Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
We’ve all heard of the telegraph, the first device that enabled long distance communication, but what about the inventor that took the telegraph’s capabilities to the next level? Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian physicist, is known as the “father of radio” thanks to his contributions to wireless telegraphy that enabled for the expansion of communication across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history.
Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy on April 25, 1874 to Giuseppe Marconi and Annie Jameson. His father was a wealthy land owner and his mother descended from the Jameson family of Irish whiskey distillers. Marconi was privately educated at his father’s estate in Bologna where he quickly developed an affinity for science and physics.
To satisfy his son’s thirst for technical knowledge, Marconi’s father hired a tutor from Livorno Technical Institute in 1891, when Marconi was 17 years old. The tutor, Vincenzo Rosa, taught him the basics of physical phenomena as well as studies in electricity. Later, in 1893, Marconi was taken on by a new tutor named Augusto Righi who was a physicist at the University of Bologna.
Righi allowed Marconi to attended university lectures as well as access to the library where he learned of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the German physicist responsible for discovering radio waves. Herts’ theories of “invisible waves” generated by electromagnetic interactions inspired Marconi to investigate further.
In 1895, he began to perform his own experiments at his father’s estate where he applied the theory of Hertzian waves to transmitting and receiving radio signals over distances without wires. He ultimately succeeded in sending wireless signals over a distance of 1 ½ miles. Although this distance doesn’t seem like much, it was remarkable for a time when no one had transmitted wireless signals before. Seeking to patent his device, Marconi first looked to cultivate interest within the Italian government, but when he was turned down, he sought support in the United Kingdom.
At just 22 years of age, Marconi traveled to England to demonstrate his device finding backers at the British Post Office. The post office used electric telegraphs that were the principle means for sending printed information at the time. The telegraph used electric pulses to carry messages condensed into Morse Code along conductor wires. The post office stations were all connected by these wires held overhead by utility poles.
Marconi’s device offered a way to convey these messages without the use of wires, which would thus allow communication overseas; something that had not yet been achieved. It also presented a more cost-effective method of communication, as opposed to the electric telegraph that cost more to build and maintain if a wire was damaged.
Later that year, with the help of British Post Office engineers, Marconi improved his design and received a patent for the world’s first wireless telegraph system. By the next year, 1897, Marconi’s wireless telegraph had achieved a range of 12 miles. It was also during this year that he founded the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company, now known more commonly as the Marconi Company, which manufactured and sold his telegraphs.
As the Marconi Company was the world’s first wireless telegraph business, it came as no surprise that it was the dominant enterprise of its kind in the United Kingdom. However, Marconi’s influence didn’t end in the UK. In December 1898, Marconi succeeded in establishing wireless communication between England and France and erected permanent, stations at the Royal Needles Hotel, Alum Bay, and the Isle of Wight to allow Queen Victoria to speak with her son, Prince Edward, aboard a royal yacht.
In 1899, Marconi traveled to America where he offered to broadcast the America’s Cup yacht race from off the shore of New Jersey, which marked the beginning of his business dealings in the United States. After gaining significant recognition for his coverage of the Cup, Marconi decided to establish a subsidiary of Marconi Company in the States called Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company of America or “American Marconi.” As it would turn out, Marconi’s American subsidiary would remain the dominant radio communications provider in the United States until 1919 when the Radio Corporation of America was formed.
During WWI, the American government became the dominant figure in the radio industry. Due to distrust that was sewn between nations as a result of the war, America no longer trusted their radio services in the hands of a British company out of concern for national security. American Marconi was eventually bought by General Electric in 1919 and renamed the Radio Corporation of America.
Marconi continued to strive for stronger and better wireless telegraph performance and in 1900 he patented a system that was tuned for a coupled circuit. This allowed simultaneous transmissions of several different frequencies, thus greater versatility and capacity.
Over the following year, Marconi began working on a solution to send signals across the Atlantic to prove that radio waves could travel past the horizon.
Many physicists believed this would never be possible because radio waves travel in straight lines and wouldn’t curve with the earth. Despite the skepticism, Marconi persevered, coming to the conclusion that the radio waves’ straight trajectory would lead it to collide with the ionosphere and bounce off it, thus approximating the Earth’s curve. On December 12, 1901, after many previous failures, he managed to pick up a faint signal in Newfoundland that had been sent from Cornwall, proving his theory correct.
The telegraph’s ability to access multiple frequencies and transmit “over-the-horizon” proved handy aboard shipping vessels. Each frequency was used for different purposes including communication with other ships, navigation reports and distress signals. Subsequently, Marconi’s telegraph became standard issued equipment on maritime vessels. The telegraphs were operated by “Marconi Men,” men who were trained specifically and for many years in the operation of wireless telegraphs.
In 1909, Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics with Karl F. Braun, a German electrical engineer. Both were crowned the “father of radio” due to Marconi’s groundbreaking work in wireless long-distance communication and Braun’s contribution to the invention of the television. Braun introduced the first cathode-ray tube and ray tube oscilloscope to name only a few of his inventions.
After a fruitful lifetime of accomplishment, Marconi passed away of a heart attack while in Rome in 1937, but his accomplishments live on and can never be forgotten. The wireless telegraph was the foundation onto which later developments in radio communication and navigation would build.
“Marconi History,” Columbia University, http://www.seas.columbia.edu/marconi/history.html#:~:text=Marconi%20started%20his%20experiments%20on,the%20performance%20of%20Hertz’s%20apparatus.
“Guglielmo Marconi: Italian Physicist,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Guglielmo-Marconi
“A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Guglielmo Marconi,” PBS Organization, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btmarc.html
“Guglielmo Marconi – History,” History, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/guglielmo-marconi
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