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Alexander Stepanovitch Popov
(1859 - 1906)
A Profile
By Prof. Anthony C Davies
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Alexander Stepanovitch Popov (1859 – 1906)
was one of a number of scientists (including Maxwell, Hertz, Tesla, Lodge) who laid the foundations of radio communications.

Popov demonstrated the transmission of signals in March 1896 to an audience of the Russian Physics-Chemistry Society.   However, Popov at that time taught at the Russian Navy Torpedo School in Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg, and the Navy restricted circulation of any of his publications which mentioned transmission of ‘intelligent signals’.   Moreover, in 1890, Popov had been required to swear an oath of secrecy to Tsar Alexander III.

In 1901 Popov became a professor at St Petersburg Institute of Electrical Engineering (now L.E.T.I.), and from 1902 he designed and built a wireless-telegraphy station for demonstrations and training students.  In 1903 he experimented with radio transmission of telephone signals, and in 1905 was elected rector of the Institute.  

Popov’s receiver was granted a patent in France (no. 296359)  on 22nd January 1900, In England (no. 2797) on 7th April 1900 and in Russia (no 6066) on 30th November 1901.

In his application to the US Patent Office (June 1901), Marconi wrote ‘I am aware of the papers of Professor Popoff … in 1895 or 1896…’, and it seems that Marconi’s claims for a patent in Russia, Germany and France were rejected because of Popov’s prior work.     Popov had been awarded a Grand Gold Medal for his radio system at the Paris International Exposition of 1900.

Nevertheless, it became usual in ‘The West’ to credit Marconi as ‘the’ inventor of radio, and during the Cold War to dismiss claims about Popov as just ‘Soviet Propaganda’, while ‘underground jokes’ deriding the claims about Popov used to circulate in the Central European countries subjected to Soviet domination.

Popov was initially interested in using radio receivers for detection of atmospheric electrical disturbances (lightning, etc.), and this was used to ‘promote’ the claim that Marconi had priority in the invention of radio communication (as opposed to reception).   A paper by C. Susskind published in the1962 Proceedings of IRE contains some inaccurate statements which were re-used by others, maintaining the general belief that Marconi had priority over Popov. 

  A commemorative sign outside the Popov museum/laboratory in LETI ("The office of the invention of radio, of Professor Popov, from 1901 to 1905")    'kabinet' means 'study' and so I assume that the meaning is really that this was the laboratory where Popov 'studied' inventions in radio for the period 1901 to 1905 - e.g. while he was employed as a professor at St Petersburg Institute of Electrical Engineering (now L.E.T.I.)    He got into trouble with the authorities in about 1905 because he refused to obey orders of the St. Petersburg Governor to punish student protesters, and this seems to have contributed to his failing health and perhaps accelerated his death in 1906.

(Update May 2012) Jonathan Phillips of Norwich kindly notes:  Кабинет изобретателя радио профессорa А.С. ПОПОВА 1901-1905  means "The office of the inventor of radio, Professor A.S. POPOV, 1901-1905" - i.e. where he worked from 1901 to 1905. (The "-a" ending in the Russian is roughly the equivalent of the English preposition "of".)

Street-sign on building 5 of LETI (Professor Popov street)

However, while Marconi may have had priority in patenting, and certainly in successfully promoting the commercial adoption of radio communications, the historical evidence seems to favour Popov as the real inventor, as has always been maintained in Russia.  This was recognised by the dedication of a Historic Milestone by IEEE in May 2005 at Popov’s laboratory (now a museum) at L.E.T.I. with the words:

On 7 May 1895, A. S. Popov demonstrated the possibility of transmitting and receiving short, continuous signals over a distance up to 64 meters by means of electromagnetic waves with the help of a special portable device responding to electrical oscillation which was a significant contribution to the development of wireless communication.

A plaque with these words is now mounted on the wall outside the laboratory/museum.

The Russian Academy of Sciences annually awards a Gold Medal named after Popov to a distinguished scientist in the field of electronics/radio/informatics.   Two awards have been made to British scientists:  to Louis Essen (NPL) in 1959 and to Martin Ryle (Cambridge)  in 1971.

Other links:
A.S. Popov Central Museum of Communications in St. Petersburg:

With grateful thanks for the submission of this articicle to:
Prof. Anthony C Davies,
Visiting Professor,
Kingston University,
Kingston upon Thames,
July 2005

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