We take radio for granted. I’m listening to it, now. That magic of information transferred through the “ether” at the speed of light and without wires. This mystery was unravelled first in the 19th century. Experimentation and mathematics provided insights into electromagnetics.
The practical applications of radio waves were soon recognised. The possibility of fast information transfer between A and B had implications for the communications and the battlefield.
It’s unfortunate to say that warfare often causes science to advance rapidly. The urgency to understand more is driven by strong needs. That phrase “needs must” comes to mind. We experienced this during the COVID pandemic. Science accelerated to meet the challenge.
It wasn’t until after he failed as an artist that Samuel Morse transformed communications by inventing the telegraph with his dots and dashes. There’s a telegraph gallery with a reproductions of Morse’s early equipment at the Locust Grove Estate in Poughkeepsie. I’d recommend it.
The electromagnetic telegraph used wires to connect A and B. Clearly, that’s not useful if the aim is to connect an aircraft with the ground.
The imperative to make air-ground communication possible came from the first world war. Aviation’s role in warfare came to the fore. Not just in surveillance of the enemy but offensive actions too. Experimentation with airborne radio involved heavy batteries and early spark transmitters. Making such crude equipment usable was an immense challenge.
Why am I writing about this subject? This week, on a whim I visited the museum at Biggen Hill. The Biggin Hill Museum tells the story the pivotal role played by the fighter station in the second world war. The lesser-known story is the origins of the station.
It’s one of Britain’s oldest aerodromes and sits high up on the hills south of London. Biggin Hill is one of the highest points in that area, rising to over 210 metres (690 ft) above sea level.
It’s transformation from agricultural fields to a research station (south camp) took place in 1916 and 1917. Its purpose was to explore the scientific and technical innovations of that time. Wireless in particular. 141 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was based at Biggin Hill and equipped with Bristol Fighters. RFC were the first to take use of wireless telegraphy to assist with artillery targeting.
These were the years before the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed.
100 years later, in early 2019, the Biggin Hill Museum opened its doors to the public. It’s a small museum but well worth a visit. I found the stories of the early development of airborne radio communications fascinating. So much we take for granted had to be invented, tested, and developed from the most elemental components.
POST 1: Now, I wish I’d be able to attand this lecture – Isle of Wight Branch: The Development of Airborne Wireless for the R.F.C. (aerosociety.com)
POST 2: The bigger story marconiheritage.org/ww1-air.html