EDITOR'S NOTE: In this new on-line biography, Popov's deserved credit in creating wireless electronic communications ("radio") has been given validation by no less a source than the official history of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, written in 1963 at the height of the Cold War - when the US military certainly had no reason to give undeserved credit to a Russian scientist. The Navy history cites information from other publications mentioning Popov, dating back to 1927. But the US Navy also apparently relied on "unofficial" sources for its study of Popov's wireless work, because the Navy history includes insightful anonymous personal glimpses of Popov's working habits and personality, insights most likely gathered somewhere along the line as both sides of the Cold War routinely collected personal details - the easiest intelligence to gather - about their enemies' leaders and innovators. For more of this note, click here
No one person "invented" wireless electronic communications, even though Guglielmo Marconi for over 100 years has been called the inventor of radio. Marconi did take the ideas and inventions of others and put them together in a workable form to allow people to send messages through the air, invisibly, on radio waves.
But, at almost the same time Marconi was making his "discovery" in 1895, a Russian professor made the same discovery. The main difference was that Marconi was an enthusiastic entrepreneur who rushed to spread news of his discovery to the world and to sell it to them.
Alexander Popov (also spelled "Popoff"), by contrast, was apparently driven by a different spirit and never had a desire to profit from his discoveries.
According to Radio's 100 Men of Science (Harper & Brothers, 1944) "Popoff entered the wireless field through his attempt to develop a device to detect thunderstorms in advance. He conceived the idea of using the Branly coherer to pick up static or atmospheric electricity - the clue to the electric storm's approach."
Anyone who has listened to an AM radio during a lightening storm can understand how a "thunderstorm detector" could become a radio receiver. The transmitter could be a simple means of generating jolts of electricity the way the storm does. If those jolts are controlled they can easily be used to send Morse code messages.
In a May, 1895 Popov reported sending and receiving a wireless signal across a 600 yards distance. In March, 1897, Prof. Popov equipped a land station at Kronstadt and the Russian navy cruiser Africa with his wireless communications apparatus for ship-to-shore communications.
In about 1900, Russian history* sources say either 1899 or 1901, Popov's wireless apparatus was used in what may have been the first ever use of radio communications to help a vessel in distress.
The battleship General-Admiral Apraksin was going down amidst the ice floes of the Gulf of Finland with hundreds of sailors and officers aboard, but Popov's radio system enabled them to contact Hogland and Kutsalo islands 45 kilometers away. Those wireless stations relayed the distress messages and rescue orders to the icebreaker Ermak.
Radio communications was so new at the time that it's likely few of the Apraksin's crew had even considered that help might be summoned from afar, and it's reported they had resigned themselves to an icy death. The sight of the Ermak emerging from the fog must have seemed to some a miracle and the man who invented the wireless system that saved their lives must have seemed an angel.
Ironically, according to Russian accounts, Popov was divinely inspired to invent what we now call radio.
Ironic, because the critics who saw the mysterious electrical contraptions used as the first radio sets assumed it must be the work of the devil, and because Popov was, after all, trying to find a way to detect what is commonly called "an act of God" - thunderstorms - when he discovered how to send wireless communications through the air.
Popov was born in 1859 in the Turinsk mining district of Russia, the son of a priest.
A popular Russian biography of Popov says he grew up in a household filled with those haunting Russian icons of martyred saints. The boy Popov, it's reported, was "blessed by the Lord" with the strong desire to be able to communicate silently and invisibly through air by means of some as yet undiscovered and incomprehensible process.
"In the long winter nights of the Ural Mountains, while the wind sang its song outside, the boy was preparing for his destiny - to be the inventor of radio."
Popov definitely did become an inventor of radio, even if Marconi became known as the inventor of radio, but Popov hasn't been totally ignored in the history books.
The United States Navy, which battled with Marconi over the use of his patents on US warships, gives Marconi credit for his marketing prowess, but Popov gets credit for being a better scientist. Here's how the official U.S. Government publication History of Communications - Electronics in the United States Navy (Bureau of Ships and Office of Naval History, 1963) views the question of who invented radio:
"[In 1895], Prof. A.S. Popoff improved [Sir Oliver] Lodge's receiver by the insertion of choke coils on each side of the relay to protect the coherer and by replacing the spark gap with a vertical antenna insulated at its upper end and connected to the ground through the coherer. Popoff utilized his equipment to obtain information for a study of atmospheric electricity. Like Lodge, he was too engrossed with teaching and science to concern himself over its practical aspects. On 7 May 1895, in a lecture before the Russian Physicist Society of St. Petersburg, he stated he had transmitted and received signals at an intervening distance of 6 hundred yards.
In the same year, Guglielmo Marconi, son of an Italian nobleman and an Irish mother, by using a Hertz oscillator and an antenna and a receiver very similar to Popoff's, successfully transmitted and received signals within the limits of his father's estate at Bologna, Italy."
The Navy's account continues, "Marconi can scarcely be called an inventor. His contribution was more in the fields of applied research and engineering development. He possessed a very practical business acumen, and he was not hampered by the same driving urge to do fundamental research which had caused Lodge and Popoff to procrastinate in the development of a commercial [radio] system."
Popov studied physics and mathematics at the Faculty of Physics in Saint Petersburg. After graduation, in 1885 he started teaching physics and doing research at the elite naval warfare institute on Kronstadt Island near St. Petersburg. It was there he began to explore the work of Maxwell and Hertz, explorations that would lead to Popov's radio receiving and transmitting system.
Popov's radio system earned him a Grand Gold Medal for research at the Paris International Exposition of 1900.
In 1901 he was appointed director of the St. Petersburg Electro-Technical Institute
Alexander Stepanovitch Popov died on January 13, 1906 at the age of 46.
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