Who was Guglielmo Marconi? The story of the man behind radio communications
The engineer, inventor and Nobel Prize winner is credited with the invention of radio transmission.
It’s fair to say that the Italian engineer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi changed how we spoke to each other. Through his work on wireless telegraphy, he invented the first effective system of radio transmission and laid the groundwork for modern global mass communication.
Marconi was born on April 25, 1874, in Bologna, Italy, the son of a wealthy landowner father and an Irish mother. Though not an exceptional scholar, the young Marconi was very interested in science and in particular electricity and radio waves; a neighbour who was a physicist at the University of Bologna allowed Marconi to attend his lectures and also use the University library and laboratory.
Working mainly in the attic of his home, Marconi began working on the idea of sending telegraph messages that didn’t rely on a network of connecting wires. Building on earlier work into radio waves by the likes of Henry Hertz and Oliver Lodge, he was able to develop the first basic wireless telegraphy system.
The Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs was unimpressed, however, and refused to fund further research, so Marconi travelled to London. Here, he was introduced to William Preece, engineer-in-chief to the General Post Office – the forerunner of BT. Preece and the Post Office agreed to support Marconi’s research in the UK and on July 27, 1896, Marconi successfully demonstrated his wireless telegraphy system by sending a signal between two Post Office buildings – one of which is the site of the modern-day BT Centre in Newgate Street.
On May 13, 1897, Marconi sent the world’s first ever wireless communication over open sea, over a distance of 6km (3.7 miles). Over the course of the next few years he continued experimenting, founding the Marconi Telegraph Company and demonstrating his inventions in his home country and in the US.
Then, on December 12, 1901, Marconi sent and received the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall to a military base in Newfoundland, Canada. This was particularly significant as it disproved the prevailing belief that the curvature of the Earth would affect transmission.
He continued to experiment to stretch the range of wireless transmission. On December 17, 1902, a transmission from the Marconi station in Nova Scotia, Canada became the first radio message to cross the Atlantic from North America, and he began to build high-powered stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea.
Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Braun in 1909, in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy. He received even greater acclaim when his wireless system was used by the crew of the RMS Titanic to call for assistance in 1912; Postmaster General Herbert Samuel, said of the disaster: “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi… and his marvellous invention.”
After serving in both the Italian army and Navy during World War I, Marconi continued his experiments. In 1919 he bought a yacht, renamed it ‘Elettra’ and turned it into a floating laboratory. The yacht was the site of his research breakthrough in the early 1920s on shortwave, or high frequency, radio transmission. This finally made long-distance wireless commercially competitive with cable telegraphy and greatly expanded communications possibilities.
In 1920, his New Street Works in Chelmsford – the first dedicated radio factory in the world – was the source of the first UK entertainment radio broadcasts: the first featuring a performance by Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba.
Two years later, regular entertainment broadcasts began from the Marconi Research Centre at nearby Great Baddow, and later that same year, after receiving a flurry of applications for broadcast licences, the GPO opted to grant a single licence to a consortium of leading wireless receiver manufacturers called the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Marconi spent his last years in Italy continuing to experiment with radio technology, being made a marquess by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1929. He died of heart disease in 1937 aged 63; at 6pm the next day, the time of his state funeral, all BBC transmitters and wireless Post Office transmitters in the British Isles observed two minutes of silence in his honour.
In 1943, the US Supreme Court restored some of his patents to other scientists, including Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla, though this had no effect on Marconi’s claim that he was the first to produce radio transmission.