Nikola Tesla: The Scottish Connection


The Transatlantic Tests

In 1921 an associate of Guglielmo Marconi made his way to an obscure, seaweed-covered site in Ayrshire in the hope of receiving an amateur short-wave radio transmission from the U.S.A. If successful, the test would be the world’s first transatlantic voice message using limited short-wave frequencies. It was known that short-wave worked well over short distances but the idea that it could be used to send signals and messages across the Atlantic was, at the time, almost laughable.

Despite having little to do with Tesla (in fact the opposite was true), the Transatlantic tests were an astounding achievement in the history of shortwave radio transmission. That one half of the experiment was based on the west coast of Scotland is the reason why it features on these pages.

A member of the Marconi International Marine Communications Company accompanied Paul Godley to a well chosen spot in Ardrossan. Their task was to set up a practical working receiver station in Scotland before the first transmission from the U.S.A was broadcast.

Almost 1500 feet of wire, coated with phosphor and bronze, was suspended several feet above the ground using tall, regularly spaced poles dug deep into the earth. This alone represents a milestone in British history since it was the first receiver of its kind (Beverage class) to be used in the United Kingdom.

The low wattage of short-wave systems meant that signals couldn’t be transmitted over great distances. By simply increasing the power and the size of the antennae, the range of short-wave signals could be increased. But the Atlantic was still a difficult (and apparently impossible) obstacle for the successful passage of short-wave signals. This was due, in part, to the curvature of the earth and to the rather strange, and not fully understood, characteristics of short-wave radio.

In the early 20th century, short-wave enthusiasts realised that early tests appeared to work better at certain times of day. Darkness seemed to have an advantageous effect on many of the experiments. They soon realised they could also use the ionosphere to refract the transmissions (essentially bouncing the signals about the atmosphere).

Almost a century ago, night-owl engineers could be found pushing the limits of radio all through the early morning (between 00:30AM and 05:00AM). I imagine great quantities of tea being used to fuel the nocturnal habits of the wavelength surfers of yesteryear. 

The Americans began regular repeated transmission on December 7th, 1921. They contained, primarily, a formal message of congratulations to Paul Godley and included the spoken signatures of a number of illustrious members of the early radio movement (including Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio).

Two days after the transmissions began their loop (each one was accurately time-stamped), Godley’s radio station in Ardrossan, located in the middle of a seaweed-covered “field”, received the first words ever transmitted across the Atlantic using short-wave radio. The first part of that message read, “To Paul Godley Ardrossan Scotland,” and with it a landmark in radio history was set in stone forever.

Godley had installed his equipment in the pouring rain. In December. On the coast. It would have been freezing. A less comfortable situation can hardly be imagined.

The “field” his station was constructed on was apparently coated with a layer of seaweed. He, or someone else, had chosen a stunningly dangerous site for the first transatlantic tests. The seaweed layer suggests that the area was either tidal (this is unlikely since Godley is known to have operated the station for a number of days, by which time the entire site would have been under water several times before the broadcast could ever be made) or that it was subject to periodic oceanic storms (which is, as you all probably know, extremely likely in the Ardrossan area).

Godley, who was not a native Scot, was lucky to have survived the tests. He narrowly escaped becoming one of the first radio martyrs and truly deserved the “hearty congratulations” he received at 00:50AM on a cold December day in Ayrshire.

The Ardrossan Transmissions were celebrated (and recreated!) by the Irvine Amateur Radio Club until only very recently. However, the project and the clubs involved have all closed down. It seems the coming of the Internet has pushed amateur radio onto the back-burner. How unfortunate it is that the celebration of the Ardrossan Transmissions has been forced to join it.


Further Research

Radio Club of America
Dawn of Amateur Radio