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Trolling via Morse code in 1903: Maskelyne vs. Marconi

Trolling via Morse code in 1903: Maskelyne vs. Marconi


In 1903, a public demonstration by Guglielmo Marconi of his morse code radio system was hijacked by rogue protest transmissions by the magician Nevil Maskelyne, embarrassing Marconi by proving that his system was less than secure.

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In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi, the father of radio communications, had set up for a public display of what would have been one of his greatest achievements. Using an enormous spark-gap transmitter, Marconi planned to transmit Morse code from his testing station in Poldhu, South Cornwall, to a public audience at the Royal Institution in London's West End — over 300 miles away. However, shortly before this demonstration began, the Morse printer in London began to receive a rogue signal calling Marconi a fraud and accusing him of "diddling the public."

The Lulzsec-like transmissions were made by music hall magician Nevil Maskelyne, who felt that Marconi's patents on the technology were so broad that they prevented him from protecting ideas he'd used in his act for years. The interference was an embarrassment to Marconi, too — in recent weeks he had told newspapers that the system was totally secure, and that only equipment tuned to exactly the same frequency would be able to receive the messages. The row became far more public, with Marconi, his assistant John Ambrose Fleming, and Maskelyne writing to newspapers accusing each other of damaging science with their actions — and it earned Maskelyne a place in history.