Alexander Popov--Russia's claimant as the inventor of radio.
We think we know with certainty the inventor of many of the devices that transformed the world in the span of about 100 years from an agricultural and muscle—human or animal—powered society little changed for millennia. But often things are less clear than our tidy history texts would have it. Many technologies like the automobile or television have multiple creators any one of which could be credited depending on what is defined as critical to the modern devise. Sometimes the same results were obtained earlier than generally credited using technology that was ultimately ignored or abandoned. Sometimes the time is simply right and all of the groundwork has been laid so that individuals make the same breakthroughs almost simultaneously and completely independently. Who gets the credit might be, as in the case of the telephone, be who wins the race to the patent office or has the sharpest lawyers as was the case with more than one of Thomas Edison’s creations. Others might have gotten into the air before the Wright Brothers, but only their invention led directly to a worldwide industry.
Then there is the case of Alexander Stepanovich Popov who certainly built and demonstrated a gadget that had all of the essential elements of a radio receiver but did not at first conceive of its application as a communications device. The Russians, as they are wont to do, proudly proclaim him as the inventor of the radio and celebrate the anniversary of his presentation of a scientific paper on May 7, 1895 as Radio Day.
Popov was born on March 16, 1859 the son of an Orthodox priest in Krasnoturinsk, Sverdlovs Oblast in the Urals. Although interested in science from an early age, his father was determined to make him a priest and sent him to a seminary at the provincial capital of Yekaterinburg. But after completing his basic education he rebelled and refused to continue on to theological school. Instead in 1877 he enrolled at St. Petersburg University where he studied physics. Popov was a brilliant student and graduated with honors in 1882, He stayed at the university as a laboratory assistant and doing the equivalent of graduate studies while getting hands on experience with laboratory equipment and testing procedures.
In 1883 he left the university for a better paying and more prestigious position as an instructor at the laboratory at the Russian Navy’s Torpedo School at Kronstadt.
Of course in Kronstadt Popov was not doing abstract basic research. He was more engineer than scientist, working on practical problems for the Imperial Navy which was straining to join other great powers in modernizing their fleet. One of the problems that he was investigating was the failure in the electrical wire insulation on steel ships. He discovered it was caused by electrical resonance which in which oscillation in high frequency electrical current seemed to be somehow communicated over at least short distances led him to further research on that topic. That in turn led him to interest in the mysterious waves discovered by German physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1888.
A trip in 1893 for the scientific conferences held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought Popov up to speed with the most recent and important discoveries in the fast moving research into Hertzian waves. The next year he read about the accomplishment of Englishman Oliver Lodge who at a memorial lecture in London after Hertz’s demonstrated a device that showed what he considered the “semi-optical” nature the waves could cross distances and physically affect the behavior of target material.
Lodge constructed a detector called a coherer, a glass tube containing metal filings between two electrodes. When waves emitted from an antenna about 50 feet way were applied to the electrodes, the coherer became conductive allowing the current from a battery to pass through it, with the impulse being picked up by a mirror galvanometer. After receiving a signal the realigned metal filings in the coherer had to be reset by a manually operated vibrator or by the vibrations of a bell placed on the table nearby that rang every time a transmission was received.
A recreation of Popov's Lightning Detector.
Popov concluded that a similar but improved and more sensitive device could detect lightning, which had been shown to emit Hertzian waves at a considerable distance giving the crews of steel ships time to prepare for approaching storms.
Because I am lousy at technical description we’ll let Wikipedia summarize Popov’s Lightning Detector:
…the coherer was connected to an antenna, and to a separate circuit with a relay and battery which operated an electric bell. The radio noise generated by a lightning strike turned on the coherer, the current from the battery was applied to the relay, closing its contacts, which applied current to the electromagnet of the bell, pulling the arm over to ring the bell. Popov added an innovative automatic reset feature of a “self tapping” coherer where the bell arm would spring back and tap the coherer, restoring it to its receptive state. The two chokes in the coherer’s leads prevented the radio signal across the coherer from short circuiting by passing through the DC circuit. He connected his receiver to a wire antenna suspended high in the air and to a ground. The antenna idea may have been based on a lightning rod and was an early use of a monopole wire aerial.
Popov described his devise in the paper On the Relation of Metallic Powders to Electric Oscillations delivered to the Russian Physical and Chemical Society in St. Petersburg on May 7, 1898 which the Russians, and most of the countries which were in the sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union celebrate as the birth of radio. But there is scant evidence and considerable doubt that he actually demonstrated creation when he read his paper that day. Still his paper attracted considerable international attention, including reaching the Italian Guglielmo Marconi who was interested in applying Hertzian wave to wireless telegraphy.
Popov's main rival for the title of Father of Radio--Marconi with his radiotelegraph equipment.
Popov evidently did not at first recognize that his lightning detector could also be a communications devise. It is unclear if he was aware of the near simultaneous work being done by Marconi. But we do know that his earliest confirmed public demonstration came on March 24, 1896 when he set up a transmitter and a receiver in buildings on different St. Petersburg campuses and transmitted a Morse code message that rang the bell on the receiver and was transcribed onto a blackboard. The message reportedly spelled out “Heinrich Hertz” in the Cyrillic alphabet. Popov was reportedly moved to create an improved devise and demonstrate it after reading Marconi’s 1896 patent application for a radio telegraph system. He had not taken any patents of his own.
Marconi had demonstrated his radio telegraph system employing significant differences and improvements over Lodge and Poplov’s early work by transmitting a message over half a mile in mid-1895, which was well documented and bolstered by the patent application which is why most Western countries credit the Italian as the inventor of practical radio. Marconi was also relentless in promoting his invention and exploring commercial applications.
Popov’s system was taken up and improved upon by French entrepreneur Eugene Ducretet and began manufacturing equipment in competition with Marconi’s system in 1898.
A poster for a 1948 Soviet bio-pic about Popov references the dramatic communication with the stranded General-Admiral Apraksin.
Popov meanwhile set about making his system useful to his masters in the Czarist Navy. He achieved ship-to-shore communication over a distance of 6 miles in 1898 and 30 miles in 1899. In 1900 he set up a station on Hogland Island in the Gulf of Finland to relay communications with the battleship General-Admiral Apraksin which had run aground and then been iced in. The ship was equipped with one of his transmitters but was too distant to communicate with the Russian Naval bases on the mainland. The Hogland station acted as a relay to shore from where the signals were forwarded to Naval Headquarters by land line. In the months before the ship could be reached and rescued more than 400 messages passed through the station between ship and shore. The celebrated incident cemented the potential for radio in nautical safety.
Now a Russian celebrity, Popov was appointed a professor of the Electrotechnical Institute in 1901 and made its Director in 1905. He did not live long to enjoy his new position. He died of a brain hemorrhage on January 13, 1906 at the age of just 46. The Institute was later re-named in his honor, just one of many tributes showered on him by the Czarist government and its Soviet successors.
Popov’s family was Romanoff loyalists who fled Russia to Manchuria in the dangerous chaos of the Revolution. Eventually the extended family made it to the United States where his relatives and descendants have become distinguished scientists and academics in their own right.
One of several Soviet era or Russian postage stamps honoring Popov and/or Radio Day.
Despite their apostasy, the Soviet government in its nationalistic mode promoted Popov as the inventor of radio, along with other Russian inventors who could lay some claim to key inventions and technological innovations. Some of those claims are ridiculous and flimsy, but Popov probably merits at least equal billing with Marconi in the West.