Thursday, 20 July 2017

Wireless and Winners

What's the link between today's cell phones and transatlantic flights? The answer is Clifden, a small town in the west of Ireland, which was the scene of two hugely significant events in the early 20th century.

The first was due to the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, who successfully developed long-distance wireless telegraphy. Determined to send wireless signals across the Atlantic, he established a transmitting station in Cornwall, but after some difficulties there, he decided to move his station as far west as he could. The site he chose was Clifden or, to be exact, Derrygimlagh Bog, about three miles south of Clifden.

The station officially opened in 1907, and commercial signalling began between Clifden and Glace Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada on 17th October. Buildings on the site included a power house with 6 boilers and a huge condenser building as well as houses for the workers. There was a also a massive aerial system with 8 wooden masts, each 210 feet high. The sparks from these could be heard over a wide distance and resembled lightning. Fifty people were employed at the station, and a further seventy were also employed cutting peat to fuel the steam generators.

When advances were later made in technology, a more powerful station was built in North Wales but the Clifden Station remained operative until it was attacked and burned by Republican ‘irregulars’ in 1922. It was closed down after this, and the buildings gradually fell into disrepair.

The second event came twelve years after the Marconi station opened. In June 1919 British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown left St John’s, Newfoundland, flying their Vickers VIMY biplane. Although there had been previous flights across the Atlantic Ocean, theirs was the first non-stop journey, lasting 16 hours and 27 minutes.

It wasn’t an easy journey – at one time due to thick fog, they were unable to navigate with their sextant and twice almost came down in the sea. The batteries for their heated suits failed, meaning they were freezing cold in the open cockpit – but evidently their coffee was laced with whisky! Half way through the night, they ran into a snowstorm and Brown had to climb out onto the wings to clear the ice from the engines' air intakes.

Their choice of Clifden as a landing place was deliberate because of the Marconi station. Several years earlier, the Daily Mail newspaper had offered a prize of £10,000 (over £1 million in today’s money) to any pilot who could fly an airplane across the Atlantic within 72 hours. Alcock and Brown were aware of other contenders for this prize and wanted to make sure the news of their arrival in Ireland was telegraphed to London as soon as possible.

They looked for a meadow on which to land and mistook the boggy surface near the Marconi station for hard ground. A man in the transmitter building tried in vain to warn them, but they thought he was waving a welcome! As they touched down, they sank into the mud and the plane nosed over into the soggy peat. A somewhat ignominious ending to a triumphant flight, but at least neither of them was hurt. The man in the transmitter building rushed out to them and asked where they'd come from. 'Canada', said Brown. 'We were there yesterday - and we're the only two people in Europe who can say that.' And it was a local reporter from the Connacht Tribune who got the scoop of the century by interviewing the two aviators. 

These two huge landmarks in the history of communications and transport went on to change the face of the 20th century- and Clifden saw them both. Not bad for a small out-of-the-way town in the west of Ireland, was it?

The memorial to Alcock and Brown's landing at Derrygimlagh
but (a) it's not at the place where they actually landed
and (b) for some unknown reason it shows a modern tail fin
although they flew a biplane!

Derrygimlagh Bog, taken from the site of the memorial - and the actual landing
place is the white speck in the far distance which is a large monolith. At least it is
now painted white (which it wasn't when I first visited the site!)
Pictures of Alcock and Brown, and other information about their
flight, displayed in Mannion's Bar in Clifden  


  1. An amazing story Paula. I bet the whisky helped when he had to venture out on the wing!