The wireless dispute

Print edition : March 21, 1998

Investigations by an amateur science historian have led to evidence that suggests that the real inventor of the wireless is Jagdish Chandra Bose.

ALMOST a century after the Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, the dispute about who actually invented the wireless has reached a critical stage. Early this year, a special issue of the proceedings of the New York-based Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), which marked the 100th anniversary of the diode and the 50th anniversary of the transistor, made out a definitive case for Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, the Indian biologist and physicist. In a seminal paper presented at the Royal Society in London in 1899, Bose had announced the invention of a sensitive device that would go on to become the key to long-distance wireless communication

Probir Bondyopadhyay, a satellite and communications engineer at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, United States, who is also an amateur science historian, is the man behind this publication. According to him, Marconi's claims that he enlisted the help of an Italian naval officer in developing the device, an iron-mercury-iron self-recovering coherer in the shape of a linear tube, were most likely a ruse to throw investigators off the scent. Marconi, according to his findings, used the iron-mercury-iron coherer with a telephone detector invented by Bose in 1898.

"He was like a honeybee collecting honey from different flowers," says Bondyopadhyay about Marconi's efforts to improve his wireless transmitter. "And he never gave credit to those who deserved it."

Sir J.C. Bose with his microwave receiver and coherer at the Royal Institute, London in 1897.-COURTESY: SCIENCE REPORTER

Ironically, Bondyopadhyay got involved in the wireless dispute at the request of Marconi's daughter, who was upset over media reports in the 1980s (including a 1984 article in The New York Times) that suggested that Marconi should have shared credit for the invention with Nicoli Tesla and others. "She asked me to look into the matter," says Bondyopadhyay about G. Marconi Braga, who died last year.

Bondyopadhyay's investigations also led him to Bose's role in advancing the technology. "I'm a historian. I find the facts and publish the facts... By clarifying this thing, all I am trying to do is to set the record straight."

Clearly, Marconi's contribution cannot be overlooked. An apparatus for short-distance wireless communication had been invented, but its utility was limited by the difficulty to transmit messages across long distances. On December 12, 1901, Marconi showed that he had solved the problem when he sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. The demonstration marked the first major use of the solid state diode detector, and it ushered in the modern era of electronic communications. It also triggered a century-long debate about who deserves credit for developing the receiving device, then called the Italian navy coherer.

As far as the technicalities of this scientific development are concerned, it is significant that in the early days of radiotelegraphy, there were no amplifiers. Reception of messages therefore depended on the sensitivity of the receiver. While both Bose and Marconi had demonstrated radio communication up to a distance of about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) in 1894, it was long-distance communication that mattered more. And both of them knew this would happen only if there was a highly sensitive receiver.

This, as history has it, came from the single room laboratory of the Indian scientist in Calcutta. He published a paper titled, 'On a Self-Recovering Coherer and the Study of the Cohering Action of Different Metals' in the April 1899 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society wherein he described the use of the iron-mercury coherer in detecting radio waves, then called "electric radiation".

Guglielmo Marconi with his first wireless apparatus on arrival in London in 1896.-

Bose wrote: "For very delicate adjustments of pressure I used in some of the following experiments a U-tube filled with mercury, with a plunger in one of the limbs; various substances were adjusted to touch barely the mercury in the other limb...I then interposed a telephone in the circuit; each time a flash of radiation fell on the receiver, the telephone sounded." Bose concluded after a series of experiments that "there can be no doubt that the action was entirely due to electric radiation".

IN Marconi's own lifetime, a controversy had erupted about the origin of the coherer. The editor of the technical magazine L'Elettricista had pointed out that it was an Italian Navy signalman, P. Castelli who had invented the mercury coherer. Meanwhile, Marconi said that the receiving device was gifted to him by the Italian Navy through his childhood friend Luigi Solari, a lieutenant in the Navy.

Experts admit that in all his writings and speeches Marconi never disclosed the true nature of this highly sensitive detection device, and this fact has been highlighted by Bondyopadhyay. In fact, in 1902, Solari admitted in a letter to the editor published in The Times, London, that this idea was suggested to him "in some English publication, which I found myself unable to trace". Bondyopadhyay says: "Marconi raised clouds of dust to confuse the real situation to distract his antagonists." The genius behind the invention was that of Bose, and Marconi's claims were "eminently fraudulent", says Bondyopadhyay.

Interestingly, the British magazine The Electrician wrote about Bose's wireless receivers in its December 1895 issue: "His sensitive detector of electromagnetic radiation, perfectly prompt in its self-recovery, should serve to revolutionise the existing methods of telegraphy...The coherer devised by Prof. Bose would appear to leave little to be desired, and it is certainly more likely to withstand the thousand and one shocks at sea than any of the forms hitherto brought about... Should Professor Bose succeed in perfecting and patenting his coherer, we may in time see the whole system of coast lighting throughout the navigable world revolutionised by the discoveries made by a Bengali scientist working single-handed..."

Bose's original microwave receiver.-COURTESY: SCIENCE REPORTER

IF all this was so patently obvious, why was the controversy not nipped in the bud? Bondyopadhyay explains: "It is embarrassingly obvious that the British learned men of the day... never discovered Bose's work, despite it being so prominently displayed in a prestigious publication of the British empire. It is clear that they never read this esteemed publication or did not connect Bose's work with Marconi's use of the device." Bondyopadhyay's findings also point an accusing finger at Bose's own scientific colleagues for not defending Bose's, and India's, interests.

At the government-run Bose Institute in Calcutta, which was founded by Bose in 1917, director Prasanta Kumar Ray is a happy man. The biochemist applauded the IEEE for its findings and said: "Bose should have jointly received the 1909 Nobel Prize with Marconi for the discovery of wireless telegraphy. A grave injustice has been done." While Ray agrees that no one can deny that it was Marconi who used and utilised this discovery for the larger benefit of mankind, he asserts that it was Bose who actually made the invention.

Bondyopadhyay said: "Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberate confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to the works of other scientists rather than acknowledging that the receiver he used to detect the trans-Atlantic signal was none other than Bose's receiver that he had trivially modified from being a U-tube to a linear tube." Presenting new evidence, Bondyopadhyay presents a blow-by-blow account of the happenings in historical timeline in a 27-page paper titled 'Sir J.C Bose's Diode Detector Received Marconi's First Transatlantic Wireless Signal of December 1901 (The 'Italian Navy Coherer' Scandal Revisited)', and tries to establish the true origins of the detector device. "Marconi did not disclose immediately what he used in receiving his message. There was a bad motive involved, I suspect, but I don't come down too hard on him for that," he writes.

One mystery that Bondyopadhyay does not address is the disappearance of Bose's notebooks during his 1899 visit to London to present his paper to the Royal Society. "I don't deal with that," he says about speculation that Marconi was somehow involved, or at least benefited from the information they contained. "Whether he lost it or it was stolen, I don't know, because I have tried to stick to facts."

Bose's microwave transmitter.-COURTESY: SCIENCE REPORTER

Professor Umberto Colombo, a chemical engineer and former Science and Technology Minister of Italy and currently a member of the Italian National Council of Economy and Labour, says: "I am not surprised about this revelation against Marconi as there have always been rumblings about Marconi. If evidence shows that others should also get credit for the invention, it should be certainly highlighted. But, these new revelations will certainly not undermine Marconi's solid position in the history of science and in the commercialisation of wireless telegraphy." And yet, as Prasanta Kumar Ray of the Bose Institute muses, the loss of a Nobel Prize might never be compensated.

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