Popov, Aleksandr Stepanovich

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(b. Turinsk mining village, at the Bogoslov works [now Krasnoturinsk, Sverdlovsk oblast], Russia, 16 March 1859; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 13 January 1906), physics technology.

The son of a priest, Popov received a free seminary education to encourage him to follow his father’s profession. After graduating from the seminary in Perm [now Molotov], he did not continue his clerical education, for he had become interested instead in physics, mathematics, and engineering. After preparing privately for the entrance examinations, he was admitted to the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of St. Petersburg University in 1877. While still a student Popov began in 1881 to work at the Elektrotekhnik artel, which ran the first small electric power stations in Russia and the first electric lighting installations using arc lamps.

After finishing his studies and defending his dissertation (1882), Popov declined an offer to remain at the university in order to prepare for an Acadmic career, because there was no opportunity there to conduct experimental research in electrical engineering. In 1883 he became an assistant at the Torpedo School in Kronstadt, which trained naval specialists in all branches of electrical engineering. An instructor at the school from 1888, Popov lectured and conducted laboratory sessions in electricity and magnetism, as well as on electrical machines and motors. He stayed at Kronstadt until 1900.

Popov became interested in electromagnetic waves following their discovery by Hertz in 1888. In 1890 E. Branly discovered the decrease of electrical resistance in metallic powders under the influence of electrical discharges. In 1894 Oliver Lodge used this discovery to construct an indicator of electromagnetic waves, which he called a coherer. Lodge’s first indicator had a serious flaw: under the action of electromagnetic waves, the grains of powder stuck together and the sensitivity of the apparatus declined sharply. Lodge, and later Popov, improved this indicator, equipping it with an electric bell-like apparatus that automatically tapped the powder tube when the impulse of current was produced and thereby restored its sensitivity for receiving the original signal. By constructing the first continuously operating indicator, Popov made it possible, as he wrote in 1895, “to note separate, successive discharges of an oscillatory character.”

Having screened the receiver from outside variable fields and having equipped it with a wire antenna, Popov demonstrated the possibility of receiving signals sent by Hertz’s oscillator, at a distance of up to eight meters.

In a public lecture, “Ob otnoshenii metallicheskikh poroshkov k elektricheskim kolebaniam” (“On the Relation of Metallic Powders to Electrical Oscillations”), presented on 7 May 1895 to the Physical Section of the Russian Physicochemical Society in St. Petersburg, Popov demonstrated the reception of electromagnetic signals for the first time. In January 1896 he published a more extensive account in “Pribor dlya obnaruzhenia i registratssi elektricheskikh kolebany” (“An Apparatus for Detecting and Recording Electrical Oscillations”), in which he introduced a detailed circuit diagram. The article concluded with “the hope that my apparatus, when perfected, may be used for the transmission of signals over a distance with the help of rapid electrical oscillations, as soon as a source of such vibrations with sufficient energy is discovered.”

In the summer of 1895 Popov had adapted his instrument for the automatic registration of atmospheric oscillatory discharges; it was later called a storm indicator. Experiments with it led Popov to study the possible influence of atmospheric obstacles to the transmission of signals. By the beginning of 1896 Popov had substantially improved his receiver and had obtained important results in transmitting and receiving signals. Before the summer of 1896 the improved apparatus had been publicly demonstrated three times, in Kronstadt and St. Petersburg.

In the fall of 1896 the first published notice of Marconi’s invention of a wireless telegraph appeared; his claim dated from June 1896. When he was issued a patent in 1897 and the diagram of his apparatus was published, it appeared to coincide almost completely with the description published in January 1896 by Popov. A commission of competence, established in 1908 by the Physical Section of the Russian Physicochemical Society to investigate the question of priority, concluded that Popov “was justified as being recognized as the inventor of the wireless telegraph.”

Popov’s improvements (1897–1900) in his radiotelegraph led to its practical use by the Russian navy and its introduction into the army, but the development of radio in the tsarist armed forces proceeded very slowly, compared with those of other nations.

In 1901 Popov became professor at the St. Petersburg Institute of Electrical Engineering, and in 1905 he was elected its director. In December 1905 he was ordered by the governor of St. Petersburg to take repressive measures against student political disturbances. Popov refused, and this event severely affected his health. He died soon afterward.


I. Original Works. The claim of Popov’s priority as the inventor of radio rests on a one-paragraph summary of the report he made at a meeting on 7 May 1895, in Zhurnal Russkago fiziko-khimicheskago obshchestva . . . 27 (1895), 259–260; and on a more extensive and updated account, ibid., 28 (1896), 1–4, describing his recorder of electrical disturbances, which expresses his hopes for the signaling possibilities of his apparatus “when perfected.” An English trans. of this article appeared in Electrical Review (London), 47 (1900), 845–846, and 882–883. A bibliography of Popov’s writings, lectures, and patents was compiled by A. M. Lukomskaya in A. S. Popov (Moscow, 1951). A more extensive, annotated bibliography of the field is in A. I. Berg, ed., Izobretenie radio. A. S. Popov. Dokumenty i materialy (“The Invention of Radio. A. S. Popov. Documents and Materials“; Moscow, 1966).

II. Secondary Literarure. Of the extensive scientific and popular literature about Popov, three book-length studies are noteworthy: A. I. Berg and M. I. Radovsky, Izobretatel radio A. S. Popov, (“A. S. Popov: Inventor of Radio”; Moscow, 1945); I. V. Brenev, Izobretenie radio A. S. Popovym) (“The Invention of Radio by A. S. Popov”; Moscow, 1965); and A. S. Popov v kharakteristikakh i vospominaniakh sovremennikov (“. . . Popov in the Characterizations and Recollections of His Contemporaries”; Moscow, 1959). The first, an account by a surviving collaborator, appeared in English in the Men of Russian Science series as M. Radovsky, Alexander Popov: Inventor of Radio (Moscow, 1957). For a critical review of Popov’s contribution, see C. Süsskind, Popov and the Beginnings of Radiotelegraphy (San Francisco, 1962, 1973).

J. G. Dorfman