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A Tribute to My Mother, Gioia Marconi Braga: Founder of the Marconi Society

By Michael Braga

When I was young, our family would spend summers on Fishers Island – an elite enclave in the cold dark waters off Connecticut. I can remember my mother – Gioia Marconi Braga — striding onto the beach, stuffing her coiffed gray hair into a colorful bathing cap, snapping the rubber flaps over her ears and swimming directly out to sea until all you could see was a tiny red or green dot.

I mean, who does that?

What if she got a cramp or was unable to fight her way back to shore? And don’t even get me started about sharks. But my mother’s brain didn’t work like that. She didn’t have fear balls bouncing around in her cranium, crippling her from action. She was confident in her strength – confident in the same way as warriors charging into battle have absolute knowledge that they will be doing the vanquishing and heaven help anyone who gets in their way.

It was those qualities – courage and strength – that helped my mother create the Marconi Society in 1974 and raise enough money to ensure its survival long past her death in 1996.

But there was one other quality that was central to my mother’s being and to the foundation of the society: Faith. My mother was a Christian Scientist. She believed in mind over matter – that no illness or challenge was too great to overcome.

Like her father – Guglielmo Marconi – the inventor of wireless telegraphy – she also believed that inspiration for scientific achievement comes from above. And because inspiration is such a gift, those who receive it have an obligation to give back.

That’s why my mother insisted that winners of the Marconi Award should not only be at the top of their fields of communications, but should use their ingenuity for the benefit of mankind.

“This fellowship award is intended for an individual who has combined the qualities of scientific excellence with those of concern for the human condition and the environment in which he lives,” she told those attending an award ceremony at the United Nations in 1985. “An individual who would have no difficulty in agreeing with the American scientist Vannevar Bush when he said: To pursue science is not to disparage the things of the spirit. In fact, to pursue science rightly is to furnish a framework in which the spirit may rise.”

In this respect, I think my mother was most successful. There is something special about the people who have won the Marconi Award over the years. They have a kind of inner light that draws others to them like moths to a flame. Yash Pal, Paul Baran, Bob Lucky, Federico Faggin, Len Keinrock, James Flanagan, Whit Diffie, Marty Hellman, Andy Viterbi, John Cioffi, Sir Eric Ash and many other recipients have this quality – a kind of childlike love of knowledge and learning that gives them an aura that others can see and feel.

They are the reason that the Marconi Society remains strong to this day.

“They were all her boys,” said Stella Kleinrock, whose husband won the Marconi Award in 1986. “She created an atmosphere for all of them to become a unit … to become a family.

“She was the queen bee,” Kleinrock continued. “She was the real flame for us moths.”

‘The conquest of space could not have been possible’

As its founder, it makes sense that the Marconi Society would come to embody not only my mother’s values, but her needs, desires, abilities and connections as well.

My mother was only 11 when her parents divorced and her father obtained an annulment from the Pope, making her illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church. By establishing the Marconi Award in 1974 – on the 100thanniversary of her father’s birth – she was able to reclaim her birthright and revive her father’s name.

My sister, Allegra Auersperg-Breunner, remembers my mother’s irritation when Marconi wasn’t mentioned during the 1969 lunar landing.

“That lack of recognition stuck with her and was a driving force for her, propelling her to create the foundation and bring the recognition to her father that she thought he deserved,” Allegra said in an email.

After all, without Marconi’s wireless, the world would not have heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he left his footprints on the moon.

But that’s not all.

“It could be claimed that the way opened up by Marconi reaches to the stars because the conquest of space could not have been possible without the radio electric links that ensure the communications, the remote control, the telemetering, the communications between space vehicles and ground stations,” my mother told an audience assembled at the United Nations in 1985.

“Without radio links, there could have been no Apollo missions, which explored the moon’s surface at a distance of almost 400,000 kilometers. It was the complete reliability and safety of these links that allowed solution of the gravest emergency situations encountered with the Apollo 13 spaceship while on its way to the moon culminating in the safe re-entry of the three astronauts.”

“The height of his social season”

Reviving Marconi’s name and creating an enduring society did not only mean trumpeting his achievements, it meant tapping into my mother’s connections to European and worldwide aristocracy.

My grandmother – Marconi’s first wife Beatrice O’Brien – was born in Dromoland Castle, the daughter of the 14thBaron of Inchquin, a descendant of the first kings of Ireland.

Her noble ancestry gave the Marconis entre to high society. So when it came to publicizing the Marconi Award, my mother turned to her aristocratic friends.

The result was that the first Marconi awards were presented by members of the royal houses of Sweden, Japan, England, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. Presidents and vice presidents of Italy, Portugal and the United states also got involved as did governor generals of Australia and Canada.

Bob Lucky, the winner of the 1987 award, once quipped to Andy Viterbi, who won the award three years later, that “the Marconi Award had become the height of his social season.”

Growing up an aristocrat, my mother developed both charm and an innate sense that there was no room in which she did not belong. That allowed her to beat down the doors of industry titans the world over and get them to donate money despite the recession and hyperinflation of the 1970s.

Both AT&T and IBM were early contributors. IBM even offered to fund the entire award in perpetuity, but my mother declined. She didn’t want to be controlled by any one company. Instead, she gathered $50,000 here and $100,000 there from all the great companies of the day: SONY, Ericsson, General Electric, Olivetti, IT&T, RCA and Hewlett Packard.

‘A poised attractive, witty and cosmopolitan woman’

One thing my mother did not inherit was money. Marconi did not amass a fortune, and what he had at the time his death in 1937 went mainly to his second wife. So my mother had to work for a living.

When she moved to the United States in the early 1950s, she got a job at NBC in New York. David Sarnoff, who headed NBC’s parent company at the time, told her not to be nervous during their first meeting.

“Relax, Gioia, relax,” he said, according to a 1954 article in Sunday Mirror Magazine. “Take it easy. Why should you be nervous about seeing me? After all, if it hadn’t been for your father, not only would you not be here, but neither would I.”

Sarnoff explained that Marconi had given him his first job as messenger during the early days of radio.

At NBC, my mother pitched a variety of television and radio programs that would allow her to travel and help American understand other cultures and people. One of her ideas, which never made it on air, was called “The Other Side.” The concept was to launch conversations between people with very different viewpoints in very different places

In one episode, “a Colorado dust bowl farmer, his giant combines and tractors useless in the savage drought, would talk to an English-speaking Bengalese farmer, who tills lush green fields with wooden plows,” my mother suggested.

In another, Jackie Robinson would discuss baseball from the locker room of Ebbets Field with the captain of Liverpool’s famed cricket team.

Sarnoff said he was intrigued, but nixed the idea due to the high cost of travel. So my mother tried again. This time with program called ‘Gioia Marconi’s New York Terrace,’ in which the world would come to her.

“Visualize a charming terrace high above Central Park,” she wrote in her program pitch. “Visualize a poised attractive, witty and cosmopolitan woman entertaining friends.” In one episode, those friends might include Spain’s most celebrated matador and the local director of the ASPCA. “We can expect the discussion to become as heated and exciting as a bull fight itself, and it does,” she continues. “Can these two people possibly arrive at a meeting of minds, or are their points of view hopelessly disparate?”

Again her idea was rejected, and she expressed frustration to a friend.

“As I mentioned to you on the phone, competition is pretty tough in this field, and it takes a considerable amount of effort and time to establish oneself as a “name,” which is not solely known because of inherited fame but also through some personal merit,” she writes. “I feel I have the ability and the imagination for the kind of creative job I handle, I just have to find a way of proving it.  This country is so vast and one feels rather at a loss to know which way to turn, especially if one is handicapped, as I seem to be, by the kind of up-bringing which is tended to instill the understatement, the reserve and avoidance of self-promotion in one.”

“She was a very strong woman”

My mother spent only two years at NBC before marrying my father, George Braga, a sugar baron with plantations in Cuba.  He whisked her away to a different and equally interesting world of wealth and travel. But that world was soon torn apart by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution and my mother did not regain control of her destiny until she launched the Marconi Society in 1974.

By then my father had retired, and she was anxious to put her dormant ambition to use. Methodically, she gathered wise advisers around her – people like Walter Orr Roberts – atmospheric physicist and founder of the Aspen Institute; Martin Meyerson – president emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania; and Payne Middleton – a New York philanthropist.

“She was a very strong woman,” said Zvi Galil, a long time Marconi Society board member and dean of Georgia Tech University. “She was very determined.”

Andy Viterbi, who founded Qualcomm and won the Marconi Award in 1990, agreed.

“I always viewed her as a very elegant lady who had a mission in life and was conducting it very effectively,” Viterbi said. “The prize was her life.”

But what made the society truly outstanding and long lasting was her insistence that recipients not only be recognized for their achievements but also for their spirit. That doesn’t mean they had to be religious – just humble and grateful that they had been touched by inspiration and willing to keep working for the good of mankind.

“My father did not hesitate to recognize a Higher Being and never minimized the importance of inner revelation,” my mother said at the 1978 award ceremony in Japan. “There were moments, he said, in which he became the humble suppliant, never knowing where the inspiration would lead him – aware only that the universe had much to teach him and he had only to listen with care and persistence.  These acts of trust often resulted in a synthesis of experiences, images and concepts which no one before had dreamed of relating.”