At the very end of the nineteenth century, the Corporation of Trinity House were looking for a reliable system of communicating with their lightships and off-shore lighthouses. Guglielmo Marconi’s company offered an innovative way of using ship-to-shore wireless telegraphy.
Built high up on the cliffs and overlooking the English Channel, South Foreland was an ideal location for experiments using this new technology. In December 1898, Marconi’s assistant George Kemp went out to the East Goodwin Lightship, 12 miles away, whilst Marconi supervised the erection of a large aerial on land, close by the South Foreland Lighthouse. It was on Christmas Eve 1898 that the first ever ship-to-shore radio transmission was recorded at South Foreland and Christmas greetings were exchanged.
Signalling the future
In March 1899 the sailing ship, the “Elbe”, which was sailing for Hamburg became stranded on the Goodwin Sands. The officers on board the South Goodwin Lighthouse sent an urgent radio message which was picked up at the South Foreland Lighthouse. Fortunately the “Elbe” re-floated and lifeboat assistance was not required, but this was the first instance when the emergency services had been alerted by ship-to-shore radio.
Following the success of these ship-to-shore radio transmissions, the French Government allowed Marconi to install transmission equipment in Wimereux in northern France. On 27th March 1899 he sent the first international radio transmission to South Foreland Lighthouse.
A few weeks later, the first SOS messages (then CQD, transmitted in Morse code and used as one of the first distress signals for radio use) were sent when the steamship the “RF Matthews” collided with the East Goodwin Lightship in thick fog and Trinity House were able to send urgent assistance.
Within ten years a worldwide network of transmitter stations had been set up.
Many amateur radio enthusiasts visit the lighthouse and several times each year the Lighthouse grounds are the location for international radio competitions.