xxxxxThe Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi developed an interest in wireless telegraphy after studying the work of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. By a series of experiments and constant modification of various components, he managed to send a Morse code signal over more than a mile in 1895, and three years later, working in England, he succeeded in establishing communication across the English Channel, a distance of over 30 miles. The big and decisive break through came in 1901, however, when a signal was transmitted from Cornwall, in southern England, to Saint John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. This success awoke the world to the potential of wireless, and the radio industry, led by his Wireless Telegraph Company, developed rapidly. The first radio message from England to Australia was made in 1918, and in the 1920s Marconi began work on a communication network for the British Commonwealth, employing a shortwave system. His career was not without controversy. A number of scientists claimed, with just cause, that he had patented work that they had invented, and others that in the 1890s they had sent wireless messages for distances comparable to those he had achieved. However, it was generally accepted that he had made marked improvements to the system, and that, unlike most of his contemporaries, he alone had gone out purposefully to make wireless telegraphy a workable, commercial enterprise.

GUGLIELMO MARCONI  1874 - 1937  (Vb, Vc, E7, G5, G6)


Marconi: by the Pach Brothers, a photographic studio founded in New York City in 1867 – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. St.John’s: contained in an article entitled Marconi’s Achievement in the American illustrated monthly periodical McClure’s Magazine (1893-1929), published in the issue of February 1902, artist unknown. Tesla: postcard by the New York photographer Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), c1890. Titanic: headlines, The Boston Daily Globe, 16th April 1912. Fessenden: date and artist unknown. Hall: contained in The Popular Science Monthly, New York, 1908, photographer unknown.

xxxxxThe Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi was one of the leading pioneers in the development of radio, and the inventor of the first practical radio-signalling system. It was in 1895 that he managed to achieve radio communication over the distance of a mile, and by the turn of the century radio contact had been achieved across the Atlantic. His Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, established in 1897, helped to develop a radio communication system which covered the entire globe within his lifetime. In recognition of his work in the field of wireless telegraphy he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909 and, at his death in 1937, radio stations across the world went off the air for two minutes as a tribute to “the father of wireless”.

xxxxxMarconi was born in Bologna, northern Italy, the second son of Giuseppe Marconi, a wealthy Italian landowner, and Annie Jameson, daughter of an Irish Protestant family. He was educated privately in Bologna and Florence, and then attended the technical institute in Leghorn. It was while studying physics at this coastal town that he came into contact with the theory of electromagnetic radiation, the discovery of the Scottish physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, and with the experiments carried out in the late 1880s by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz into wireless telegraphy - confirming Maxwell’s findings by the discovery of what came to be known as “Herztian waves”.

xxxxxAs early as the age of 16, Marconi, was showing a particular interest in wireless telegraphy. Working at his father’s estate at Pontecchio near Bologna, indoors and later in the grounds, he repeated some of the experiments carried out by Hertz, and soon found that by earthing the transmitter and receiver, and by insulating the aerial and extending its height, he could substantially increase the distance of transmission. By 1895, placing metal sheets around the antenna to narrow the beam - thereby increasing performance and reducing interference - and by introducing a coherer - an enhanced means of converting the radio waves into electric current - he succeeded in sending signals over one and a half miles. Now convinced that with further improvements his wireless communication system could be made to work over much longer distances - thus proving of value both commercially and militarily - he offered it to the Italian government. Support, however, was not forthcoming and he was forced to go elsewhere.

xxxxxIn 1896 he travelled to England and, after he had patented his system, the first of its kind, he gained the interest and support of William Preece, the chief electrical engineer of the British Post Office. The following year he formed his own company in London, the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, Ltd. (changed in 1900 to Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, Ltd.) and set about establishing the first radio factory at Chelmsford in Essex. There then followed a series of attempts to extend the reach of the signal and prove that wireless telegraphy was, indeed, both practical and commercially viable. In 1897 he sent a Morse code signal nearly four miles across Salisbury Plain and almost ten miles across the Bristol Channel. Then in August 1899 communication was established across the English Channel, a distance of over 30 miles, and the following month two U.S. ships, equipped by Marconi, sent back to New York the progress of the international yacht race for the America’s Cup. This played an important part in arousing worldwide interest, and led to the establishment of the American Marconi Company.

xxxxxBut the big and decisive break through came in December 1901. It was then that a signal, sent out from Poldhu in South Cornwall, crossed the Atlantic and was received, albeit faintly, at Saint John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, some 2,100 miles distant. Contrary to what many scientists had feared, the curvature of the Earth proved no hindrance to the passage of radio waves.


xxxxxThe impact of this accomplishment was immense. Here was a system that, given more funding, might well result in the establishment of a wireless communication service that covered the globe. It was an achievement that marked the beginning of a vast broadcasting industry worldwide, promoted in large measure by Marconi himself. In 1904 a commercial service was established for shipping and, three years later, a transatlantic service was in place for public use. Then, following his development of the horizontal directional aerial in 1905, and, seven years later, the introduction of the continuous wave system to boost output, transmission was substantially improved and made possible the first radio message from England to Australia in September 1918.

xxxxxIn the meantime, the system was adopted by both the Italian and British navies during he First World War (1914-18), and Marconi, as director of the Italian military wireless service, worked for both the army and navy. It was at this time that he began experimenting with shortwave transmission, a method better suited for long distance communication, and this was to become his prime scientific interest throughout the remaining years of his life. For much of that time he lived aboard his yacht Elettra, equipped as a receiving station and fitted out with a laboratory. In 1924, on the strength of this later research, Marconi obtained a contract to set up a network of shortwave communication between the United Kingdom and the member countries of the British Commonwealth. He died of a heart attack in Rome in July 1937.

xxxxxForxhis contribution to the invention and development of wireless telegraphy, many honours and titles came his way. None was more prestigious than the Nobel Prize for Physics, shared in 1909 with Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850-1918), the German physicist who was himself a pioneer in the development of radio. Braun - remembered mostly today for building the first cathode ray tube (the “Braun tube”) in 1897 - worked on wireless telegraph after being appointed professor of physics at Strasbourg University in 1898. He substantially increased the power and range of radio transmission by inventing the directional antenna and introducing magnetic coupling. Marconi later admitted to him that he had “borrowed” some of his patents.

xxxxxThe legality of patents - the vexed question as to who could claim priority of invention - meant that Marconi’s professional career was dogged with controversy. Many scientists of the day - themselves experimenting with the new electrical phenomena of radio waves - could argue (and some did), that Marconi’s success in the development of a wireless communicating system was achieved by advances which they themselves had made. There is clearly some truth in this. Inxhis early experiments he leant heavily upon components devised by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz and the English physicist Oliver Lodge, and the Croatian-born American physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) (illustrated) - who conducted a wide variety of experiments in wireless telegraphy - at one time complained that Marconi had used 17 of his patents. Andxat one stage Marconi clearly made use of the advanced coherer developed by the French physicist Edouard Branly (1844-1940). Furthermore, there were a number of scientists, including Tesla, Lodge, the Russian physicist Alexander Popov (1859-1905), and the Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), who, working in the 1890s, could claim to have sent wireless messages over comparable distances to those being achieved by Marconi at that time - though evidence was not always forthcoming.

xxxxxTrouble came to a head in 1900 when Marconi’s patent number 7,777, (the famous 4-seven patent), documenting a method of preventing the jamming of wireless signals, became a subject of numerous legal challenges, with many questioning the legitimacy of a large number of his early patents. Over the years a number of these challenges were upheld, but his reputation as the man who had achieved the first practical radio-signalling system was never really in doubt. Whilst he had used the ideas and devices of others, he had modified many of them to improve performance, and, unlike his competitors, some of whom (such as Hertz, Lodge, Branly and Bose) made no attempt to develop their research further, Marconi had purposefully set out, from the very beginning, to develop wireless telegraphy into a workable and commercially viable system of communication.


xxxxxIncidentally, in 1898 Marconi installed radio equipment on the royal yacht so that Queen, Victoria, staying at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, could communicate with the Prince of Wales, and in 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt sent a message of greetings to King Edward VII. It was a wireless message to the police that led to the arrest of the murderer Dr. Crippen when he arrived in Canada with his mistress in 1910, and those who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic, two years later, owed their lives to the distress calls made from the Marconi wireless equipment on board. ……

xxxxx…… Later in life, as a figure of international importance, Marconi became involved in the affairs of state. He became a member of the Italian senate in 1914, and served as the Italian delegate to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. He joined the Italian Fascist Party in 1923, and its leader, Benito Mussolini, was his best man at his wedding in June 1927. He received the hereditary title of Marchese in 1929, and was chosen as president of the Royal Italian Academy the following year.

xxxxxAsxshown above, Marconi and Tesla were certainly not alone in the development of wireless telegraphy and radio at this time. The Canadian physicist Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932) (illustrated), for example, - employed at one time by the American inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse - began experimenting with wireless telegraphy in the late 1890s. In December 1900, having come up with the theory of the continuous wave and the means by which it could be achieved, he became the first scientist to replace the dots and dashes of Morse code with the human voice. The quality of the message, sent over the distance of a mile, was poor, but it marked the birth of radio broadcasting.

xxxxxInx1889 the Welsh electrical engineer William Henry Preece (1834-1913), who studied under Michael Faraday, successfully transmitted and received a Morse code radio signal across Coniston Water in the Lake District - a distance of about a mile - and, as we have seen, he later assisted Marconi in his experiments. Andxthe English physicist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) also made a number of inventions in early radio technology, including an improved radio detector and, in 1898, one of the first loud speakers. Andxitxwas in these closing years of the century that attempts were made to detect radio waves from the sun. Practical experiments were carried out by Lodge, the German astronomers Johannes Wilsing (1856-1943) and Julius Scheiner (1858-1913), and the French astronomer Charles Nordman (1881-1940), whilst theoretical studies were conducted by the German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) (the founder of the quantum theory), and the English electrical engineer Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925).

xxxxxAnd worthy of note in this period was the advance made in the production of the metal known as aluminium, discovered by the English chemist Humphry Davy in 1808, and first produced by the Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Oersted in 1825. Inx1886 the American engineer Charles Martin Hall (1863-1914) (illustrated) discovered the means of producing aluminium by electrolysis (using electricity to cause chemical decomposition). This much cheaper method of extraction was developed at almost the same time by the French chemist Paul Héroult (1863-1914), and it thus came to be known as the Hall-Héroult process. In 1900 Héroult went on to invent the electric arc furnace for the manufacture of steel.