ve never visited – or at least not in this lifetime. Nature at its best.

  9. Mjollnir says:

    Good to see some more of NL. Nice pics of the ‘bergs Maurice. Never seen one in real life!

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