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Russian radio pioneer Popov honoured by ITU
Alexander Stepanovich Popov was born in Russia in March 1859, at Krasnoturyinsk, Sverdlovsk Oblast, in the Ural Mountains
photo credit: ITU/V. Martin
Igor O. Shegolev, Minister of Telecommunications and Mass Communication of the Russian Federation (left), and ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré signed an agreement on naming an ITU conference room in Popov’s honour

A plaque was unveiled at ITU headquarters in Geneva on 5 October 2009 to commemorate the work of Russian physicist and radiocommunications pioneer Alexander Stepanovich Popov. Joining ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré at the unveiling were Igor O. Shegolev, Minister of Telecommunications and Mass Communication of the Russian Federation, Deputy Minister Naum S. Marder, and Valery N. Bugaenko, Head of the Federal Communications Agency. Also present were many high-ranking officials and distinguished figures from Russian organizations in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT).

The plaque is sited at Conference Room B in ITU’s “Tower” building. The room will be named in honour of Popov, in accordance with a Memorandum of Intent signed at the ceremony by Dr Touré and Mr Shegolev, under which the Russian Federation will support refurbishment of the facility and installation of the latest technology.

This year marks 150 years since the birth of Alexander Popov in 1859. “The world is a very different place from what it was when Professor Popov transmitted his first radio waves. The notion of ‘wireless’ has taken on a whole new meaning,” Dr Touré commented. “Today we have 4.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions and over 600 million for mobile broadband — all working wirelessly. This is astonishing progress, and it reinforces my firm belief in the power of ICT to make the world a better place”.

The commemorative plaque was unveiled on the same day as the opening of ITU TELECOM WORLD 2009. The presence at that event of many leading Russian speakers and organizations demonstrates the lasting legacy of Popov’s work, the Secretary-General said.

Mr Shegolev commented that “it is talented researchers, inventors, and professionals such as Popov who provided the building blocks and established the foundations of our post-industrial information society.” The minister said that Popov wanted his work “to belong to all of humanity. One hundred years later, we still need people like him today.”

The radio receiver developed by Popov

Lightning and radio

After first working at St Petersburg University, where he had been a student, in 1883 Popov became a teacher at the Russian Navy’s Torpedo School at Kronstadt. Electrical power was being introduced into ships, and he investigated the practical applications of high-frequency currents and the electromagnetic (including radio) waves they produced. In 1894, he finished a device to generate waves, but he could only detect them over a few metres.

At that time, electromagnetic waves were received with a “coherer”. Popov improved the coherer’s sensitivity and invented a mechanism to automatically re-set the device. He used this equipment to monitor a serious danger to lives at sea and on land: lightning. By attaching an antenna to one end of the coherer and grounding the other, he detected electrical discharges in the atmosphere many kilometres away. It was the first time that such an antenna had been used to receive radio waves.

Popov demonstrated his invention to the Russian Physical and Chemical Society on 7 May 1895, and it was later set up at a meteorological observatory. At a meeting of the Society at St Petersburg University in March 1896, Popov showed how his work could be used in general for sending and receiving information by radio. Signals were sent between buildings some 245 metres apart on the university campus, transmitting the words “Heinrich Hertz” in Morse code.

Saving sailors’ lives

By 1899, Popov had developed a way to send radio signals to and from ships up to 30 km away. And by January 1900, a 47-km radio link had been established between Hogland Island in the Gulf of Finland and the coastal town of Kotka. Its purpose was to communicate with teams working to release a ship that had run aground on the island. That same winter was probably the first time that radiocommunications were ever used to save lives, when Hogland received a distress call from fishermen stranded on an ice floe. An icebreaking vessel was immediately sent to the rescue and the 50 men were saved.

Popov’s radio system earned him a Grand Gold Medal at the Paris International Exposition of 1900. In 1901, he returned to St Petersburg as a professor at the Imperial Institute of Electrical Engineering, and became its director in September 1905. Just a few months later, Popov died at the age of 46. But the date (7 May) upon which he demonstrated equipment that led to practical systems for detecting lightning and sending radio messages is celebrated as “Radio Day” in the Russian Federation. Popov was truly at the heart of the tremendous period of progress in communications.


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