Alexander Popov is widely known in Russia as a pioneering radio inventor. Paradoxically enough, he built his first radio receiver, a thunderstorm detector, working almost in parallel with Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, without actually knowing it. Great minds do think alike!
Popov was the son of a priest and was born in 1859 in the Turyinskiye Rudniki settlement (now the town of Krasnoturinsk) in Sverdlovsk Region. Naturally, his father wanted Alexander to follow in his footsteps, so he sent him to the Seminary School in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, to study theology. An obedient son, Popov did what his father had done, but later made a surprising U-turn, to do it his way.
From theology to science
After having studied at the Perm Theological Seminary for three years, Popov enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg to study... physics. Alexander had been deeply in love with science and mathematics since childhood. He had an incredibly technical mind and graduated from the university with distinction.
The young physicist defended his dissertation in 1882. He then focused on electrical engineering and became a teacher at the Russian Navy's Torpedo School at Kronstadt (close to St. Petersburg). The students there were highly-skilled and competent, trained to take charge of electrical equipment on warships. A gifted teacher as well as a bright researcher, Popov read a fair amount of books by his fellow foreign scientists. He was particularly impressed by Heinrich Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves and was looking for some practical ways of receiving them over long distances.
In the summer of 1893, as a representative of the Naval Ministry, Popov was part of the Russian delegation at the World Exhibition in Chicago. He had a chance to observe Nikola Tesla experiments, whose work he was familiar with.
Popov made a breakthrough in 1895, when he constructed an apparatus that could register atmospheric electrical disturbances. The then 36-year-old inventor installed his device at the meteorological observatory in St. Petersburg. According to Popov, it could detect thunderstorms at a distance of up to 50 km and was meant to be used for the reception of signals from a man-made source of oscillations. The details of the discovery were published in his lecture titled 'On the Relation of Metallic Powders to Electrical Oscillations'. The following year, Popov appeared before the St. Petersburg Physicochemical Society and transmitted the words "Heinrich Hertz" in Morse code. His short message was received from a transmitter some 250 meters away. According to the Popov Central Museum of Communications, based in St. Petersburg, Popov "managed to solve the problem of building a device capable of receiving and registering signals of various duration". His work provided impetus for the emergence and development of many completely new scientific fields, including radio broadcasting, radio astronomy and television, radio meteorology, radio navigation and radio intelligence. The system, developed by Popov, contained "all the basic communication elements that are inherent in the modern concept of 'a radio signal transmission line'".
Popov vs. Marconi
Some of the great minds were burning the midnight oil trying to find out whether radio waves could be used to transmit signals. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian engineer and inventor from Bologna, used radio waves to transmit signals over a distance of several kilometers. Marconi began his work on radio transmitters and receivers in December 1894 and filed an application for patent on June 2, 1896, that is, two months and eight days after Popov's first radio transmission. The Italian electrical engineer received a patent for "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals", in other words, the first patent for a radio wave-based communication system. In 1909, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Guglielmo Marconi and German engineer Karl Ferdinand Braun "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy". Marconi (1874-1937) has since been widely recognized as the inventor of radio.
The Popov Central Museum of Communications
It's believed that the regime of strict secrecy Alexander Popov was bound by while working for the Russian Navy prevented the physicist from being internationally recognized as radio's first true inventor. The disputes that continue to this day indicate that the idea was in the air and, given that great minds do really think alike, someone just had to give it a go.
The first radio station in Russia was installed under Popov's guidance in Sevastopol, on the Black Sea. Working hand in hand with the Russian Navy, during maneuvers on September 7, 1899, communication was established with the legendary warships, including Georgii Pobedonosets (St George the Victorious) and Destroyer 'Captain Saken', located some 14 km away from the coast.
In 1898, the industrial production of Popov's radio stations onboard ships began in Paris, manufactured by the Eugène Ducretet firm. Meanwhile, Popov's Kronstadt radio workshop, created on the initiative of the physicist, became the first radio engineering enterprise in Russia. In 1901, it began producing radio equipment for the Navy. In 1904, 'Siemens and Halske' (a German electrical engineering company that later became part of Siemens), 'Telefunken' (a German radio and television apparatus company founded in Berlin in 1903) and the Russian physicist had jointly organized the 'Department of wireless telegraphy according to the system of Alexander Popov'.
A still from the movie about Russian radio inventor, Alexander Popov.
In 1901, Popov became Professor of Physics at the 'Electrotechnical Institute of Emperor Alexander III'. He was praised "for continuous work on the use of telegraphy without wires on ships of the fleet" and was awarded the Grand Gold Medal of the World Industrial Exhibition in Paris, among other distinctions. After Popov's death in 1906, a special prize was established in his name in Russia, where his legacy is still afforded the utmost respect.