Tales from the History of Wireless: Sir William Henry Preece Meets Marconi and is Wildly Impressed

There’s more to February than heart-shaped candies and high-cholesterol treats. It’s also the birth month of Welsh electrical engineer and inventor Sir William Henry Preece, who was born on February 15, 1834. Preece developed block signaling for railways, brought the first telephone into Britain, and facilitated the first British wireless telegraphy and telephony system in 1892 based on Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 design patented in America.

But Preece didn’t stop there. With longtime friend, Arthur West Heaviside, the duo discovered the radio induction effects between parallel telegraph wires and an unwired receiver—using it to transmit and receive the first wireless radio signal across a body of water—first a one-mile stretch at Coniston Water, Cumbria, in 1889, then later across the wider distance of the Bristol Channel in 1892, and Kilbrannen Sound in 1894.

While Preece was the first to apply the new knowledge, Guglielmo Marconi would expand on the science developing a more effective system of radio telegraphy that relied on Hertzian waves instead, or what we now call radio waves, based on the work of a great thinker of the time, Heinrich Hertz. Marconi’s work and more thorough understanding of the technical components behind the science impressed Preece to no end. He quickly became one of Marconi’s greatest allies and supporters, using his position and connections to broaden Marconi’s reach and impact.

Widely regarded as a charismatic, engaging, and enthusiastic speaker, Preece helped Marconi gain followers and financial backers, but still knocked out quite a few achievements of his own. He realized his self-purported “greatest ambition” of becoming president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and freeman of his home city of Caernarfon, where, according to the outgoing president of the institution, Preece was “undoubtedly the most popular man in the whole engineering profession.”

Preece was also popular with governments. In 1899, he was knighted by Queen Victoria and appointed to the Légion d’honneur by the French government. He held many esteemed positions including presidencies at the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electronics, Institution of Electrical Engineers, and the Institution of Civil Engineers. Preece even worked with Michael Faraday for a period of time.

He also made his mark working at the Electrical Telegraph Company, Channel Islands Telegraph Company, London and South Western Railway, Ewbank Preece (an electrical consultancy now called Mott MacDonald), and for the Post Office—which, at the time, was an esteemed communications-based government office of great repute.

On November 6, 1913, Preece passed away, but not without first leaving behind a rather tremendous list of patents and publications to allow his work to continue on.

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