The apparatus which enables the electric waves to be revealed, the detector or indicator, is the most delicate organ in wireless telegraphy. It is not necessary to employ as an indicator a filings-tube or radio-conductor. One can, in principle, for the purpose of constructing a receiver, think of any one of the multiple effects produced by the Hertzian waves. In many systems in use, and in the new one of Marconi himself, the use of these tubes has been abandoned and replaced by magnetic detectors.
Nevertheless, the first and the still most frequent successes are due to radio-conductors, and public opinion has not erred in attributing to the inventor of this ingenious apparatus a considerable and almost preponderant part in the invention of wave telegraphy.
The history of the discovery of radio-conductors is short, but it deserves, from its importance, a chapter to itself in the history of wireless telegraphy. From a theoretical point of view, the phenomena produced in those tubes should be set by the side of those studied by Graham Bell, C.A. Brown, and Summer Tainter, from the year 1878 onward. The variations to which luminous waves give rise in the resistance of selenium and other substances are, doubtless, not unconnected with those which the electric waves produce in filings. A connection can also be established between this effect of the waves and the variations of contact resistance which enabled Hughes to construct the microphone, that admirable instrument which is one of the essential organs of telephony.
More directly, as an antecedent to the discovery, should be quoted the remark made by Varley in 1870, that coal-dust changes in conductivity when the electromotive force of the current which passes through it is made to vary. But it was in 1884 that an Italian professor, Signor Calzecchi-Onesti, demonstrated in a series of remarkable experiments that the metallic filings contained in a tube of insulating material, into which two metallic electrodes are inserted, acquire a notable conductivity under different influences such as extra currents, induced currents, sonorous vibrations, etc., and that this conductivity is easily destroyed; as, for instance, by turning the tube over and over.
In several memoirs published in 1890 and 1891, M. Ed. Branly independently pointed out similar phenomena, and made a much more complete and systematic study of the question. He was the first to note very clearly that the action described could be obtained by simply making sparks pass in the neighbourhood of the radio-conductor, and that their great resistance could be restored to the filings by giving a slight shake to the tube or to its supports.