PhD SEMINAR, Thursday 6 December  4.00 to 6.00pm at Centre for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHoSTM), IMPERIAL COLLEGE, LONDON

PhD seminar Room (please see below information regarding this location*)

Central Library, 1st Floor, CHoSTM department

Elizabeth Bruton, University of Leeds

‘Crossed Loops and Bent Antennas: Wireless Direction-Finding in the early twentieth-century’.


Wireless telecommunications and broadcast radio are traditionally viewed as modes of communications with the early development of wireless telegraphy as a tool of point-to-point communications leading to the later successes of broadcast radio. To be sure, telecommunication was the primary use of wireless telecommunications during this formative period in its history but there were other modes of usages for this innovative technology and these one particular alternative use can be used to broaden the canvas of early wireless history.

One such alternative use of wireless technology was direction-finding, a usage with origins in the very early history of wireless communications at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Direction-finding was the use of multiple wireless receivers, usually fitted with specially-adapted aerials, to triangulate wireless signals in order to plot the position of a wireless transmitter. Such usage was considered and developed by numerous wireless pioneers from different nations – Maskelyne, Muirhead, Round,and Marconi in Britain; Blondel and Antom in France, Braun in Germany, and others. The introduction of wireless regulations such as the 1904 Wireless Telegraphy Act in Britain and the convention of the 1906 Radiotelegraphic Conference meant there was a clear demand for a means of detecting illegal or unlicensed wireless stations. However the military application would supersede this demand and would be of primary importance in relation to developments of this technology immediately prior to World War One. During the conflict, this technology would be put to effective use in the field of conflict and in the domestic sphere, and would have an influence over the post-war development of beam radio, a means of navigation.

With Britain as the centre of wireless communications developments during this formative period, it is perhaps unsurprising that two of the early, key customers for this technology were British – the Post Office and the Admiralty. In May 1905 a pamphlet advertising a system of wireless direction-finding developed by a Frenchman and academic, Professor Antom, reached the John Gavey, then Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office. Gavey produced a report on the system and, along with a representative from the Admiralty, attended a demonstration in Normandy. Antom’s system had been patented in France, Britain, and possibly elsewhere and in late 1906, Antom’s patents were acquired by two Italian electrical engineers, Bellini and Tosi. Through the use of Antom’s patents and their own work in the field, Bellini and Tosi went on to manufacture the first commercially-available wireless direction-finding set. It is interesting to note that despite probably being the first and definitely being the first to patent in this field, Antom has been ignored by and omitted from the history of this innovative branch of wireless technology. Meanwhile Bellini and Tosi would become synonymous with their method of wireless direction-finding and were successful in this field. As a result, in 1912 their patents were acquired by the Marconi Company and the direction-finding sets were further developed by H.J. Round, a Marconi Company engineer. Upon the outbreak of war, Round and another Marconi Company engineer, C.S. Franklin, were enlisted into the Army and established networks of wireless direction-finding stations, first in France in late 1914 and later along the east coast of Britain. The latter was used to locate enemy vessels, both maritime and airborne. The development of this branch of wireless communications illuminates alternative and perhaps unexpected uses of technologies, examines a technology that straddles the civilian and military sphere, and invites a closer examination of patenting as a means of establishing the priority of an invention.

 * Please note that the PhD room is located in the CHoSTM department, Central Library.

Please go to the Security Desk and ask them to call Jean-Baptiste Fressoz on Ext: 49355 or Anne-Laure Vieille on Ext: 45220.

The Central library is no.25 on this map’: