The magnetic detector or Marconi magnetic detector, sometimes called the "Maggie", was an early radio wave detector used in some of the first radio receivers to receive Morse code messages during the wireless telegraphy era around the turn of the 20th century. Developed in 1902 by radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi from a method invented in 1895 by British physicist Ernest Rutherford it was used in Marconi wireless stations until around 1912, when it was superseded by vacuum tubes. It was widely used on ships because of its reliability and insensitivity to vibration.
The primitive spark gap radio transmitters used during the first three decades of radio (1886-1916) could not transmit audio (sound) and instead transmitted information by wireless telegraphy; the operator switched the transmitter on and off with a telegraph key, creating pulses of radio waves to spell out text messages in Morse code. So the radio receiving equipment of the time did not have to convert the radio waves into sound like modern receivers, but merely detect the presence or absence of the radio signal. The device that did this was called a detector. The first widely used detector was the coherer, invented in 1890.
During his transatlantic radio communication experiments in December 1902 Marconi found the coherer to be too unreliable and insensitive for detecting the very weak signals inherent in long distance transmissions. It was this need that drove him to develop the magnetic detector. The earliest patented version of the magnetic detector had a rotating magnet above a stationary segment of iron band with coils on it. Further developments by Marconi. resulted in a more effective configuration with the moving iron band driven by a clockwork motor and stationary coils. The Marconi magnetic detector was the "official" detector used by the Marconi Company from 1902 through 1912, when the company began converting to the Fleming valve and Audion-type vacuum tubes, and was used through 1918.
How it works
See drawing at right. The Marconi version consisted of an endless iron band (B) built up of 70 strands of number 40 gage silk-covered iron wire. In operation, the band passes over two grooved pulleys rotated by a wind-up clockwork motor. The iron band passes through the center of a glass tube which is close wound with a single layer along several millimeters with number 36 gage silk-covered copper wire. This coil (C) functions as the radio frequency excitation coil. Over this winding is a small bobbin wound with wire of the same gauge to a resistance of about 140 ohms. This coil (D) functions as the audio pickup coil. Around these coils two weak permanent horseshoe magnets are arranged to magnetize the iron band as it passes through the glass tube.
The device works by hysteresis of the magnetization in the iron wires. The magnet poles are arranged to create two opposite magnetic fields each directed toward (or away) from the center of the coils in opposite directions along the wire. This functions to magnetize the iron band along its axis, first in one direction as it approaches the center of the coils, then reverse its magnetism to the opposite direction as it leaves from the other side of the coil. Due to the hysteresis (coercivity) of the iron, a certain threshold magnetic field (the coercive field, Hc) is required to reverse the magnetization, so the magnetization in the moving wires does not reverse in the center of the device where the field reverses, but some way toward the departing side of the wires. Although the wire itself is moving through the coil, in the absence of a radio signal the location where the magnetization "flips" is stationary with respect to the coil, so there is no flux change and no voltage is induced in the pickup coil.
The radio signal from the antenna (A) is received by a tuner (not shown) and passed through the excitation coil C, the other end of which is connected to ground (E). The rapidly reversing magnetic field from the coil exceeds the coercivity Hc and cancels the hysteresis of the iron, causing the magnetization change to suddenly move up the wire to the center, between the magnets, where the field reverses. This causes the magnetic flux through the pickup coil D to change, inducing a current pulse in the pickup coil. The audio pickup coil is connected to a telephone receiver (earphone) (T) which converts the current pulse to sound.
The radio signal from a spark gap transmitter consisted of pulses of radio waves (damped waves) which repeated at an audio rate, around several hundred per second. Each pulse of radio waves produced a pulse of current in the earphone, so the signal sounded like a musical tone or buzz in the earphone.
The operator had to keep the mainspring which turned the band wound up, using a crank on the side. Operators would sometimes forget to wind it, so the band would stop turning and the detector stop working, sometimes in the middle of a radio message.
Because the output was an audio alternating current and not a direct current, the detector could only be used with earphones and not with the common recording instrument used in coherer radiotelegraphy receivers, the siphon paper tape recorder.
From a technical standpoint, several subtle prerequisites are necessary for operation. The strength of the magnetic field of the permanent magnets at the iron band must be of the same order of magnitude as the strength of the field generated by the radio frequency excitation coil, allowing the radio frequency signal to exceed the threshold hysteresis (coercivity) of the iron. Also, the impedance of the tuner that supplies the radio signal must be low to match the low impedance of the excitation coil, requiring special tuner design considerations. The impedance of the telephone earphone must roughly match the impedance of the audio pickup coil, which is a few hundred ohms. The iron band moves a few millimeters per second. The magnetic detector was much more sensitive than the coherers commonly in use at the time, although not as sensitive as the Fleming valve, which began to replace it around 1912.
In the Handbook Of Technical Instruction For Wireless Telegraphists by: J. C. Hawkhead (Second Edition Revised by H. M. Dowsett) on pp 175 are detailed instructions and specifications for operation and maintenance of Marconi's magnetic detector.
- "Telegraph". Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed. 26. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Co. 1911. p. 536. Retrieved 9 November 2013.
- Fleming, John Ambrose (1908). The Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy. UK: Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 380–382.
- Marconi, Guglielmo (1902). "Note on a magnetic detector of electric waves which can be employed as a receiver in space telegraphy". Proc. of the Royal Society (London) 70: 341.
- Rutherford, Ernest (1 January 1897). "A magnetic detector of electrical waves and some of its applications". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Royal Society) 189: 1–24. doi:10.1098/rsta.1897.0001. Retrieved 10 November 1897.
- Wenaas, Eric P. (2007). Radiola: The Golden Age of RCA, 1919-1929. Sonoran Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 1886606218.
- Fleming, John Ambrose (1916). An elementary manual of radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony for students and operators, 3rd Ed.. UK: Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 203, 208.
- The Marconi magnetic detector From the book "A Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy" (1913) by J. Erskine-Murray. D.Sc.