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The Discovery that Continues to Change the World

By Paula Reinman

Marconi SocietyAs we marvel at the accomplishments of this year’s Nobel Prize winners, it’s worth taking a quick trip back to the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics.  The discovery behind that prize, jointly awarded to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy,” is the foundation for today’s connected world and is responsible for changing lives more quickly than any other innovation.

Fittingly, the most comprehensive biography ever written about Marconi, called Marconi:  The Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy, was just announced as a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award by the Canada Council for the Arts.   Raboy will also be attending the upcoming Marconi Society Awards Ceremony this year.

Chronicling Marconi’s fascinating life as an inventor, entrepreneur and politician, the book creates a complete profile of Marconi and the company he created at the age of 23, which led to communications and the Internet as we know it today.

To whet your appetite, check out Oxford University Press’s blog post on 15 Surprising Facts about Guglielmo Marconi.  You might be surprised to learn that:

  • Marconi had no formal higher education. He did poorly in school as a child and his parents hired private teachers to tutor him in chemistry, math, and physics. His most important mentor was a high school physics teacher in Livorno by the name of Vincenzo Rosa. He was an avid, self-guided reader of popular scientific journals, where he learned of the discovery of radio waves by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
  • Marconi was twice engaged to American feminists: Josephine B. Holman, a graduate of the Indianapolis Classical School for Girls as well as Bryn Mawr, and Inez Milholland, a Greenwich Village social activist who famously led a 1913 suffragist parade riding a white horse. Marconi’s two wives were more conventional women but Marconi was forever becoming romantically involved with artists, film stars, opera singers, and journalists.
  • Marconi was the first inventor-entrepreneur to win a Nobel Prize, for Physics, in 1909 (he shared the prize with German physicist Ferdinand Braun). The Nobel Committee had never before awarded the prize for a practical application rather than theoretical accomplishments. In 1909, it considered giving the prize to the Wright brothers, but decided on Marconi because of public concern about the safety of airplanes.
  • Marconi was the first person to speak publicly about what we now call cellphones, tasers, and radar. He was forever being egged on by the press to make outlandish predictions, but he refused to forecast anything he was unable to demonstrate empirically. “Spiritualists”, such as the writer A. Conan Doyle, considered wireless communication a form of mental telepathy but Marconi insisted that it was rooted in the natural universe.

“Marconi was, quite simply, the first person to develop a practical system for using the radio spectrum to communicate. He was a precursor of the way we live today,” said Raboy.

So when you send that e-mail, watch that video online, make that call on your mobile phone or land safely at the airport, say a quick thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.