I rarely listen to radio, but many other people (my girlfriend, for instance) listen to it constantly–usually CBC. (Are you listening, Mr. Chretien?)
Most people, if asked who invented radio, would tell you, “Marconi.” But very few people know much about Guglielmo Marconi beyond that bare fact. I’m here to rectify that.
Marconi didn’t invent radio as we know it: he invented wireless telegraphy. But that was the first use of radio waves to send messages over long distances, and led directly to transmitting actual voices.
Born in Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874, to Giuseppe Marconi, a wealthy Italian businessman, and Annie Jameson, of the Jameson family of distillers in Belfast, Ireland, Marconi was tutored at home as a boy; later, he attended physics lectures at the University of Bologna and went on to study in Florence and at the technical school in Leghorn.
Marconi became fascinated with the research of Heinrich Hertz, who, in 1866, set up two pairs of electrodes that were isolated from each other. When he caused a high-energy spark between the first two, a similar spark was generated between the second pair.
No one except Marconi saw any practical use for this: he thought it might be the basis of a means of long-distance communication, and, in 1894, began experimenting. His first equipment was only slightly more sophisticated than Hertz’s; but thanks to his accidental discovery that a vertical aerial could greatly extend the transmission range, Marconi was soon sending Morse code messages over a distance of more than two kilometres.
Marconi took his ideas to the Italian government, which, in one of the more notable examples of government short-sightedness, refused to back his research. Marconi’s mother took him to England, instead, where Sir William Preece, in charge of technological improvements for the post office, provided support.
In 1896, Marconi filed his first patent and began a series of successful demonstrations of wireless telegraphy. By 1897 he had transmitted signals as much as19 kilometres, and formed the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. In just three years he’d taken a brand-new technology from its first experiments to the marketplace, becoming famous in the process.
Marconi was a genius at promotion. For example, in January, 1898, he connected Madeira House at Bournemouth with the Needles Hotel on the Isle of Wight. When a snowstorm knocked out telegraph lines between Bournemouth and London that winter, Marconi’s wireless telegraphs relayed reporters’ stories about the imminent death of Prime Minister Gladstone to the Fleet Street papers–which naturally got him a lot of favorable ink. Similar coups followed, and the range kept increasing. By 1899, British battleships exchanged messages at 121 kilometres.
On December 12, 1901, Marconi achieved what many thought impossible: he transmitted the Morse-code signal for the letter “s” (dot-dot-dot) across the Atlantic, from Cornwall, England, to Saint John’s, Nfld. It required a 25,000-watt generator connected to 50 aerials on masts 70 feet high, but many scientists had thought it couldn’t be done at all, because the curvature of the Earth would block any signal after about 300 kilometres. (Radio waves, it turned out, can be bounced off the ionosphere, a layer of charged atoms high in the atmosphere.) Marconi’s transatlantic signal laid the groundwork for the worldwide communications we take for granted today.
By 1907, even the general public had access to wireless telegraphy. In 1910 Marconi received messages in Buenos Aires from Clifden in Ireland, 9,650 kilometres away. By September, 1918, Marconi had sent the first radio message from England to Australia.
During the First World War, Marconi, in charge of the Italian wireless service, developed short-wave transmission as a means of secret communication. After the war he continued experimenting, and found that short-wave signals could be transmitted over longer distances with less power and yet greater clarity of reception.
Of course, by then, voice transmission was being developed, something which Marconi: saw as a threat to his business (with good reason: not too many wireless telegraphy companies around these days!).
Marconi, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1909, became a statesman, representing Italy at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and signing the peace treaties with Austria and Bulgaria on his government’s behalf. In 1929 he was made a marchese and nominated to the Italian Senate.
He died in Rome on July 20, 1937, and in his honor, all the radio stations in the world observed a two-minute silence…because without Marconi, that’s all there would be to hear.