The inventor Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi, was born into nobility in 1874 in Bologna, Northern Italy, and was the second son of wealthy land owner Giuseppe Marconi and his Irish wife Annie Jameson.
Although Marconi did not do well at school, he developed an early interest in science and electricity and in the early 1890’s, aged only eighteen, began working on ‘wireless telegraphy’ (the transmission of telegraph messages without wires). This was not a new idea, but for a time it captured the young man’s attention.
A later article written by Augusto Righi, Marconi’s teacher, renewed the young man’s interest in trying to create a wireless telegraphy system based on radio waves – something no other inventor was working on.
Early developments in radio telegraphy
At the age of twenty, Marconi developed a transmitter with a monopole antenna. This early contraption was made up of a raised copper sheet, connected to a Righi spark gap, powered by an induction coil that had a telegraph key to switch it on and off to spell out Morse code text messages.
In 1894, Marconi built a storm weather alarm which consisted of a battery, a coherer (a detector that changes resistance when exposed to radio waves), and an electric bell. If there was lightning, the alarm would go off. Soon after this, Marconi made a bell ring on the other side of the room by pushing a telegraphic button on a table.
A breakthrough in radio telegraphy came in the summer of 1894, when Marconi discovered that a far greater range could be attained if the height of the antenna was increased. Now the system was capable of transmitting signals for up to 2 miles.
Marconi travelled with his mother to London in early 1896, hoping to find support for his work. When he arrived at Dover with strange wires and instruments inside his suitcases, he attracted the attention of Customs Officers. One of them contacted the Admiralty in London, and it was here that he gained the interest and support of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office.
Interest shown by the British
Engineers at the British Post Office approved of Marconi’s radio equipment and, on the 13th May 1897, Marconi sent the world’s first ever wireless communication over open seas. A message reading ‘Are you ready?’ travelled a distance of almost 4 miles over the British Channel from a base in Wales.
Numerous other demonstrations followed, and soon Marconi began to receive international attention. In 1899, the first demonstrations in the USA took place, and these included the reporting of the America’s Cup yacht race – transmissions took place aboard the passenger ship SS Ponce.
When Marconi sailed for England on the 8th November 1899, on the SS Saint Paul, he and his team installed wireless equipment on the ship and, a few days later, the Saint Paul became the first ocean liner to report her return to England by wireless.
By the turn of the century, transatlantic transmissions were being made – a distance of 2,200 miles from Poldhu in Cornwall to St Johns in Newfoundland was recorded (although this was later disputed).
On 17 December 1902, a transmission from the Marconi station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, became the world’s first ever radio message to cross the Atlantic. Thereafter, Marconi built stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea, in competition with other inventors. In 1907, a regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was finally begun.
Marconi set up various companies and gained a reputation for being technically conservative. Marconi’s spark-transmitter system could only be used for radiotelegraph operations when continuous-wave transmission was the future of radio communications. Sometime later, in 1915, Marconi did begin to produce some significant results with continuous-wave equipment.
In 1922, regular entertainment broadcasts were transmitted from the Marconi Research Centre at Great Baddow – these formed the beginnings of the BBC.
Marconi’s personal life
In 1905, Marconi married the Hon. Beatrice O’Brien. They had three daughters and a son but divorced in 1924. The marriage was annulled in 1927 in order that Marconi could marry Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali, with whom he had one daughter.
Marconi proudly shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Bruan in 1909 for his contribution to radio communications. In 1914, he became a Senator in the Italian Senate and during World War I was put in charge of Italy’s military’s radio service. He later joined the Italian Fascist Party and was appointed President of the Royal Academy of Italy by the dictator Benito Mussolini.
At the age of 63, Marconi died in Rome on the 20th July 1937, after suffering a series of heart attacks, and was granted a state funeral. In the British Isles, at 6 pm on the day of the funeral, all BBC transmitters and wireless Post Office transmitters observed a two-minute silence in his honour.
Thanks to guest author Mike James, an independent writer working with engineering applications specialist App Eng.