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Marconi was born into the Italian nobility as Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi in Palazzo Marescalchi in Bologna on 25 April 1874, the second son of Giuseppe Marconi (an Italian aristocratic landowner from Porretta Terme) and his Irish wife Annie Jameson (daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford, Ireland, and granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons). Marconi had a brother, Alfonso, and a stepbrother, Luigi. Between the ages of two and six, Marconi and his elder brother Alfonso lived with their mother in the English town of Bedford.
Marconi did not attend school as a child and did not go on to formal higher education. Instead, he learned chemistry, mathematics, and physics at home from a series of private tutors hired by his parents. His family hired additional tutors for Guglielmo in the winter when they would leave Bologna for the warmer climate of Tuscany or Florence. Marconi noted an important mentor was professor Vincenzo Rosa, a high school physics teacher in Livorno. Rosa taught the 17-year-old Marconi the basics of physical phenomena as well as new theories on electricity. At the age of 18 and back in Bologna, Marconi became acquainted with University of Bologna physicist Augusto Righi, who had done research on Heinrich Hertz's work. Righi permitted Marconi to attend lectures at the university and also to use the University's laboratory and library.
From youth, Marconi was interested in science and electricity. In the early 1890s, he began working on the idea of "wireless telegraphy"--i.e., the transmission of telegraph messages without connecting wires as used by the electric telegraph. This was not a new idea; numerous investigators and inventors had been exploring wireless telegraph technologies and even building systems using electric conduction, electromagnetic induction and optical (light) signalling for over 50 years, but none had proven technically and commercially successful. A relatively new development came from Heinrich Hertz, who, in 1888, demonstrated that one could produce and detect electromagnetic radiation, based on the work of James Clerk Maxwell. At the time, this radiation was commonly called "Hertzian" waves, and is now generally referred to as radio waves.
There was a great deal of interest in radio waves in the physics community, but this interest was in the scientific phenomenon, not in its potential as a communication method. Physicists generally looked on radio waves as an invisible form of light that could only travel along a line of sight path, limiting its range to the visual horizon like existing forms of visual signaling. Hertz's death in 1894 brought published reviews of his earlier discoveries including a demonstration on the transmission and detection of radio waves by the British physicist Oliver Lodge and an article about Hertz's work by Augusto Righi. Righi's article renewed Marconi's interest in developing a wireless telegraphy system based on radio waves, a line of inquiry that Marconi noted other inventors did not seem to be pursuing.
Developing radio telegraphy
Marconi's first transmitter incorporating a monopole antenna. It consisted of an elevated copper sheet (top) connected to a Righi spark gap (left) powered by an induction coil(center) with a telegraph key(right) to switch it on and off to spell out text messages in Morse code.
At the age of 20, Marconi began to conduct experiments in radio waves, building much of his own equipment in the attic of his home at the Villa Griffone in Pontecchio (now an administrative subdivision of Sasso Marconi), Italy, with the help of his butler, Mignani. Marconi built on Hertz's original experiments and, at the suggestion of Righi, began using a coherer, an early detector based on the 1890 findings of French physicist Édouard Branly and used in Lodge's experiments, that changed resistance when exposed to radio waves. In the summer of 1894, he built a storm alarm made up of a battery, a coherer, and an electric bell, which went off when it picked up the radio waves generated by lightning.
Late one night, in December 1894, Marconi demonstrated a radio transmitter and receiver to his mother, a set-up that made a bell ring on the other side of the room by pushing a telegraphic button on a bench. Supported by his father, Marconi continued to read through the literature and picked up on the ideas of physicists who were experimenting with radio waves. He developed devices, such as portable transmitters and receiver systems, that could work over long distances, turning what was essentially a laboratory experiment into a useful communication system. Marconi came up with a functional system with many components:
A wire or metal sheet capacity area suspended at a height above the ground;
A coherer receiver, which was a modification of Édouard Branly's original device with refinements to increase sensitivity and reliability;
A telegraph key to operate the transmitter to send short and long pulses, corresponding to the dots-and-dashes of Morse code; and
A telegraph register activated by the coherer which recorded the received Morse code dots and dashes onto a roll of paper tape.
In the summer of 1895, Marconi moved his experiments outdoors on his father's estate in Bologna. He tried different arrangements and shapes of antenna but even with improvements he was able to transmit signals only up to one half-mile, a distance Oliver Lodge had predicted in 1894 as the maximum transmission distance for radio waves.
A breakthrough came in the summer of 1895, when Marconi found that much greater range could be achieved after he raised the height of his antenna and, borrowing from a technique used in wired telegraphy, grounded his transmitter and receiver. With these improvements, the system was capable of transmitting signals up to 2 miles (3.2 km) and over hills. The monopole antenna reduced the frequency of the waves compared to the dipole antennas used by Hertz, and radiated vertically polarized radio waves which could travel longer distances. By this point, he concluded that a device could become capable of spanning greater distances, with additional funding and research, and would prove valuable both commercially and militarily. Marconi's experimental apparatus proved to be the first engineering-complete, commercially successful radio transmission system.
Marconi wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, then under the direction of Pietro Lacava, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter, which was eventually dismissed by the Minister, who wrote "to the Longara" on the document, referring to the insane asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome.
In 1896, Marconi spoke with his family friend Carlo Gardini, Honorary Consul at the United States Consulate in Bologna, about leaving Italy to go to Great Britain. Gardini wrote a letter of introduction to the Ambassador of Italy in London, Annibale Ferrero, explaining who Marconi was and about his extraordinary discoveries. In his response, Ambassador Ferrero advised them not to reveal Marconi's results until after a patent was obtained. He also encouraged Marconi to come to Britain, where he believed it would be easier to find the necessary funds to convert his experiments into practical use.
Finding little interest or appreciation for his work in Italy, Marconi travelled to London in early 1896 at the age of 21, accompanied by his mother, to seek support for his work. (He spoke fluent English in addition to Italian.) Marconi arrived at Dover, and the Customs officer opened his case to find various apparatus. The customs officer immediately contacted the Admiralty in London. While there, Marconi gained the interest and support of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the General Post Office (the GPO). During this time Marconi decided he should patent his system, which he applied for on 2 June 1896, British Patent number 12039 titled "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor", which would become the first patent for a radio wave based communication system.
Demonstrations and achievements
British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi's radio equipment during a demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897. The transmitter is at centre, the coherer receiver below it, and the pole supporting the wire antenna is visible at top.
Marconi made the first demonstration of his system for the British government in July 1896. A further series of demonstrations for the British followed, and, by March 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of about 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) across Salisbury Plain. On 13 May 1897, Marconi sent the first ever wireless communication over open sea - a message was transmitted over the Bristol Channel from Flat Holm Island to Lavernock Point near Cardiff, a distance of 6 kilometres (3.7 mi). The message read, "Are you ready". The transmitting equipment was almost immediately relocated to Brean Down Fort on the Somerset coast, stretching the range to 16 kilometres (9.9 mi).
Plaque on the outside of the BT Centre commemorates Marconi's first public transmission of wireless signals.
Impressed by these and other demonstrations, Preece introduced Marconi's ongoing work to the general public at two important London lectures: "Telegraphy without Wires", at the Toynbee Hall on 11 December 1896; and "Signalling through Space without Wires", given to the Royal Institution on 4 June 1897.
In December 1898, the British lightship service authorised the establishment of wireless communication between the South Foreland lighthouse at Dover and the East Goodwin lightship, twelve miles distant. On 17 March 1899, the East Goodwin lightship sent the first SOS message, a signal on behalf of the merchant vessel Elbe which had run aground on Goodwin Sands. The message was received by the radio operator of the South Foreland lighthouse, who summoned the aid of the Ramsgate lifeboat.
SS Ponce entering New York Harbor 1899, by Milton J. Burns
In the autumn of 1899, the first demonstrations in the United States took place. Marconi had sailed to the U.S. at the invitation of The New York Herald newspaper to cover the America's Cup international yacht races off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The transmission was done aboard the SS Ponce, a passenger ship of the Porto Rico Line. Marconi left for England on 8 November 1899 on the American Line's SS Saint Paul, and he and his assistants installed wireless equipment aboard during the voyage. On 15 November Saint Paul became the first ocean liner to report her imminent return to Great Britain by wireless when Marconi's Royal Needles Hotel radio station contacted her 66 nautical miles off the English coast.
Marconi watching associates raising the kite (a "Levitor" by B.F.S. Baden-Powell) used to lift the antenna at St. John's, Newfoundland, December 1901
At the turn of the 20th century, Marconi began investigating a means to signal across the Atlantic to compete with the transatlantic telegraph cables. Marconi established a wireless transmitting station at Marconi House, Rosslare Strand, County Wexford, in 1901 to act as a link between Poldhu in Cornwall, England, and Clifden in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. He soon made the announcement that the message was received at Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland (now part of Canada), on 12 December 1901, using a 500-foot (150 m) kite-supported antenna for reception--signals transmitted by the company's new high-power station at Poldhu, Cornwall. The distance between the two points was about 2,200 miles (3,500 km). It was heralded as a great scientific advance, yet there also was--and continues to be--considerable scepticism about this claim. The exact wavelength used is not known, but it is fairly reliably determined to have been in the neighbourhood of 350 meters (frequency ? 850 kHz). The tests took place at a time of day during which the entire transatlantic path was in daylight. It is now known (although Marconi did not know then) that this was the worst possible choice. At this medium wavelength, long-distance transmission in the daytime is not possible because of heavy absorption of the skywave in the ionosphere. It was not a blind test; Marconi knew in advance to listen for a repetitive signal of three clicks, signifying the Morse code letter S. The clicks were reported to have been heard faintly and sporadically. There was no independent confirmation of the reported reception, and the transmissions were difficult to distinguish from atmospheric noise. A detailed technical review of Marconi's early transatlantic work appears in John S. Belrose's work of 1995. The Poldhu transmitter was a two-stage circuit.
Marconi demonstrating apparatus he used in his first long-distance radio transmissions in the 1890s. The transmitter is at right, the receiver with paper tape recorder at left.
Feeling challenged by sceptics, Marconi prepared a better organised and documented test. In February 1902, the SS Philadelphia sailed west from Great Britain with Marconi aboard, carefully recording signals sent daily from the Poldhu station. The test results produced coherer-tape reception up to 1,550 miles (2,490 km), and audio reception up to 2,100 miles (3,400 km). The maximum distances were achieved at night, and these tests were the first to show that radio signals for medium wave and longwave transmissions travel much farther at night than in the day. During the daytime, signals had been received up to only about 700 miles (1,100 km), less than half of the distance claimed earlier at Newfoundland, where the transmissions had also taken place during the day. Because of this, Marconi had not fully confirmed the Newfoundland claims, although he did prove that radio signals could be sent for hundreds of kilometres (miles), despite some scientists' belief that they were limited essentially to line-of-sight distances.
On 17 December 1902, a transmission from the Marconi station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada, became the world's first radio message to cross the Atlantic from North America. In 1901, Marconi built a station near South Wellfleet, Massachusetts, that sent a message of greetings on 18 January 1903 from United States President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. However, consistent transatlantic signalling was difficult to establish.
Marconi began to build high-powered stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea, in competition with other inventors. In 1904, he established a commercial service to transmit nightly news summaries to subscribing ships, which could incorporate them into their on-board newspapers. A regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was finally begun on 17 October 1907 between Clifden, Ireland, and Glace Bay, but even after this the company struggled for many years to provide reliable communication to others.
The role played by Marconi Co. wireless in maritime rescues raised public awareness of the value of radio and brought fame to Marconi, particularly the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912 and the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915.
On 18 June 1912, Marconi gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Titanic regarding the marine telegraphy's functions and the procedures for emergencies at sea. Britain's Postmaster-General summed up, referring to the Titanic disaster: "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvellous invention." Marconi was offered free passage on the Titanic before she sank, but had taken the Lusitania three days earlier. As his daughter Degna later explained, he had paperwork to do and preferred the public stenographer aboard that vessel.
Over the years, the Marconi companies gained a reputation for being technically conservative, in particular by continuing to use inefficient spark-transmitter technology, which could be used only for radio-telegraph operations, long after it was apparent that the future of radio communication lay with continuous-wave transmissions which were more efficient and could be used for audio transmissions. Somewhat belatedly, the company did begin significant work with continuous-wave equipment beginning in 1915, after the introduction of the oscillating vacuum tube (valve). The New Street Works factory in Chelmsford was the location for the first entertainment radio broadcasts in the United Kingdom in 1920, employing a vacuum tube transmitter and featuring Dame Nellie Melba. In 1922, regular entertainment broadcasts commenced from the Marconi Research Centre at Great Baddow, forming the prelude to the BBC, and he spoke of the close association of aviation and wireless telephony in that same year at a private gathering with Florence Tyzack Parbury, and even spoke of interplanetary wireless communication.
Later years and Fascism
Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?
While helping to develop microwave technology, the Marchese Marconi suffered nine heart attacks in the span of three years preceding his death. Marconi died in Rome on 20 July 1937 at age 63, following the ninth, fatal, heart attack, and Italy held a state funeral for him. As a tribute, shops on the street where he lived were "Closed for national mourning". In addition, at 6 pm the next day, the time designated for the funeral, transmitters around the world observed two minutes of silence in his honour. The British Post Office also sent a message requesting that all broadcasting ships honour Marconi with two minutes of broadcasting silence. His remains are housed in the Mausoleum of Guglielmo Marconi in the grounds of Villa Griffone at Sasso Marconi, Emilia-Romagna, which assumed that name in his honour in 1938.
In 1943, Marconi's elegant sailing yacht, the Elettra, was commandeered and refitted as a warship by the German Navy. She was sunk by the RAF on 22 January 1944. After the war, the Italian Government tried to retrieve the wreckage, to rebuild the boat, and the wreckage was removed to Italy. Eventually, the idea was abandoned, and the wreckage was cut into pieces which were distributed amongst Italian museums.
In 1943, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision on Marconi's radio patents restoring some of the prior patents of Oliver Lodge, John Stone Stone, and Nikola Tesla. The decision was not about Marconi's original radio patents and the court declared that their decision had no bearing on Marconi's claim as the first to achieve radio transmission, just that since Marconi's claim to certain patents was questionable, he could not claim infringement on those same patents. There are claims the high court was trying to nullify a World War I claim against the United States government by the Marconi Company via simply restoring the non-Marconi prior patent.
Marconi was a friend of Charles van Raalte and his wife Florence, the owners of Brownsea Island; and of Margherita, their daughter, and in 1904 he met her Irish friend, The Hon. Beatrice O'Brien (1882-1976), a daughter of The 14th Baron Inchiquin. On 16 March 1905, Beatrice O'Brien and Marconi were married, and spent their honeymoon on Brownsea Island. They had three daughters, Degna (1908-1998), Gioia (1916-1996), and Lucia (born and died 1906), and a son, Giulio, 2nd Marchese Marconi (1910-1971). In 1913, the Marconi family returned to Italy and became part of Rome society. Beatrice served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elena. At Marconi's request, his marriage to Beatrice was annulled on 27 April 1927, so he could remarry. Marconi and Beatrice had divorced on 12 February 1924 in the free city of Fiume (Rijeka).
On June 12, 1927, Marconi went on to marry Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali (2 April 1900 - 15 July 1994), the only daughter of Francesco, Count Bezzi-Scali. To do this he had to be confirmed in the Catholic faith and became a devout member of the Church. He was baptised Catholic but had been brought up as a member of the Anglican Church. On 12 June 1927, Marconi married Maria Cristina in a civil service, with a religious ceremony performed on 15 June. Marconi was 53 years old and Maria Cristina was 26. They had one daughter, Maria Elettra Elena Anna (born 1930), who married Prince Carlo Giovannelli (1942-2016) in 1966; they later divorced. For unexplained reasons, Marconi left his entire fortune to his second wife and their only child, and nothing to the children of his first marriage.
In his lecture he stated: "I reclaim the honour of being the first fascist in the field of radiotelegraphy, the first who acknowledged the utility of joining the electric rays in a bundle, as Mussolini was the first in the political field who acknowledged the necessity of merging all the healthy energies of the country into a bundle, for the greater greatness of Italy".
Marconi wanted to personally introduce in 1931 the first radio broadcast of a Pope, Pius XI, and did announce at the microphone: "With the help of God, who places so many mysterious forces of nature at man's disposal, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will give to the faithful of the entire world the joy of listening to the voice of the Holy Father".
A large collection of Marconi artefacts was held by The General Electric Company, plc (GEC) of the United Kingdom which later renamed itself Marconi plc and Marconi Corporation plc. In December 2004 the extensive Marconi Collection, held at the former Marconi Research Centre at Great Baddow, Chelmsford, Essex UK was donated to the nation by the Company via the University of Oxford. This consisted of the BAFTA award-winning MarconiCalling website, some 250+ physical artefacts and the massive ephemera collection of papers, books, patents and many other items. The artefacts are now held by The Museum of the History of Science and the ephemera Archives by the nearby Bodleian Library. Following three years' work at the Bodleian, an Online Catalogue to the Marconi Archives was released in November 2008.
A granite obelisk stands on the cliff top near the site of Marconi's Marconi's Poldhu Wireless Station in Cornwall, commemorating the first transatlantic transmission.
An urban park square named in 1937 located Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at Oregon Ave and South Broad Street, including later in 1975 a bronze statue erected of Marconi on the east side of Marconi Plaza Park.
Places and organisations named after Marconi
The asteroid 1332 Marconia is named in his honour. A large crater on the far side of the moon is also named after him.
Marconi building at DRA at the University of St. Andrews
The Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada (now CMC Electronics and Ultra Electronics), of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, was created in 1903 by Guglielmo Marconi. In 1925 the company was renamed to the 'Canadian Marconi Company', which was acquired by English Electric in 1953. The company name changed again to CMC Electronics Inc. (French: CMC Électronique) in 2001. In 2002, the company historical radio business was sold to Ultra Electronics to become Ultra Electronics TCS Inc., now doing business as Ultra Communications. Both CMC Electronics and Ultra Communications are still located in Montreal.
As of 2016 the Canadian Marconi Company and CMC Electronics no longer exist. Most bought up by Esterline in Ottawa. The Marine Service Group was acquired by MacKay Marine but many of the employees left the group at transition.
British patent No. 12,039 (1897) "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor". Date of Application 2 June 1896; Complete Specification Left, 2 March 1897; Accepted, 2 July 1897 (later claimed by Oliver Lodge to contain his own ideas which he failed to patent).
British patent No. 7,777 (1900) "Improvements in Apparatus for Wireless Telegraphy". Date of Application 26 April 1900; Complete Specification Left, 25 February 1901; Accepted, 13 April 1901.
British patent No. 5113 (1904) "Improvements in Transmitters suitable for Wireless Telegraphy". Date of Application 1 March 1904; Complete Specification Left, 30 November 1904; Accepted, 19 January August 1905.
British patent No. 21640 (1904) "Improvements in Apparatus for Wireless Telegraphy". Date of Application 8 October 1904; Complete Specification Left, 6 July 1905; Accepted, 10 August 1905.
British patent No. 14788 (1904) "Improvements in or relating to Wireless Telegraphy". Date of Application 18 July 1905; Complete Specification Left, 23 January 1906; Accepted, 10 May 1906.
^Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914, Grove/Atlantic, Inc. - 2010, page 357
^Bondyopadhyay, Prebir K. (1995). "Guglielmo Marconi - The father of long distance radio communication - An engineer's tribute". 25th European Microwave Conference, 1995. p. 879. doi:10.1109/EUMA.1995.337090. S2CID6928472.
^Alfonso, not Guglielmo, was a pupil at Bedford School: 'It is not generally known that the Marconi family at one time lived in Bedford, in the house on Bromham Road on the western corner of Ashburnham Road, and that the elder brother of the renowned Marchese Marconi attended this School for four years.' The Ousel, June 1936, p. 78. From Alfonso's obituary.
^Bedfordshire Times. 23 July 1937, p. 9 (Marconi's obituary)
Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, Year book of wireless telegraphy and telephony, London: Published for the Marconi Press Agency Ltd., by the St. Catherine Press / Wireless Press. LCCN 14017875 sn 86035439
Baker, W. J., A History of the Marconi Company, 1970.
Brodsky, Ira. The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses (Telescope Books, 2008)
Cheney, Margaret, Tesla: Man Out of Time Laurel Publishing, 1981. Chapter 7, esp pp 69, re: published lectures of Tesla in 1893, copied by Marconi.
Clark, Paddy, "Marconi's Irish Connections Recalled," published in 100 Years of Radio, IEE Conference Publication 411, 1995.
Coe, Douglas and Kreigh Collins (ills), Marconi, pioneer of radio, New York, J. Messner, Inc., 1943. LCCN 43010048
Garratt, G. R. M., The early history of radio: from Faraday to Marconi, London, Institution of Electrical Engineers in association with the Science Museum, History of technology series, 1994. ISBN0-85296-845-0 LCCN gb 94011611
Geddes, Keith, Guglielmo Marconi, 1874-1937, London : H.M.S.O., A Science Museum booklet, 1974. ISBN0-11-290198-0 LCCN 75329825 (ed. Obtainable in the United States. from Pendragon House Inc., Palo Alto, California.)
Hancock, Harry Edgar, Wireless at sea; the first fifty years: A history of the progress and development of marine wireless communications written to commemorate the jubilee of the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, Limited, Chelmsford, Eng., Marconi International Marine Communication Co., 1950. LCCN 51040529 /L
Homer, Peter and O'Connor, Finbar, Marconi Wireless Radio Station: Malin Head from 1902, 2014.
Janniello, Maria Grace, Monteleone, Franco and Paoloni, Giovanni (eds) (1996), One hundred years of radio: From Marconi to the future of the telecommunications. Catalogue of the extension, Venice: Marsilio.
Jolly, W. P., Marconi, 1972.
Larson, Erik, Thunderstruck, New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. ISBN1-4000-8066-5 A comparison of the lives of Hawley Harvey Crippen and Marconi. Crippen was a murderer whose Transatlantic escape was foiled by the new invention of shipboard radio.
MacLeod, Mary K., Marconi: The Canada Years - 1902-1946, Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus Publishing Limited, 1992, ISBN1551093308
Masini, Giancarlo, Guglielmo Marconi, Turin: Turinese typographical-publishing union, 1975. LCCN 77472455 (ed. Contains 32 tables outside of the text)
Mason, H. B. (1908). Encyclopaedia of ships and shipping, Wireless Telegraphy. London: Shipping Encyclopaedia. 1908.
Weightman, Gavin, Signor Marconi's magic box: the most remarkable invention of the 19th century & the amateur inventor whose genius sparked a revolution, 1st Da Capo Press ed., Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN0-306-81275-4
Winkler, Jonathan Reed. Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008). Account of rivalry between Marconi's firm and the United States government during World War I.