British Adoption of Radio Communication

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The Royal Navy first mentioned "promising" experiments in "Electric Signalling" in Defiance with the cooperation of Marconi in its Annual Report of the Torpedo School in 1896, mentioning the promise that "torpedo boats might indicate their approach or proximity to friendly ships."[1] The details of these "Experiments with Wireless Telegraphy" were amplified in a four page appendix to the Annual Report of the Torpedo School in 1897, a feature that repeated and grew to six and then nine pages in length until the 1900 edition, where the topic merited its own section where coverage exploded to 42 pages. The era of communication beyond visual ranges was blossoming.

By the time of the Great War, the Royal Navy had a patchy global network of shore stations able to offer a modicum of command and control with its ships. The ships carried radios and aerials whose range and power varied with their size and the era.

Early Experiments

In 1896, Defiance was able to transmit Morse code over short distances at a slow rate and then worked with Signor Guglielmo Marconi who had more fully developed and sensitive gear answering to the same principle. The transmitter created sparks and thus radio energy between two large balls 125 inch apart in a bag of oil. More code rates of eight words were reached, and Marconi suggested that a radius of ten miles was feasible with a little work.

In 1897, the experiments by H. B. Jackson of telegraphy "without connecting wires" were more extensively outlined in the Annual Report.[2] A single Royal Navy-built transmitter with an antenna of Pattern 60 wire and matching receiver equipment reliably carried Morse signals at 10 words per minute between Defiance and gunboat Scourge at distances of 5800 yards. At the same time, Marconi had maintained his edge, showing 12 miles a workable distance in Italian tests. A notable aspect of the description is that though Marconi's equipment excels in its detailed differences from the Royal Navy's simultaneous efforts, Marconi's divergent points are not secret — they are fully spelled out and diagrammed, bespeaking an unusually collegial effort rather than a strictly competitive one.

The promise of radio communication as then envisaged was that fog and intervening land would not inhibit scouts from keeping their battle fleet informed of their encounters, though a naive edge is anticipated that the enemy will supposedly remain unaware that this communication is taking place. Similarly, the need for telegraph lines to be laid in harbour would be avoided and the use of then-common Morse inkers rather than sounders seemed to offer an automatic record of communications. It further seems that the service is still trying to understand the theory that has delivered them this new form of communication, yet they understand the practical limitation of a single transmitter having exclusive use of the air at a time.[3]

In 1898, tests conducted at Dover with William Henry Preece, Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, using a transmitter at Fort Burgoyne sought to unravel the theoretical mysteries behind the marvel.[4] Such work demonstrated the welcome advantage of light aerials over heavier wires and the benefits of having the aerials of transmitter and receiver arranged parallel to each other. On 7 May 1898, Commander Hornby observed Marconi successfully signal over at 10 words per minute 14.5 miles from Bournemouth to Alum Bay. Hornby observed that antennae at 30 feet height provided communication over a mile, and that range was proportional to the square of antenna height and that Marconi had conceived of the idea of different tunings to alleviate issues of a channel being monopolized by single sender.[5]

Lieutenant Salwey reporting on tests between Europa, Alexandra and Juno during the "Peace Manœuvres" of 1899 in which Marconi personally adjusted the equipment and great results were obtained. The small factors that allowed for such improvements were continually revealing themselves through the person of Marconi, such as the advantage of keeping aerials as well clear as possible from ferrous structures. The process of "tuning" sets to different "notes" is also discussed.

Practical Use and Deployment

By 1900, the Royal Navy had found that the latest tweaks of doubled antenna wires were allowing Canopus, Hector and Jaseur to reliably converse across twelve miles. Wireless telegraphy now had a proper section of considerable length within the Annual Report.[6]

H.M.S. Jupiter and Hannibal were also used as test platforms, achieving 20 miles reliably but with many variables affecting the peak ranges achieved which ranged to 30 miles often not symmetrically between ships.[7] Three sets were sent to China, where the forts at Taku enjoyed reliable communication over 13 miles to Barfleur.[8] The Naval Manoeuvres of 1900 made the first use of wireless, each fleet getting three sets. Fleet "A" made good use of their wireless, but Fleet "B" failed entirely due to a haphazard antenna installation in Alexandra.

In July 1900, the Royal Navy agreed to purchase 32 sets of the Marconi gear from the company with the criteria for accepting each set that it be able to communicate to a standard set in Portland with aerials 162 feet above the test ship's netting from Portsmouth, and that a second ship 30 miles away also be able to converse with its aerials at 100 feet height. All 32 sets passed with ease, and were doled out to a number of ships and short facilities. As this was happening, the original Jackson gear was improved at Vernon until it seemed to gain parity to the Marconi system. These new sets from 1901 were known as "Service Gear Mark II", or more colloquially by their registration numbers as "1 to 52" sets.[9]

Fleet Ship 1900 Equipment 1901 Equipment
Channel Fleet Majestic Marconi Marconi
Hannibal Jackson Service Mark II
Pactolus Unknown Service Mark II
Prince George None Service Mark II
Mediterranean Fleet Renown Marconi Marconi
Implacable None
Vulcan One Marconi &
One Jackson
One Marconi &
One Jackson
Ramillies Jackson Jackson
Vindictive Unknown Service Mark II
Diana None Service Mark II
Royal Oak
Royal Sovereign
Tyne Unknown
Reserve Squadron Melampus Marconi Marconi
Sans Pareil
Alexandra Unknown
Revenge None Marconi
Galatea Unknown Marconi
Resolution None
Training Squadron
Cruiser Squadron
St. George Marconi
Brilliant Unknown Service Mark II
Port Guard Ships Nile None Service Mark II
Empress of India
China Squadron Endymion Unknown Jackson
Glory Marconi Marconi
Goliath Unknown
Albion Unknown Service Mark II
Fleet Reserve
Edgar Fitted for Fitted for
Brilliant Service Mark II
Fox None Fitted for
Torpedo Schools Defiance Two x Jackson,
Two x Marconi
Two J, two M, one Mark II
Vernon One J, two M, one Mark II
Shore Stations Malta Marconi Marconi
Dover Unknown
Culver Cliff
Rame Head
Roche's Point
St. Anne's Head None Service Mark II
Bere Island Jackson to
be updated to
Service Mark II
Spurn Head

Additionally, in 1900 five sets of Marconi gear were placed at Portsmouth Dockyard awaiting completion of stations and four spares of Jackson's gear were allocated singly to China, Mediterranean, Vernon and Defiance.[10] In 1900, China also had two more Jackson sets and three Marconi whose disposition wasn't then known.

These kits were furnished prior to the practical existence of different tunings, requiring special attention be paid to avoid multiple transmitters working at once.[11] All the shore stations listed in the 1900 column above were up and running by July 1901 except for Malta and Gibraltar.[12] Also in 1901, the Queensland government was to have two Service Mark II kits.

Tunable Radios

The earliest deployed systems to 1902 seemed to run on a single broadcast channel, but calls for "syntonic" designs were discussed in 1902. By 1903, Marconi had produced systems able to operate on two separate channels, which were dubbed the "A" and "B" tunes. The pre-existing single tuning was now called "plain". It was found that:[13]

  1. transmissions on "A" or "B" did not interfere with each other except under five miles range
  2. transmissions on either "A" or "B" interfered with "plain"
  3. transmissions on "plain" interfered with "B" but not "A"
  4. "A" had trouble over land, but could otherwise do 80 to 100 miles
  5. "B" was similar to "plain", but slightly longer in range
  6. "A" and "B" were superior to "plain" in accuracy and speed of signalling

The initial thinking was that "A" would be given to ships and that "B" would be reserved for special ships and shore stations.

Also in 1902, the Royal Navy signed an agreement with the Marconi company to allow it access to their inventions and also use of their shore station at Poldhu.[14]

Distribution of the "Handbook for Wireless Telegraphy, 1903" was undertaken under guidelines cautioning that the confidential nature of the work be maintained, with receipts for copies to ships issued under Form S. 297 and those for personal copies on Form S. 302. Ships and shore stations with wireless were to receive two copies, with one each to Flag Lieutenants, Gunnery and Torpedo Lieutenants, Gunners and Boatswains (T), and those Royal Marine officers qualified in telegraphy.[15]

By 1907, additional tunes were devised. "D" was 700 feet and for destroyers to send on (though they could receive longer wave transmissions, up to 6,500 feet). "Q", "R" (2,500 feet), "S" (3,300 feet), "T" (4,200 feet) and "U" (5,000 feet) were longer waves and could carry farther.[16] Tests from a temporary installation at Horsea to and from Furious tried longer waves up to 12,000 feet. It was noted that "freak" ranges were often observed, most often at night, and study was being directed at the semi-regular circumstances that caused them.[17]

There were also proposals in 1907 to seek ways of restricting a powerful system such as a Service Mark II set to a short-range mode of transmission, limited to about 5 miles. The aim was to replace the use of visual signalling for commanding manœuvre of a fleet, and successful tests were conducted between battleships of the Mediterranean Fleet during the summer cruise. The installation was in the fore conning tower for the sake of intimacy, and it was found that at 500 feet wavelengths only own ship's high power W/T set interfered with its use. The system was notably impervious to atmospherics which the long range system was subject to.[18]

At the conclusion of manœuvres at Lagos in February, 1907, the parting of the fleets was taken as an opportunity to see how the various tunes degraded as the range between fleets grew. The Channel Fleet was to transmit messages to other fleets at various times, using a variety of tunes and requiring answers. The time for an answer was to be a metric, and the results were poor. "U" fell out of range at 100 miles and "S" at 160 miles and "T" was not established. These ranges had been doubled by ships within a given fleet with more practice together. "Q" and "R" proved unusable during daylight, but from 8 pm they proved good and fair, respectively, until 4 am. Toward the final days, "Q" proved usable at night up to 750 miles. "Q" had a message turnaround time of 15 minutes, where the longer wavelengths were taking an hour on average to receive a reply.[19]


In 1907 it was decided that Swift and 42 destroyers (primarily the River class) were to receive radio equipment fixed to the "D" tune of 700 feet wavelength for transmission and with a Mark II receiver tunable to 8,300 feet. One P.O. telegraphist would be allowed each ship. The details of the installation varied somewhat, but typically the W/T office was located on the upper deck between the mast and fore funnel.

The short wavelength meant the sets worked less well during the day than at night, and tests between Portsmouth and Portland showed strength 8 by night and 6 by day. Practical tests with Usk showed the following strengths over 50 miles of water:[20]

Signal Strengths from/to
Large Ship Scout T.B.D.
D -/6 -/6 6/6
R 8/- 6/- -/-
S 7/- 6/- -/-
T 7/- 5/- -/-
U 6/- 5/- -/-

The short range of the "D" tune which was the only frequency for the destroyers to transmit upon meant they often would require hand-holding when outside of range of larger formations or shore stations, though her reception was not so limited. The use of a single telegraphist per ship meant that flotillas would be required to stagger their watches and keep visual signalling distance from the destroyer with an active W/T watch. The duties of a destroyer were seen as primarily to receive and acknowledge orders from base and secondarily to make reports to her parent ship or base.[21]

Two organizations were envisaged. Under Organisation "A", which was the standard and to be used when the flotilla was not spread out destroyers and their parent ship would monitor "U" and send on "D". Destroyers, then, would be deaf to one another. Parent ships' ability to send and receive on both "D" and "U" meant they would be the relay switch between the destroyers of a flotilla or between the battle fleet and the flotilla. If the flotilla had to spread out, Organisation "B" was used, wherein parent would listen to "D" primarily, and to "U" for 5 minutes out of every half hour. This gave the flotilla greater intracommunication while maintaining an occasional ear for orders from the battle fleet, though destroyers were enjoined to only address each other directly when out of range of the parent ship.[22]

Shore Bases

Low-Power W/T c1909[23]

By 1907, the British were setting up a network of shore stations under command of the Admiral Commanding Coastguards and Reserves. It was based on two "A" class stations at Horsea and Cleethorpes with a third to be built in Gibraltar, able to send 1,000 miles by day or night on a number of wavelengths using 100 kilowatt equipment. In 1908, these were reported to be capable of sending on "X" and "Y" tunes by early 1909, with Gibraltar being about 4-6 weeks later.[24] Their role was to communicate between themselves and to fleets at sea, with Cleethorpe to receive message from the Admiralty and relay to the Fleet on "X" and Horsea being experimental and instructional while providing ties to to Gibraltar on "Y" and as a fallback for Cleethorpe.[25]

These were supported by three "B" class stations at Aberdeen, Pembroke Dock and Ipswich to be ready by mid-1909, tasked with commanding the fleets in home waters over their 40 kilowatt Service Mark II sets, achieving 500 miles over "W".[26]

Lastly, there were "C" class stations capable of 100 mile ranges, which were to be placed near naval ports. One such was to be built in Rosyth soon. Overall, the Coast Guard-manned Britain-based network had reached these proportions:[27]

Location Equipment Range (mi) Wavelengths Notes
Felixstowe Extempore C Tune, Mark I* 150 "S", "T", "U" for
Scilly C Tune, Mark I* 200
Sheerness Service Mark I 60 "Q", "R", "S", "T", "U"
Roches Point
moved to Cork Beg in 1908[28]
Port Patrick
Rame Head "R", "S", "T", "U"
Skegness De Forest 50 1,000 ft for
Tobermory Marconi 100
Loch Boisdale
Jersey 70 "A"
Guernsey 50

Jersey was to be operational by January 1908, and Guernsey and Jersey also had a 2,000 foot wavelength directional plain wave link to each other.

Commercial stations at Dunnet Head and Cullercoats were added in 1908. They and Hunstanton were by the end of 1908 also operating on a new "P" tune.[29] It seems possible that the other commercial stations listed in the table above were no longer to be used, even in war.[30]

Felixstowe may have been reduced to a destroyer station on "D" after Ipswich came online.[31]

By 1909, St. Angelo in Malta had been provided a Service Mark II set. It was to either receive messages by cable and to relay them to the Fleet over "U" wave or a ship would guard "Y" and receive from Horsea or Gibraltar and then relay to Malta over "U". "U" was preferred to "W" for this station, as the smaller cruisers of the Mediterranean achieved a better range on that tune.[32]

See Also


  1. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1896. pp. x, 71-3.
  2. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1897. Appendix C. Plates 27-29.
  3. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1897. p. 109.
  4. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1898. Appendix D. pp 131-136.
  5. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1898. Appendix D. pp. 134-5.
  6. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. pp. 89-131.
  7. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. p. 95.
  8. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. p. 96.
  9. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. pp. 103, 125. Admiralty Letter C.P. 825411450, Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1901, pp. 111-2.
  10. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. p. 125.
  11. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1900. p. 130.
  12. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1901. p. 109.
  13. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1903. pp. 101-2.
  14. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1903. pp. 101-2.
  15. Principal Questions Dealt with by the Director of Naval Ordnance, 1904. p. 263.
  16. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 34-41, 44.
  17. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 45-6.
  18. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 49-53.
  19. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix p. 62.
  20. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 32-34.
  21. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix p. 34.
  22. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 34-36.
  23. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1909. Wiressless Appendix, Plate 1.
  24. ARTS 1908 Wireless Appendix, p. 8.
  25. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 8.
  26. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 8.
  27. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1907. Wireless Appendix pp. 53-5.
  28. ARTS 1908 Wireless Appendix, p. 9.
  29. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 8.
  30. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 7.
  31. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 9.
  32. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1908. Wireless Appendix, p. 9.