Louis Varney, G5RV

The High Flyer

It was the week after the annual Jack and Jill car-park meeting and Louis was keen to learn how the event had gone.

I told him that there had been a good turnout , that there had been quite a lot of radio activity, there had also been a bit of a nip in the air with enough wind to keep the kites aloft. He was particularly intrigued by the account of the kite flying and before long had launched into his own kite story.

Back in his early days as a trainee technician with the Marconi Company at Chelmsford the Stores Department held a fascination for Louis.

It wasn’t just because all the lovely wireless goodies were laid out as if in some Aladdin’s Cave. There was an added attraction. Any item taken out of stores and later returned was considered second hand and sold at a reduced price, even if had been used only for display or demonstration purposes. So, for a budding inventor and keen construction whiz-kid, on trainee technicians pay, this was right up Louis’ street.

On this particular day Louis was sorting through some of the odds and ends, in an area of the stores away from the more formal racked equipment, when part of a wooden frame, with canvas attached, caught his eye. Hallo, he thought, what’s this? Moving some of the other gear away, he got a better look. It couldn’t be could it? --- It was. What a find. A Marconi Kite!

The use, of kites by Marconi in his early pioneering wireless experiments was well known to Louis. He had lapped up the stories of the six kites shipped out to St John’s in 1901 after the tower on Signal Hill collapsed in the wind.

How the first two kites suffered a similar fate, one crashing into the sea when the line parted and the second smashing into the valley alongside the headland site before the first ever trans-Atlantic wireless signals were heard on the 12th of December 1901.

The kites, hexagonal, about six feet by six feet, were then re-packed and sent back to the Marconi works at Chelmsford. There had been further use of kites of different design and in 1910, a box-kite enabled a record – breaking, 3,500 mile transmission to be made.

It had never occurred to Louis up until then that he might be in a position to get his hands on an item of such legendary equipment. However, supposing the store-man was unaware of the significance of this piece of kit, then perhaps…..

marconi kite

Marconi's group struggling to get an antenna kit into the air. Signal Hill, St John's, Newfoundland December 1901.

Louis went for the casual approach: “I see you’ve an old kite down there. It might be a bit of fun to see if I could get it going. How much do you want for it?” The store-man was diffident. The ‘old kite’ wasn’t a stock item and as such didn’t appear on any regular price list so how was he to gauge its value?

Any possible sale looked like stuttering to a halt, so, forgetting the casual approach, Louis came up with an offer. “ How about half-a- crown” Big mistake. In his previous dealings with Louis the store-man had learnt a couple of things about him. One, was that he believed in the old saying that a fool and his money are soon parted and two, was that Louis was no fool. The store-man said he would think about it and to come back and see him later.

The store-man went a step further than think about it. He sought advice from his boss. “How much is that ‘old kite’ worth”, he asked. His boss said, “Why do you want to know”. “Because I’ve been offered half-a-crown for it”, came the reply. “Who by?” inquired the boss. The store-man told him. The reply from the boss was succinct. “You can tell young Varney, or any other smart Alec, that they can keep their half crowns in their pockets”. He then went on to give the store-man a brief history of the part played by kites earlier in the century.

Unaware that the store-man had now been briefed, Louis went back to Stores later that day hoping to conclude the transaction. Instead, a stony-faced store-man conveyed the message from his boss, plus a few terse comments of his own. Louis departed with a flea in his ear. Clearly this was not the day on which his venture into big business, or the kite for that matter, would get off the ground.

Written by Ron Glover G0WGP