Alexander Popov

Portrait of Alexander Popov

Born: Turyinskye Rudniki, Perm Governate - 16 March 1859
Died: St. Petersburg - 13 January 1906

Western visitors to Russia are often surprised (sometimes enraged) to discover that in this country Guglielmo Marconi is not recognized as the inventor of the radio. That honour goes Alexander Popov, who on 7 May 1895 presented a paper to the Physical and Chemical Society in St. Petersburg explaining how a lightening detector could be used as a coherer to detect radio noise from lightening strikes.

Alexander Stepanovich Popov was born in 1859 in what is now the town of Krasnoturinsk in the Central Ural Mountains. Popov's father was the local priest, and the future inventor was also destined to enter the priesthood, and was sent to the Perm Seminary. During his schooldays, Popov already showed a keen interest in making and repairing toys and mechanical instruments, and his excellent results in maths and physics won him a place at St. Petersburg University. There he immersed himself in the latest developments in physics and electronics.

One of the first radio receivers, built by Russian physicist Alexander Popov as a lightning detector in 1894
One of the first radio receivers, built by Alexander Popov as a lightning detector in 1894

On graduating in 1882, Popov remained at the university as a laboratory assistant, but low pay soon obliged him to seek alternative in employment, and in 1883 he became a teacher at the Navy Torpedo School in Kronstadt. In his free time, he continued to research electromagnetic waves, following the discoveries of Heinrich Hertz.

Using a Hertzian dipole, Popov built a "mechanism for the detection and registration of electrical waves". Initially, although he recognized its potential for communication, he used it to detect thunderstorms, at a range of up to 50 kilometers. In March 1896 he used it to transmit message between different buildings of the St. Petersburg University Campus - according to some sources, the message was "HEINRICH HERTZ" spelled out in Morse code. He had not patented his invention, however, and by this time Marconi, who does not appear to have had any knowledge of Popov's work, was already sending messages across distances over two kilometers.

Alexander Popov's Monument in Saint Petersburg
Alexander Popov's Monument in Saint Petersburg

Popov continued to develop the technology, and his particular interest was (perhaps unsurprisingly) in naval communications. In 1900, a radio station was established under his instruction on Gogland Island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, which made it possible to send radio messages to Kotka on the Finnish coast, and then relay them by telegraph to the Russian naval headquarters in Kronstadt.

Popov became a professor at the Imperial Electrotechnical Institute in 1901, and in 1905 the institute's scientific council elected him rector. He died of a brain hemorrhage on 13 January 1906.