Alexander Stepanovich Popov

By Paul Fleck VE3HTF

By Paul Fleck VE3HTF


Born in the town Krasnoturinsk, Sverdlovsk Oblast, in the Urals as the son of a priest, he became interested in natural sciences when he was a child. His father ensured that Alexander received a good education at the seminary at Perm, and later studying physics at the St. Petersburg University. After graduation in 1882 he started to work as a laboratory assistant at the university. However, due to the poor funding of the university he changed to a teaching job at the Russian Navy’s Torpedo School in Kronstadt on Kotlin Island.
Alexander Stepanovich Popov was a Russian physicist who was the first person to demonstrate the practical application of electromagnetic radio waves.[1] Beginning in the early 1890’s he continued the experiments of other radio pioneers, such as Heinrich Hertz. In 1894 he built the first radio receiver, a version of “The Coherer“. Further refined as a lightning detector, it was presented to the Russian Physical and Chemical Society on May 7, 1895. The day has been celebrated in the Russian Federation as Radio Day. The paper on his findings was published the same year.

In 1888 Heinrich Hertz had produced and transmitted electromagnetic waves, arousing the interest of many scientists. Popov began experiments on the transmission and reception of the so-called Hertzian waves (radio waves) somewhat earlier than Marconi. He modified the coherer developed by Oliver Lodge for detecting these waves, making the first continuously operating detector. Connecting his coherer to a wire antenna, he was able in 1895 to receive and detect the waves produced by an oscillator circuit.

His interests at this time, however, seemed more toward the investigation of atmospheric phenomena such as thunderstorms and lightning; he used his coherer connected to lightning conductors for this purpose. Stimulated by the 1896 patent awarded to Marconi, Popov again turned his attention to radio transmission and enlisted the help of the Russian navy. In 1897 he was able to transmit from ship to shore over a distance of 3 miles (5?km) and managed to persuade the naval authorities to begin installing radio equipment in its vessels. By the end of 1899 he had increased the distance of his ship to shore transmissions to 30 miles (48km). He received little encouragement or support from the Russian government and did not commercialize his discoveries.

The Russians claim, that Popov invented radio communication, is not widely accepted, although he did publish in January 1896 a description of his receiving apparatus that coincides very closely with that described in Marconi’s patent claim of June 1896. Popov is credited however with being the first to use an antenna in the transmission and reception of radio waves. Russia claims that Alexander Stepanovich Popov invented the radio before the Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi. Determining who was the official inventor of the radio is complicated by nationalistic pride, inadequate documentation of events, and differing interpretations of what constitutes inventing the radio. By what most persons in the West consider objective analysis of the facts known, however, Marconi’s work invariably is recognized as having priority over Popov’s. However, Popov’s numerous achievements do merit both recognition and respect.
Popov was the chair of the Department of Physics at St. Petersburg University in 1901 and director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Electrical

Alexander Popov - Russian physicist and electrical engineer (1859-1906)

Alexander Popov – Russian physicist and electrical engineer (1859-1906)

Engineering in 1905. On May 7, 1895, Popov demonstrated that a receiver could detect the electromagnetic waves produced by lightning discharges in the atmosphere many miles away. Popov’s receiver consisted of a “coherer” made of metal filings, together with an antenna, a relay, and a bell. The relay was used to activate the bell that both signaled the occurrence of lightning and served as a “decoherer” (tapper) to ready the coherer to detect the next lightning discharge. The value this instrument could have in weather forecasting was obvious.

There have been many claims by other prominent people during this period for recognition of similar discoveries related to the coherer device.
See the Commemorative stamp to Radio pioneer Alexander Popov USSR 1989

In 1900 a radio station was established under Popov’s instructions on Hogland island (Suursaari) to provide two-way communication by wireless telegraphy between the Russian naval base and the crew of the battleship General-Admiral Apraksin. The battleship ran aground on Hogland island in the Gulf of Finland in November, 1899. The crew of the Apraksin were not in immediate danger, but the water in the Gulf began to freeze. Due to bad weather and bureaucratic red tape, the crew of Apraksin did not arrive until January 1900 to establish a wireless station on Hogland Island. By February 5, however, messages were being received reliably. The wireless messages were relayed to Hogland Island by a station some 25 miles away at Kymi (nowadays Kotka) on the Finnish coast. Kotka was selected as the location for the wireless relay station because it was the point closest to Hogland Island served by telegraph wires connected to Russian naval headquarters.[2]

By the time the Apraksin was freed from the rocks by the icebreaker Yermak at the end of April, 440 official telegraph messages had been handled by the Hogland Island wireless station. Besides the rescue of the Apraksin’s crew, more than 50 Finnish fishermen, who were stranded on a piece of drift ice in the Gulf of Finland, were saved by the icebreaker Yermak following distress telegrams sent by wireless telegraphy.

In 1901 Alexander Popov was appointed as professor at the Electrotechnical Institute, which now bears his name. In 1905 he was
elected director of the institute.
In 1905 Alexander Popov became seriously ill, after being very uneasy about the suppression of a student movement. He died of a brain hemorrhage on January 13, 1906.

Did you know?

A minor planet, 3074 Popov, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Zhuravlyova in 1979, is named after Alexander Popov.[4]

At ITU Telecom World 2011, Mr. Igor Shchyogolev, Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation alongside Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, inaugurated the “Alexander Stepanovich Popov” Boardroom at ITU’s headquarters in Geneva.


Some of his Alexander Popov’s descendents escaped to Manchuria during the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually made their way to the United States. Among others the cousin, Dr. Paul Popov, became a prominent physician in San Francisco and Paul’s son, Egor Popov (1913-2001), became a UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering.[5] [6]

Wikipedia References

1. Early Radio Transmission Recognized as Milestone”. IEEE. Retrieved 16 July 2006.
2. “Aleksandr Popov”. IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 21 July 2011.
3. The Guglielmo Marconi Case; Who is the True Inventor of Radio.
4. Dictionary of Minor Planet Names, 2003, vol.1, p.253
5. Engineering Pioneer Egor Popov
6. The EERI Oral History Series. Egor Popov