73. Sir William Henry Preece
Groundbreakers (86 votes)
1834 – 1913
Communications pioneer who brought the telephone to Britain and helped Marconi to give radio to the world.
In May 1897 Guglielmo Marconi successfully sent a radio signal from Lavernock Point in south Wales to the island of Flatholm, three miles out into the Bristol Channel. The demonstration proved- crucially- that radio could operate over water and be used for ship- to-shore communication.
Nobody did more to help Marconi than W.H. Preece, who had used the site for his own experiments five years previously. As chief engineer for Britain’s General Post Office, and later as a private consultant, he was a key figure in several major advances in communications.
As a boy in Caernafon, he’d been fascinated by the distant sound of blasting in the slate quarries. Seeing how water would ripple across the lake of Snowdonia, he decided sound waves must travel the same way through air.
Having risen to the top of the GPO’s engineering hierarchy he was well placed to evaluate Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, newly patented in America. In 1877 Preece brought the first telephones to Britain. The following year the system was demonstrated to Queen Vitctoria.
Preece’s association with Marconi began when, having failed to win backing for his radio system in Italy, Marconi came went to London hoping his invention would appeal to a great naval power.
The Welshman’s backing opened the right doors for Marconi. After the successful experiments in south Wales the next trick was to send radio signals across the Atlantic.
Preece had already satisfied himself that the earth’s magnetic field would assist radio waves to travel across wide oceans, despite the curvature of the globe. In 1901 Marconi successfully transmitted from Cornwall to Newfoundland.
Later Marconi set up a powerful radio station at Waunfawr, near Caernarfon. By then Preece had retired to his hometown. Having been unsuccessful in his own efforts to develop a long-range radio system, the gracious assistance he had given to the younger man did much to usher in the age of mass communications.