“Words Fly Through Air:” Notre Dame, SpectrumX’s lead institution, marks the 125th anniversary of the first known wireless transmission in the United States

By Christina Clark

Every day, people use mobile devices to communicate, stream video, check the weather, navigate, play games, and use thousands of other apps. Only in the most recent decades have these technologies become more accessible. Wireless technology also underlies radio astronomy, satellites, television and radio broadcasting, geolocation and navigational services, and remote sensing.

The original experiments that made the wireless services used every day are not as old as some might think. In fact, it was just 125 years ago that the first known long-range wireless transmission in the United States was made on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

The road to the first known long-distance US transmission

In Italy during late 1894 and early 1895, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was experimenting with transmitting radio signals over gradually greater distances. He found that his signals traveled and were received even from inside a building to the outdoors, with the windows and doors both open and closed. The discovery encouraged Marconi and his team. He worked on his equipment, studying other innovators of the day, and gradually increased the transmission distance to a mile. He would later move to Britain to continue his experiments.

A vintage black and white photo of Professor Jerome Green looking to the right.
Professor Jerome Green portrait. Photo courtesy Notre Dame Archives.

In April 1899, building on Marconi’s successes, Notre Dame Professor Jerome Green and his assistants began building their own transmission equipment. They started the same way Marconi did, by sending signals from rooms within the Science Hall, which today is LaFortune Student Center, and progressed to sending signals from the Science Hall to Sorin Hall on campus. According to an article in Notre Dame Scholastic on April 22, 1899, Green was determined to have his assistants at the forefront of radio transmission technology.

“He has had them working all this week on the Marconi wireless telegraphy,” the article reads. “So far as we can learn they have been more successful in operating here thus far than others have been in any other institution in America.”

These experiments caught regional attention. “Words Fly Through Air: Test of Wireless Telegraphy at South Bend, Indiana, Proves a Complete Success” reads the headline of the Chicago Daily News’ April 18, 1899, edition. In this article Green said, “It is the first time that successful experiments have been performed with apparatus which was not imported from foreign countries for the purpose. Of course, I feel the least bit proud to think I am the first to make the equipment in this country. Perhaps I am claiming an honor which does not belong to me, but if there is any other person in this country who has done the work with his own machinery I have not heard of him.”

The distance of successful transmissions continued to grow, and on April 19, Green and his team used the Basilica of the Sacred Heart’s tower to transmit a long-distance signal. Green hung an antenna, made of 150 feet of wire, near the top of the 218-foot-tall spire. He and his team used a Hertz wave transmitter, which he and his assistants constructed.

The transmission bridged Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s Academy, which today is Saint Mary’s College, traveling more than a mile through the air over St. Mary’s Lake and the woods between the two schools.

Read the full story at Notre Dame Stories.

Originally published April 19, 2024, on Notre Dame Stories.

Produced by the University of Notre Dame Office of Public Affairs and Communications

  • Writer: Christina Clark
  • Photography: Matt Cashore and Barbara Johnston
  • Videography: Tony Fuller and Zach Dudka