All at sea: a history of maritime communications

Titanic's Marconi apparatus

Titanic’s Marconi apparatus

Communication is something that has been around since the dawn of life. Animals and plants use many different methods of communicating with each other, using sounds, smells and other signals.

Before the discovery of electromagnetic fields and electricity, humans communicated using direct speech, semaphore or hand signals. Semaphore signalling, devised by Lord George Murray, uses six shutters, two vertical rows of three – on a white background. By changing the pattern of the black and white stripes of the shutters, words and sentences could be spelled out to communicate between ships.

This was all very well if you were within sight of each other, but what happened when one of you was beyond the horizon? This was a problem that the British Royal Navy was determined to overcome. Communicating between ships, and from ship to shore is vital for survival on the seven seas.

To overcome the longer distances they had to be a little more creative. In the late 1800s the Royal Navy started to work with the ideas from Heinrich Hertz on electromagnetic radiation, and work with scientists such as Guglielmo Marconi to use radio waves as a method of communicating between ships and from ship-to-shore in Morse code.

In the mid-1800s, James Clerk Maxwell, a well-respected physicist and mathematician developed his theory on electromagnetism. He showed that light waves consisted of oscillating, perpendicular electric and magnetic fields.

By converting sound waves into radio waves, ships could send information across vast stretches of ocean to communicate with their allies. They would then decode the radio waves back into sound waves, and listen to the message they had received. By the early 20th Century, the Royal Navy had started to adopt transmitters fitted with alternators and used magnetic detectors with headphones.

After the discovery of microwaves, the U.S. Navy realised that they could bounce these waves off the surface of the Moon, the Earth’s natural satellite. This would allow them to send information to the other side of the world with much less interference. After the USSR sent Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to contain a radio transmitter up into space in 1957, the US followed soon after. This “space-race” led to more efficient satellite communication systems. Since then, technology has advanced at an impressive rate, improving the way in which the Forces can communicate with each other.

Professor Tom Stevenson, who is an expert in microfabricating integrated circuits (chips that are essential in modern communication technologies) is one of the trustees of the Museum of Communication which opened in the 1970s. The museum features methods of communication ranging from the pre-electric optical telegraph used during the Napoleonic Wars to modern webcams and cameras for mobile phones.

Very often, cutting edge research of the time will be funded and used by the military, leading to huge strides in the development of new technologies. Prof Stevenson’s talk, “All at sea: the history of maritime communication” will look at the underlying physical developments that have allowed for such leaps in communications technology.

Join Prof Stevenson and listen to his talk on Thursday September 6 from 14:00 – 15:00 in the Meston Building.


Julie Gould is the Science in Society Assistant for the British Science Association. She is starting the Science Communication MSc this autumn at Imperial College, London. She has a blog and you can follow her on Twitter @JuliePCGould.

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