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Radio: The Invention That Keeps on Giving

120 years ago this month, Guglielmo Marconi was awarded a patent for “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor.” This was the first description in print of a wireless telegraphy device – in other words, of a radio.

While others were exploring wireless telegraph technologies, their investigations were not commercially viable and exclusively focused on radio as a scientific phenomenon, rather than as a communications technology. As much entrepreneur and businessman as inventor, Marconi saw an opening with his unique communications application. In addition to being granted this patent in 1897 (the first of six British patents and 31 US patents), Marconi also formed The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Limited to commercialize and scale his new technology.

Despite his persistence and prescience, it is likely that even Marconi did not realize the communications revolution that his inventions would trigger. In fact, according to Discover Magazine, “Perhaps no invention of modern times has delivered so much while initially promising so little.”

From broadcast radio to mobile communications to the Internet and GPS, each day we rely on dozens of interactions and applications that are based on Marconi’s discoveries.

Each year, to honor and commemorate this work, the Marconi Society awards the prestigious Marconi Prize to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the advancement of communications for the benefit of humankind through scientific or technological discoveries. Nominations for the 2018 Marconi Prize are due July 31.

In recognition of the 120th anniversary of Marconi’s first radio patent, we asked Marconi Fellows what they find most inspiring about Marconi’s contributions to the world.

Inspiring Innovation

From children to young researchers, Marconi’s creativity and entrepreneurial spirit inspired generations of scientists.

As a young boy, the legendary Marconi transmitter enchanted 1995 Marconi Fellow and pioneer in communications and information theory, Jacob Ziv. “Following a naïve description of the instrument, I decided to build my own replica,” he says. “Finally, one evening, when my parents were not home. I plugged my device in. The fuse blew up and I was in a complete darkness, but since then I have seen the light!”

Vint Cerf, Marconi Society Chair and 1998 Marconi Fellow, says of his foundational work on the Internet, “I was inspired by Marconi’s experimental determination and persistence and by his out-of-the-box thinking, both in terms of science and engineering but also in terms of business potential.”

Others, including 2014 Marconi Fellow and pioneer in the theory and application of MIMO antennas, Arogyaswami Paulraj, were motivated by the speed and efficiency of Marconi’s achievements. “His pace in advancing radio technology was astounding. He went from a first demonstration of the wireless telegraph reaching a fraction of a mile in 1895 to spanning the Atlantic in 1901. A compound annual growth of over 400%! His combination of engineering and business skills, along with his relentless drive, changed the world,” says Paulraj.

Discoveries that Benefit Humankind

From communications infrastructure to the Internet to security, researchers and business leaders around the world have been motivated to expand on Marconi’s discoveries to contribute to the greater social good.

For Martin E. Hellman, 2000 Marconi Fellow and inventor of public-key cryptography, “Developing computer controlled communication networks promised effortless and inexpensive contact between people or computers on opposite sides of the world, replacing most mail and many excursions with telecommunications. For many applications these contacts must be made secure against both eavesdropping and the injection of illegitimate messages.” While the solution of security problems lags well behind other areas of communications technology, we have no doubt that Marconi Prize-level work in happening now to address these issues.

To honor Marconi’s commercial acumen, a number of business leaders have also won the Marconi Prize. Henry Samueli, 2012 Marconi Fellow and pioneer in the technology that led to the cable modem, found inspiration from Marconi when he started his company, Broadcom. “Our goal when founding Broadcom was to make broadband communications ubiquitous and available to everyone. It has taken about 25 years but we have largely achieved this goal,” said Samueli. “The impact has been truly transformative – instant access to virtually unlimited information and instant connectivity to nearly everyone on the planet. Our lives will never be the same!”

We think that Guglielmo Marconi would agree.

There is still time to nominate a true innovator for the Marconi Prize. Nominations for individuals to join this prestigious group are due by July 31, 2017.