Family History

Guglielmo Marconi

He was a quiet, reserved person who recognized a spiritual force outside and above himself. He preferred to trust his own intuition rather than to accept too rigidly the limitations of his own plans which might have been imposed by the science of his day.

Gioia Marconi Braga

Monumental Audacity

More than a century has passed since Guglielmo Marconi’s birth in Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874 as the second son of an Italian father and an Irish mother, and yet the extraordinary interest inspired by his work still survives. “I would like to meet that young man who had the monumental audacity to attempt and succeed in jumping an electrical wave across the Atlantic,” remarked Thomas Edison after learning the success of Marconi’s first transAtlantic transmission. His contribution to wireless telegraphy would earn him the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics which he shared with Karl Ferdinand Braun, head of the Physics Institute at the University of Strasbourg.

Marconi was 20 years old when he embarked on a study of works by Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894). He began experimenting on the application of Hertzian waves to the transmission and reception of messages over a distance-without wires. Marconi had a strong desire to provide sailors and passengers isolated or distressed at sea with a means of communication. He knew that a simple connection to those at shore could save many lives.

In the early summer of 1895 Marconi was first to transmit a signal that was received at a distance of about 2km, despite a hill in its path. Success was initially indicated with the wave of a handkerchief. As the distance increased in subsequent experiments, a gunshot into the air became the sign of a successful transmission.

In January 1896 the 22-year-old Marconi traveled to Britain under the guidance of his cousin Henry Jameson Davis, and filed his final specification for the world’s first patent for a system of telegraphy using Hertzian waves. The British Patent number 12039 was filed on June 2, 1896.

Marconi continued with his experiments, and on Salisbury Plain in 1897 achieved a transmission range of 7 miles (11.2km). He also established communication across the Bristol Channel during this time.

Marconi’s Enterprises

Marconi registered his new company as the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. In December of 1898, the first wireless equipment manufacturing plant in the world was set up in an old silk factory in Hall Street in Chelmsford near London. The building still stands today.

The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company changed names as it evolved over the years:

  • 1900 Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company
  • 1963 Marconi Company Limited
  • 1987 GEC-Marconi Limited
  • 1998 Marconi Electronic Systems Limited
  • 1999 Marconi plc

Marconi’s Passion to Save Lives

Marconi’s vision for the life-saving potential of wireless communication was first realized in 1899 when a wireless message was received from a Marconi radio transmitter at the East Goodwin lightship. Marconi International Marine Communication Company Ltd. was formed in 1900 to take over the important maritime segment of the business. Within a few years, Marconi’s wireless equipment would save many lives. Notably, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on April 14, 1912, the 712 survivors owed their lives to the distress calls from the Marconi wireless equipment on board. As Lord Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, stated: “Those who have been saved have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi and his wonderful invention.”

Long Distance Communication and Mass Media Broadcasting

The age of long-distance wireless communication was born on December 12, 1901, as Marconi and his assistants were able to hear the three short bursts of the Morse code ‘S’ at the receiving station set up in a hospital in Signal Hill, St. John’s Newfoundland. This first transatlantic telegraph transmission originated in Poldhu in Cornwall, England, 2100 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. The historic provided the impetus for a new age in intercontinental telecommunications.

Radio broadcasting as a medium of mass communication was another area pioneered by Marconi. In what became Britain’s first advertised public broadcast in 1920, a recital by singer Dame Nellie Melba was broadcast internationally by means of a Marconi 15 kW telephone transmitter at the Marconi works in Chelmsford. In 1921, the Company was permitted to broadcast the first regular public entertainment program from a low-power transmitter at Writtle, near Chelmsford, and later from the first London station at Marconi House. Competition appeared in 1922 as the question of broadcasting was referred to the Broadcasting Sub-Committee of the Imperial Conference and all the competing interests were merged into the British Broadcasting Company, later to become the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

While Marconi was not greatly interested in television, his company in England was deeply involved in advancing the new medium. In 1934 its television interests were merged with those of EMI Ltd in a company called The Marconi-EMI Television Co. Ltd. The BBC adopted the Marconi-EMI system in 1936 for the first public television service in the world.

During his military service in World War One, Marconi turned his attention to short-wave directional transmission. This new development was known as the Beam System. It was eventually adopted by Canada, Australia, South Africa and India and the foundations were laid for the Imperial Wireless Chain – a revolution in worldwide communication established for the Royal Post Office. In addition, the Marconi Company built its own beam transmitting station for communicating with the existing “Via Marconi” network reaching Argentina, Brazil, the USA and Japan. The Imperial Wireless Chain proved such a great threat to the Empire’s cable interests that in 1929, at the instigation of the British and Dominion Governments, Cable and Wireless Ltd. was formed to take over the investments, patents and licenses of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphy Company.

Though he spent much of his time cruising the Atlantic and Mediterranean aboard his laboratory yacht, the Elletra, Marconi was adopted by the emerging fascist regime as a national symbol of Italy’s grandeur. He was awarded the hereditary title “Marchese” in 1929, and was named President of the National Research Council.

Marconi moved to Rome in 1935, never to leave Italy again. He died in the early hours of July 20th, 1937 at the age of 63, and his body was laid to rest in the mausoleum in the grounds of Villa Griffone. In a fitting tribute, wireless stations throughout the world fell silent for 2 minutes and the ether was as silent as it had been before Marconi.

An Assessment

In a personal reflection of his grandfather, Francesco Paresce Marconi attempted to put a label on Marconi. “He obviously straddled the three basic cultures of our society: science, technology and business, and was probably as such conversant with some aspect of each, yet uncomfortable with the rules of all of them,” he wrote. ” Personally, I would call him the master ‘technological entrepreneur and innovator’ of his time, and certainly the ‘first entrepreneur of the electronic age” as Hugh Aitken put it. Yet he would have preferred his own humble definition as an ‘an ardent amateur of electricity.'”

Learn More

Here are additional resources about the Marconi Family.

Coltano: The Forgotten Story of Marconi’s Early Powerful Intercontinental Station
The Long Arc of Telecommunication: a Conversation with Vinton Cerf