I recently went to Cork on holiday, and one of the many great places I visited was Cork City Goal.  The Goal was a stunning building originally opened in 1824 as part of a wave of new prisons which considered things like hygiene and moral improvement to be important for prisoner reform.  The building has been beautifully restored, and the museum has a great self-guided tour you can do.  However, the main attraction for me turned out to be nothing about incarceration and all about radio waves. 

I had got nearly to the end of the self-guided tour and was heading into the gift shop (which unusually was not at the end of the tour), when I overheard one of the guides say:

‘I’m going to switch Marconi on’

My ears pricked up and I thought that was a really odd thing to say.  Marconi is not a very Irish name, and it is not a piece of equipment that I’m aware of.  The Marconi I know, Guglielmo Marconi, was the father of all things radio, could they mean him?  I then looked at the leaflet to check out the last couple of sections to go round on the tour and discovered that I was heading into a radio museum.  This was the perfect way to make my visit even more interesting.  


It turned out that after the goal waved goodbye to its last inmates in 1923 it was used by Cork radio Eireann for 30 years.  I had wondered where the connection to radio had come from, as it had been far from obvious up to this point. 

The radio display started with a brief introduction to radio waves and a few pictures of some reflector radio telescopes.  All good so far; you then walked up the stone spiral staircase past pictures from key moments in the development of radio.  Upstairs there was a recording studio done up as it was in the 1930’s and a collection of different gramophones.  The real draw for me was the Marconi room.  I was very glad the guide had gone to switch this on before I went upstairs.


The Marconi room housed a range of pictures from different parts of Marconi’s life and an audio-visual display where Marconi ‘himself’ explained the radio to onlookers.  I was really interested why an Irish Goal that was used as a radio station for many years was so obsessed by Marconi.  But all was revealed.

The video played on a loop and was of an actor playing Marconi telling us all about his work with radio waves and antennas and explaining the Irish connection.  I was put off by the extremely English accent that the Marconi on the screen had, as Marconi was Italian, but having checked this out since the accent was authentic!  I then learnt that Marconi spent a lot of time working in Ireland and set up a lot of different communication systems there.  He liked spending time in Ireland, and his first wife was Irish.  The existence of this part of the museum was starting to make sense. 

The biggest reveal to me was the link between Marconi and the Titanic.  I didn’t know that Marconi should have been on the first sailing of the Titanic.  However, instead, he decided to take an earlier boat.    I knew that Marconi had pioneered ship to ship communication and that the Titanic had some impressive wire antennas aboard it, but I found out a lot more about the whole incident.  Ships of the time were fitted by the Marconi Company with the newly designed radio communicators, and a lot of the radio operators were Marconi employees rather than employed by the ship.  These systems were wireless and transmitted Morse code.  This wireless system had been developed by Marconi in his new company Wireless Telegraph and Signal Co. Ltd.  The path from the start of use of wireless radio in ships in the early 1900’s to the total integration today was not all plane sailing.  By the early 1910’s the number of ships using wireless radio increased significantly and it was a novelty for passengers to send messages, so the traffic on the channels increased and they were often jammed leading to missed messages. 

The Titanic actually used Marconi’s system to signal for help when they started to have issues late at night.  This signal was heard half way around the world by lots of different ships and stations, but unfortunately not by the boat that the Titanic could easily see when they hit the iceberg.  The importance of this new radio communication was not fully understood at the time: this boat that could see the Titanic only had one operator who had just gone off duty for the night when the Titanic signalled for help.  Their cry for help was never heard by that ship.  There was also no dedicated emergency channel, so it was easy for signals to get lost amongst the noise of lots of communications.  However, a ship 60 miles away did hear the cry for help and came to pick up the survivors, the Carpathia.  The story of the Titanic would have had an even worse ending if the Carpathia had not shown up and took 300 people to safety.  Investigations into the disaster lead to the update of the Radio Act of 1910.  The 1910 act required all large ships to carry wireless radio equipment.  The 1912 update mandated that all seagoing vessels had to continuously monitor distress frequencies using their wireless radio equipment.  It also led to the clearing of a dedicated emergency channel, 500kHz, to be used only for help.  

If you want to know more about your chances of survival on that first voyage of the Titanic, then come along to one of my IOP talks.  In these talks I look at the history of data science and use the data from the survivors of the Titanic to live code a machine learning prediction algorithm.  Using your gender, age and ticket class we can work out if you would have survived!

Techniques in communication have moved on since the days of the Titanic and new technologies have been introduced but ships still have to carry radio equipment and the crew have to know how use it.  A friend of mine, Donna Von Tunk, is doing the Clipper round the world yacht race this year, setting sail in August 2019.  She has done all her training on the various transmitters and receivers on board and knows exactly what to do with them!  If you want to learn more about Donna and the Clipper race here you go: 

So, if you are ever in Cork go to goal and experience live as a Victorian or early 20th Century prisoner and learn all about radio, Marconi and how to stay safe at sea.