to Wireless Communication
2005 marks the 110th
anniversary of Aleksandr Popov’s invention of a radio receiving
device. In recognition of his achievement, the IEEE History
Popov's receiver an IEEE Milestone in Electrical
Engineering and Computing.
Aleksandr Popov, an oft-overlooked figure in
radio history, was born in the
village of Turinsk, Russia, 16 March 1859. He was one of seven
children. Popov's father, a village priest, encouraged him to enter the priesthood. He attended Seminary School at Ekatarinburg, where
he became interested in science and mathematics, interests that
would shape his future
Rather than continue on
to Theology School, he enrolled at St. Petersburg
University to study physics. He graduated in 1882, with honor and
distinction, but stayed on as a laboratory assistant — a position he
was offered due to his excellent record and dedication to the field.
However, having a family to support, in 1883, he took a position with
the Russian Navy School in Kronstadt. The libraries and
laboratory facilities there enabled him to conduct the research he
was most interested in.
Among these pursuits was
the continuance of the works of scientists such as James Maxwell and
Heinrich Hertz. In 1888, Hertz proved Maxwell’s theory that
electromagnetic waves could be transmitted through the air. Shortly thereafter, Eduoard Branly
and Oliver Lodge independently observed the same phenomena: two
metal spheres near one another would fuse when a spark occurred
nearby. This crude device, which became known as the "Branly-Lodge
coherer," could be used to detect the waves Hertz
had shown to exist.
With knowledge of these
advances, Popov improved the coherer tube by equipping it with
a means to reset itself. He then began
experimenting with the device as a tool to predict thunderstorms,
although he soon recognized other possible applications for his new technology.
After a demonstration of his discoveries on 7 May 1895,
he wrote in an article that appeared in the Russian Physical
Chemical Society Journal: “I can express my hope that my
apparatus will be applied for signaling on great distances by
electric vibrations of high frequency, as soon as there will be
invented a more powerful generator of such vibrations.”
Popov's vision was
accurate, and though there is still some debate over the validity of
the claim, Popov is said to have transmitted the words “Heinrich Hertz” from one building to
another on the campus of St. Petersburg University on 24 March
1896. The debate stemmed from the fact that reports of this
demonstration were not published until years later, and the fact that no one could speak of Popov’s work
because it was for the Navy, and not intended to be public knowledge
(the Navy required Popov to sign a non-disclosure statement).
While Guglielmo Marconi
is usually hailed as the inventor of radio, the Russian has his proponents.
Decades after his death in 1906, the Soviet Government made Popov a
national hero by declaring 7 May "Radio Day," a holiday which is
still celebrated today. Aleksandr Popov and Guglielmo Marconi worked independently of one another.
In fact, Popov had begun to move away
from radio research and towards X-rays when he noticed Marconi was
getting a great deal of attention for a device remarkably
similar to his own — a detail Popov was not shy about pointing out in
local papers and meetings with colleagues.
The first Popov radio
system used by the Russians was placed on Gogland Island in the Gulf
of Finland and Kotka, on the Finnish coast. A battleship, the
General-Admiral Apraksin, had run aground in November 1899. To coordinate the process of freeing the ship, the Russians
sent a crew to set up communication. They did not arrive until
January 1900, but once they were able to send and receive
messages, the usefulness of this device became clear. Early into the
project, a ship brought news to Kotka of fisherman stranded on an
ice-floe. Kotka relayed the message to Gogland, where an ice breaker
was attempting to break the Apraksin free, and within a day the
icebreaker had come to the aid of the fisherman. The Russian Navy
then began to
take note of the importance of the new technology that Popov had
been urging them to adapt for use on their ships for quite some
On 10 January 1906,
Popov passed away at the age of forty-six. The stress of a rigorous work schedule, coupled with his concern
over the suppression of a student movement at his university, took its toll. However, he is well remembered in Russia,
especially at LETI, Saint Petersburg University, which proudly
houses the museum his youngest daughter founded, as well as a
Professor Popov Street.