The South West Peninsula of England has been no stranger in the evolution of telecommunications. Since Victorian times the region has hosted numerous developments, advancing technologies which led to the Birth of Broadcasting in the early 20th century. 

Manchester entrepreneur John Pender became the most successful businessman in the submarine cable enterprise. His second company 'The Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company' succeeded in completing a direct telegraph route from Cornwall to India which was of great strategic importance to the British Empire. Although originally due to come ashore at Falmouth, Pender decided to use Porthcurno instead because of potential damage to the cable from ships' anchors at Falmouth's busy port.  

The cable was brought ashore in June 1870, Porthcurno's first cable. Through a series of mergers Pender created the 'Eastern Telegraph Company' and by the turn of the 20th Century, Porthcurno in Cornwall was the hub of the world's largest International Telecommunications system.  

Alexander Bell, famous as the father of the telephone came to Europe on honeymoon. Looking for financial opportunities in the continent, he packed his newly patented and refined telephones in his luggage. The intention was to demonstrate 'The New Bell Telephone' to potential new customers. William Preece who was at the time Assistant Engineer-in Chief of the General Post office (GPO) came to Plymouth to deliver the presentation for the 'British Association for the Advancement of Science'. And so it was that Plymouth became the first place in Europe to have a public demonstration of this revolutionary device!   

William Preece was to continue as a leading engineer and voice in the evolution of radio when he supported Marconi after his arrival in Britain. Two years after the Plymouth presentation, Preece reported officially to a House of Commons committee that "the telephone might be good for the Americans, but not for the British, who have plenty of messenger boys" 

The British Admiralty was perhaps the most important developer and potential customer for the nascent radio inventions. Whilst on land the developing cable telegraph and telephony devices were providing new opportunities, on the waves only 'wireless' could offer new strategic gains and provide a means to protect the navy against potential torpedo attacks. It is worth remembering that the Navy training establishments of the latter 19th century offered a good technical education – perhaps the best in England, as the public school system did not favour an education to breed practical engineering skills. 

A young cadet, Henry Jackson, joined the navy aged 13 and started his education at HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, Devon. He excelled in electrical theory and practice and became a Commander in the service.  Having the insight to see the opportunities of the recently discovered 'Hertzian Waves' he successfully designed wireless equipment suited to the rigours of the maritime environment. 

From January 1895 Jackson was appointed as commander at HMS Defiance at Devonport which gave him his first opportunity to seriously develop a ship to ship, and ship to shore radio system. Experiments took place in the River Lynher estuary off Wearde Quay. Using HMS Scourge, one of Defiance's tenders, Jackson was in the following year able to signal Defiance over a distance of three miles – he became the first person in the world to achieve ship to ship radio communication.  

At a War Office conference in August 1896, Jackson met the 22yr old Marconi for the first time. They 'swapped notes' and collaborated over many years. Jackson commented that Marconi's apparatus was more sensitive than his own but his was more suitable for the rough use in a marine environment. Eventually Marconi company equipment prevailed, the relative costs of an in-house design against commercially developed apparatus being a driver. As Captain Jackson was a serving naval officer and engaged on military matters he was unable to publish results and consider a patent application. It is not surprising, given these circumstances, that his significance as a wireless pioneer was not written into contemporaneous accounts and later wireless histories. 

References: (2020). Henry Jackson RN. [online] Available at:
Preece, W., 1877. British Association.
PK Porthcurno. 2015. The story of where telegraph communication began at PK Porthcurno. [online] Available at: <> 2022. Biography: Henry Jackson, Pioneer of Maritime Radio | Online Information Bank | Research Collections | Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. [online] Available at: <>


Venturing into the next century, the entrepreneurial skills of Guglielmo Marconi and the company directors and engineers’ ability to exploit and develop wireless, gave a launching pad to further ambitions.   

Around the Cornish village of Mullion in autumn 1900 the gossips said, "A mad Italian wants to send messages without wires across the Atlantic" 

Dr Fleming and Mr Vyvian from the Marconi company had arrived at Poldhu on the barren Lizard peninsula to build a pioneer transmitter - 100 times more powerful than any station ever built. Local craftsman and labourers were recruited and the locals witnessed horse drawn vehicles delivering building materials and timber. Construction began in October.

Poldhu was ready for "on-air tests" with the Isle Of Wight by January 1901.
Powered by a 32bhp diesel engine, an alternator generated 2000V which was stepped up to 20000V for the spark gap transmitter. You could well imagine that the sights and sounds of the transmitter rooms could inspire a Hollywood image of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

The engineers continued with their sanguine expectations despite the aerials being an ongoing source of misfortune.

In summer 1901 the horses drawing the timbers stampeded after a thunderstorm damaging the site and causing the men to run for safety. Worst was to happen in September, when a sudden Atlantic squall blew down the aerial array leaving a pile of timber and wire debris. Marconi was too unconquerable a soul to permit wrecked masts to get the best of him - so a decision was made to rebuild using two poles instead of twenty, each 160ft high. These accommodated a fan of 55 copper wires. Everything was ready for a preliminary test. 

The fiery spark crashed across the gap, electrifying the makeshift web of wire and the bleak November air. A wireless outpost in Ireland heard the resultant signal with such intensity that they felt sure the power would drive a message across the Atlantic. Marconi decided on Newfoundland for a transatlantic test - the nearest point in America to Europe.

In November, Marconi and his team of two, set off for St John’s Newfoundland on the liner Sardinian to establish the receiving station.

On arrival, a suitable site was chosen at Signal Hill, overlooking the port.  The receiving apparatus was set up in the Cabot Tower and a wire connected to a kite swaying high overhead. At 12.30  St. John's time, on the 12th December 1901, Marconi and colleague Kemp heard three scant little clicks on their telephone receiver, the agreed morse signal ‘S’ from Poldhu nearly 2000miles away – the world’s first Inter-Continental radio communication.   

Exciting news for the international press but frightening for the residents of the Lizard who could hear the firing of the spark for miles around.  

Poldhu went on to provide a base for the Marconi company engineer Charles Franklin to develop Short Wave radio technology. In summer 1923 short wave transmissions on 97metres from Cornwall were made to Marconi’s yacht ‘Elettra’ in the Cape Verde Islands. 

These developments gave rise to another 'World First' in 1926 – The Short Wave beam station ‘up the road’ at Bodmin. From here the British Post Office established a UK-Canada service, later extending worldwide. 

The story in their own words introduced by Henry Round

Just as Poldhu became a landmark in the early 20th Century, Goonhilly became an icon for technology and the wonders of space communication in the 1960's. 60 yrs distant in conception yet less than 4 miles apart.

The British Post Office (GPO) collaborated with AT&T to provide a UK ground station for the forthcoming Telstar project to beam live TV across the Atlantic for the first time. France joined the party as well, buying a replica of the Bell Labs horn antenna for a site in Brittany. Goonhilly was to have a parabolic design. This was designed and built by Husband & Co of Sheffield who had previous experience with the Jodrell Bank dish. The first satellites were not geo-stationary and so the receivers had to track their motion and they were only visible for limited time periods. 

The workforce had to work flat out to achieve the launch deadline, managing to skip a national strike call over wage scales.

The signal from Telstar was so tiny – a mere 2W - or a millionth of a millionth of a watt to Earth that a special maser amplifier from the Mullard research Labs and sophisticated tracking were required. 

It's amazing that the Goonhilly Aerial 1 Dish 27m wide and weighing 870 tonnes was rotated on a turntable - manouvered by what the press called a 'bicycle chain'.

As the night approached for the anticipated first TV pictures by satellite the media arrived and special links were arranged for the TV transmission to London. Raymond Baxter the BBC presenter, had brought down his souped-up rally car and gained a reputation for driving at excessive speeds through the cornish country lanes.

Raymond had a feeling that all was not well for Goonhilly. He believed a deal had been done whereby the Brittany receiver would capture the glory of receiving the first pictures – he was not wrong! On that famous first night on 10th July 1962 the French station received perfect pictures and British viewers only received ghostly vertical tumbles.

Richard Dimbleby set the scene for viewers back in London. Raymond and his ITV colleague Ian Trethowan shared a commentary microphone, passing it backward and forward between themselves, while maintaining an unbroken flow of commentary. Their skill made up for the limited success on screen. The case of champagne brought in by ITV was not opened that first night.

As it turned out, there had been mis-communication which led to a dish polarisation filter being in the wrong alignment. This being set correctly, the next day brought jubilation from the GPO team when excellent pictures were received from their dish. Great satisfaction was also gained by Goonhilly staff forcibly ejecting some journalists who sought to rubbish the Goonhilly Project after the first day mishap. The opportunity was not missed to break open the champagne kindly left by ITV.

The Goonhilly parabolic dish design has enjoyed continued success setting the design standard - while the hugely more expensive AT&T horn antennae were consigned to history. 

Goonhilly continued to evolve and develop, providing television links for many key events such as the Apollo 11 moon landing. Although its satellite telecommunication role has ceased into the 21st century it retains a role as an international subsea cable connection hub of world importance.

References: (2020). [online] Available at: .
Round, H.J., 1951. It's On Record. [Radio] London: BBC Home Service.
Wray, D., 2022. 405 Alive - History - Articles by Donald Wray. [online] Available at: <>1995. 

Global From The Start. 1st ed. London: Cable & Wireless, pp.1 - 12.