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Heinrich Rudolf Hertz didn't know the spark he ignited

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John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Sgt. Mike Germano, of the Worcester County Sheriff's Office, demonstrates how to control the various video cameras mounted on the exterior of the Worcester County Homeland Security Mobile Command Center.

A communication center like this would not have been possible without Heinrich Rudolf Hertz's discovery.

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From a modern perspective, it's difficult to fathom how the first person to demonstrate the existence of electromagnetic waves didn't understand the implications of his discovery.

In the late 1880s, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was teaching at Karlsruhe Polytechnic in Berlin when he first produced electromagnetic waves and measured their wavelengths and velocity. He wrote of the experiment, "In a perfectly dark room [the sparks] are visible to an eye which has been well rested in the dark," according to a 1957 Scientific American article.

His students wanted to understand the applications of his discovery, but Hertz told them, "It's of no use whatsoever." He felt that his experiment was merely an exercise to demonstrate the accuracy of previous calculations of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

Though Hertz himself didn't view his work as important, it didn't take long for others to realize its significance. "Three years ago, electromagnetic waves were nowhere. Shortly afterward, they were everywhere," said Sir Oliver Heaviside, an English mathematical physicist, in 1891.

Hertz's discovery sparked (pardon the pun) a race to turn this new understanding of electromagnetic waves into a device for communication.

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