Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna on 25 April 1874, son of an Italian father (Giuseppe, a wealthy landowner) and an Irish mother (Annie Jameson). Due to frequent family moves during the winter months, firstly to England and then to Tuscany, Marconi did not receive traditional schooling. As a boy, Marconi developed a great interest in electrical science, which he furthered with Vincenzo Rosa, his tutor in Leghorn in the early 1890s, the only “teacher” figure Marconi later recognised. In the laboratory set up in his father’s home in the Bolognese countryside, Villa Griffone, Marconi dedicated his time to experiments and readings and soon developed the ambition to become an inventor. Even his very first technical projects reflect his interest in real technological applications and their commercial potential.
In 1894, Marconi started experimenting with electromagnetic waves (the subject of research in many European research labs at that time) with the aim of signalling across space without wires. Following much experimentation, he managed to send signals over a distance of 2 km, beyond a hill situated between the transmission equipment (to which Marconi had added a grounded vertical antenna) and the reception apparatus (characterised by an extremely sensitive coherer). These first wireless telegraphy experiments, in 1895, marked the beginnings of radiocommunications.
With the aim of developing his promising invention, Marconi decided to move to England, a country with a great interest in improving communication networks and home to his mother’s family who were a great help in making the right contacts when he arrived in London in February 1896. Marconi had his first patent drawn up by top legal experts in June 1896 and began collaborating with William H. Preece, the chief engineer of the General Post Office, but after a long list of contacts and demonstrations decided to found a private company. In July 1897 the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company(later known as Marconi Company) was registered in London.
In his role as Technical Director of the company, Marconi recruited top class collaborators (amongst whom John Ambrose Fleming stands out, the future inventor of the diode valve) who worked with him on two main projects, the increase in transmission capabilities and solving the interference problem between stations. This latter issue was resolved with the renowned patent No. 7777 for «Syntonic Transmission and Reception» (granted in 1900 ad followed by lasting litigation), considerably improving the communicative capabilities of radio.
Marconi was very capable in deciding which demonstrations to carry out and in making sure his every success was publicised. For example, the first radio-telegraphic media-oriented transmissions had a great success, carried out in event of the Kingstown regatta (1898) and the America’s Cup races (1899).
Amongst the fundamental milestones gained in the “distance conquest” (Marconi’s main goal) were the set up of communication between England and France (50 km in 1899) and the first transatlantic transmission (between England and Newfoundland, over 3,000 km in December 1901). This last project was a real challenge for the scientific understandings of that time and involved a considerable economic gamble. Its success earned Marconi a great deal of fame and, at the same time, a great deal of hostility from cable companies who felt threatened by the enormous developments made in radiotelegraphy, and from a number of sceptics (many of whom were from the scientific community itself).
Marconi defended himself by continuing to produce positive results, even as early as 1902, firstly from experiments conducted during a transatlantic voyage aboard thePhiladelphia, and then on board the Italian navy’s warship the Carlo Alberto. That same year, Marconi completed a new kind of magnetic detector, which then became the standard wireless receiver for many years, replacing the coherer. In December 1902 he transmitted the first complete messages to Poldhu from stations at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and later Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The transatlantic project culminated in 1907 with the opening of the first transatlantic commercial service between Glace Bay and Clifden, Ireland.
One of the invention’s main applications was for sea-faring safety and it is a well known fact that the Titanic (1912) was fitted with Marconi wireless communication equipment.
From the beginning of WWI, Marconi began investigation of short waves (which he had used in his very first experiments), setting up new research projects which were mainly carried out on board the Elettra, the yacht Marconi purchased in 1919 and transformed into a floating laboratory.
Important experiments in 1923 led him to the establishment of the new high-speed Beam System for long distance communication: agreement was reached in 1924 to adopt this system throughout the British Empire. In 1926, the first beam station, linking England and Canada, was opened, followed by further stations in subsequent years.
In 1923, Marconi joined the Fascist Party and this led him to be given various prestigious public offices: in 1928 he was named as the National Research Council president and in 1930 he took over the presidency at the Royal Italian Academy. Just a few years later his relationship with the Fascist Party started to weaken: Marconi was certainly amongst those who tried to dissuade the pro-German and anti-Jewish tendencies within the Party and was one of the supporters of a British ally.
In 1931, having set up a short-wave station for the Vatican, Marconi supervised the Pope's first broadcast to Catholics worldwide. In that same period he started studying microwaves, research on which the majority of modern radio systems are still based today. Three years later at sea, aboard the Elettra, he used this technique for blind navigation by radio beacon.
Marconi was invited by many countries worldwide to demonstrate developments in radiocommunications – project of which he had become a living icon. Amongst the numerous international honors and awards given to Guglielmo Marconi were 16 Honoris Causa degrees and the Nobel Prize for Physics that he shared with Karl Ferdinand Braun in 1909.
Marconi died in Rome on the 20th of July, 1937. The world commemorated his death with an exceptional event: all radio stations observed a 2-minute silence, during which time the ether fell silent – just like it had been in the pre-Marconi era.
[by Barbara Valotti]