Atop Signal Hill, Newfoundland, a perpetually distracted young man tweets a message and photo link to a largely uninterested world by tapping a touch-screen on his handheld computer. From that same place, Guglielmo Marconi, 113 years earlier, fumbled with balloons and kites in a constant and biting December wind before successfully receiving a wireless message – a crude “dot.dot.dot” Morse code transmission, the letter “S” – that was barely audible over the static in his telephone receiver. The message, which originated in Cornwall, England, bounced off the ionosphere, across the Atlantic Ocean and into Marconi’s ear and news of the achievement spanned the globe. A popular Canadian Heritage Moment dutifully recounts the message came “Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.”
The young man on the hill takes a photo of a small vessel as it chugs out of St. John’s harbour, the focal point of the city. The boat is crammed full of tourists, who have allotted two hours of their vacations towards a sightseeing expedition, and they snap photos of the hill the young man stands upon, in part due to Marconi’s accomplishment. The young man and these tourists will show these photos to loved ones when they return home to demonstrate that they did in fact visit the harbour and the hill, and so they can also recite the few tidbits they learned during the brief breaks between photo-taking. Though today it is used primarily as a hiking or jogging trail by locals, the young man and the tourists will say that Signal Hill also has served as a lookout and communications hub for ships entering and exiting St. John’s perfect harbour, the most easterly port in North America. The hill’s information placards boast that the harbour is likely the world’s most sheltered and has nurtured communities for thousands of years, going back to nomadic Mi’kmaq hunters, and later European explorers and settlers. The mouth of the harbour opens to the Atlantic Ocean at the Narrows, as tight as 61-metres across at one point, before doglegging into the harbour proper, nestled between the magisterial green hills and today’s city. This anomaly allowed the city to flourish, providing safe haven for fishing vessels and as a strategic fort for both French and English troops during Canada’s defining skirmishes and later Western forces during the World Wars. Charles Lindbergh recognized St. John’s geographic importance, buzzing over the Narrows during his famous almost-34-hour maiden solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.
The young man hikes down the hill and stops to marvel at the ancient rock, trying to slow things down inside his head so as to imagine just how epically gradual the geologic and glacial forces were that created and later carved out the shapes of Signal Hill and the harbour. But this futile meditative time-travel exercise is interrupted by the roar of twin turbine engines: a passenger jet, taking off from St. John’s airport with 200 or so perpetually distracted humans aboard, accelerates assuredly overhead. The young man catches a glimpse of the giant metallic glimmering bird through a patch of blue in the fog and then it disappears just as suddenly, on its scheduled five-and-a-half-hour transatlantic voyage. Through the air, across the ocean. At least once a day.