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  • This is Poldhu, in Cornwall.

  • This is about as far south and west as you can get on the British mainland:

  • from here you have an uninterrupted line due west to Newfoundland in Canada.

  • And from here, Guglielmo Marconi and his team proved

  • that you could transmit radio signals over the horizon.

  • In 1903, though, Marconi turned his attention in another direction.

  • Literally. About 400km east from here.

  • He was going to produce the first public demonstration

  • of long-range wireless transmission.

  • Signals from here,

  • from this now-ruined building in Cornwall,

  • would be detected in Chelmsford, rebroadcast,

  • and then picked up at a very public event in London.

  • And so, in the prestigious lecture hall of the Royal Institution,

  • where Faraday and many, many others gave public talks on science -- and still do --

  • the well-respected physicist, John Ambrose Fleming,

  • was getting ready to receive Marconi's Morse code signal.

  • They'd added a special, 60-foot antenna to the roof for the occasion.

  • And this is more than a century ago, remember.

  • Marconi was sending a signal powerful enough to be picked up 300 miles away.

  • And more than that: he'd claimed that he'd solved the problem of people listening in.

  • In a letter to the St James Gazette, Marconi claimed:

  • “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned

  • can tap my messages.” Which is technically true,

  • but what he's describing there is tuning into a radio station.

  • Get the frequency right, and the whole world can listen.

  • That's not encryption: that's broadcasting.

  • So let me tell you about Nevil Maskelyne.

  • Music hall magician, like his father.

  • Interested in wireless technology, used it in his illusions,

  • managed to do wireless transmission himself --

  • but the problem was, Marconi had patented it.

  • I know, it sounds ridiculous now,

  • but the very idea of wireless transmission was brand new,

  • and Marconi had a patent.

  • You want to send Morse Code through the air? You had to license it.

  • Maskelyne was not happy about this.

  • He'd already built a 50-foot mast near one of Marconi's stations in Cornwall

  • and managed to intercept transmissions.

  • And he'd written to a journal with the wonderfully scientific insult that

  • "the problem was not interception, but how to deal with the enormous excess of energy".

  • Marconi and Fleming knew who Maskelyne was,

  • and they were worried about him.

  • I'm making this sound just like a couple of rivals,

  • by the way, because I'm simplifying:

  • there were many scientists working on similar projects,

  • and all of them had to deal with Marconi's patents.

  • Competition was fierce. But only one of them actually went on the attack.

  • So in the Royal Institution,

  • a few minutes before Marconi's signal was due to arrive,

  • as the audience waited and listened to Fleming make

  • what we now know to be slightly dubious claims about the system,

  • there was a quiet tapping noise from the receiver.

  • Fleming was somewhat deaf. He didn't notice.

  • But his assistant did, and his assistant knew Morse Code.

  • And that receiver was saying "rats". "Rats, rats, rats, rats, rats".

  • And then it tapped out an insulting rhyming couplet about Marconi,

  • and then a few suitably sarcastic quotes from Shakespeare.

  • And then it stopped, just in time for Marconi's actual transmission to come through.

  • Marconi and Fleming were angry.

  • They thought they'd been sabotaged by some subtle method,

  • perhaps by sending slightly out-of-phase signals,

  • or grounding an earth current nearby, but no.

  • Maskelyne had just rigged up a simple but powerful transmitter

  • in his music hall a little way away.

  • He'd not bothered with frequencies,

  • he'd just sent out a broad-spectrum transmission that

  • -- if it was sent today --

  • would have shown up on every analogue radio for miles around,

  • no matter what station it was tuned to,

  • and probably blown any sensitive equipment nearby.

  • Their arguments went on in the press,

  • in angry letters in the Times:

  • Fleming called it "scientific hooliganism",

  • and Maskelyne owned up and defended his hacking --

  • because that's what it was -- as a necessary demonstration.

  • But it was the public's opinion that mattered: and to them,

  • Marconi's credibility had taken a big hit.

  • Even the famous satirical magazine, Punch,

  • decided to take a shot at him,

  • publishing deliberately jumbled fakeMarconigrams”.

  • In modern security, we talk about responsible disclosure.

  • About how, if you find a security hole,

  • you should quietly go to the company in question, let them know,

  • and give them time to fix it.

  • But if, after a reasonable amount of time,

  • the flaw is still there, and they are not going to fix it,

  • and if you can demonstrate it in a way that doesn't break the law or cause harm...

  • well, sometimes it's okay to cause a little bit of drama.

  • After all, you've got more than a century of history behind you.

  • The Royal Institution's YouTube channel has a load of great videos on it,

  • including Tales From The Prep Room,

  • which is a series I recommend you go check out.

  • Have a look at their channel, go and subscribe,

  • and thank you very much to them for letting me film in this historic theatre.

  • [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

This is Poldhu, in Cornwall.

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B1 fleming wireless transmission cornwall morse code morse

The First Ever Wireless Hack: Marconi vs Maskelyne

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/04/01
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