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Alexander Stepanovitch Popov
Alexander Stepanovitch Popov.
1859 - 1906.

Alexander Stepanovitch Popov was born on March 16, 1859, in the village of Turinsk in the Ural Mountains.

His father was a priest, his mother is, to my research, undocumented.

One of seven children, their father encouraged a good education, he became interested in natural sciences early in his youth. Alexander did receive a good education in the natural sciences and mathematics as well as in theology and progressed to studying physics at the St. Petersburg university. The curriculum at the University was modern, for the time, and emphasized heavily the practical applications of scientific principles.

After graduation in 1882 he started working as a laboratory assistant at the university but, due to bad funding at the university, he moved to a teaching job at the Russian Navy Torpedo School in Kronstadt on Kotlin Island.

The Torpedo School offered an outstanding program of study in applied physics for naval electricians and torpedo officers. It had the best scientific library and physics laboratories in Russia. Here Popov found the better environment for experimental research that he needed.

His early laboratory investigations at Kronstadt involved magnetic phenomena and electrical heating effects in metals.
Electrical sparks also interested Popov, in the late 1880's the use of electrical power on ships was beginning to be introduced in Russia. A problem was soon noted that when electrical wiring was routed along the metal hulls of the ships sparks, which damaged the electrical insulation, were observed where they were least expected.
Popov determined that the sparking was due to large voltages produced by unanticipated high frequency oscillations. Today, we would identify resonance as the cause of the sparking, at the time, however, the phenomenon of electrical resonance was not understood.
These findings turned Popov's interests toward the practical applications of high frequency currents and the invisible electromagnetic waves produced by those currents. Very quickly, Popov became aware that Hertzian wave theory might well provide a means for finding solutions to many electrical engineering problems.

In 1893 he was sent, as the representative of the Torpedo School, to the Chicago World Exhibition where the latest developments related to the generation, distribution, and utilisation of electrical energy were on display.

While in the United States, Popov also took the opportunity to visit factories and laboratories where numerous other recent achievements in the rapidly developing field of electrical technology could be seen first hand. Even among the most highly optimistic electrical visionaries of the early 1890's, the idea that electromagnetic waves might someday enable telegraphy without wires was little more than a wild fantasy because the electromagnetic waves being generated at the time could only be detected at distances of a few feet, not the many miles which would be necessary to make wireless telegraphy a practical reality.
Fortunately, Popov was both a visionary and an excellent experimenter who could not be discouraged easily by seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Popov entered the wireless field through his attempt to develop a device to detect thunderstorms in advance. He conceived the idea of using the Branly Coherer to pick up static or atmospheric electricity, the clue to the electric storm's approach (anyone who has listened to an AM radio during a lightening storm can understand how a "thunderstorm detector" could become a radio receiver). In 1895 or 6 he improved on Oliver Lodge's receiver by adding a suspended wire as an antenna, (Popov was the first person recorded as doing so) and choking coils to neutralise the effect of local sparks.

In a May 1895 Popov reported sending and receiving a wireless signal across a 600 yards distance. In March 1896, he effected transmission of radio waves between different campus buildings in St. Petersburg. In March, 1897, Professor Popov equipped a land station at Kronstadt and the Russian navy cruiser Africa with his wireless communications apparatus for ship-to-shore communications.
In November 1897 the French entrepreneur Eugene Ducretet made a transmitter and receiver based on wireless telegraphy in his own laboratory. According to Ducretet, he built his devices using Popov's lightning detector as a model. By 1898 Ducretet was manufacturing equipment of wireless telegraphy based on Popov's instructions. At the same time Popov effected ship-to-shore communication over a distance of 6 miles in 1898 and 30 miles in 1899.

In about 1900, (either 1899, 1900 or 1901 depending which account you believe), Popov's wireless apparatus was used in what may have been the first ever use of radio communications to help a vessel in distress:

The battleship General-Admiral Apraksin was going down amidst the ice floes of the Gulf of Finland with hundreds of sailors and officers aboard, but Popov's radio system enabled them to contact Hogland and Kutsalo islands 45 kilometers away. Those wireless stations relayed the distress messages and rescue orders to the icebreaker Ermak (or Yermak). Radio communications, being so new and still somewhat experimental, it's unlikely that the Apraksin's crew had even considered that help might be summoned from afar, and it's reported that they had resigned themselves to an icy death. The sight of the Ermak emerging from the fog must have seemed to some a miracle and the man who invented the wireless system that saved their lives must have seemed an angel. Also it is recorded that besides the rescue of the Apraksin's crew, more than 50 Finnish fishermen, who were stranded on a piece of drift ice in the Gulf of Finland, were saved by the same icebreaker following distress telegrams sent by wireless telegraphy, but I am unable to find a date for this event.

In 1905 he became seriously ill, after being very uneasy about the suppression of a student movement. He died of a brain hemorrhage on January 13, 1906.

Ironically, according to Russian accounts, Popov was divinely inspired to invent what we now call radio. Ironic, because the critics who saw the mysterious electrical contraptions used as the first radio sets assumed it must be the work of the devil, and because Popov was, after all, trying to find a way to detect what is commonly called "an act of God" - thunderstorms - when he discovered how to send wireless communications through the air.

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