How a Hill in Italy Connects Us All Today

Each time you pick up your cell phone, join a virtual meeting or class, listen to a ball game or stream a show, you have Guglielmo Marconi to thank. As the network becomes our economic, educational and social lifeline during the 2020 pandemic, it’s hard to believe that our connected world started 125 years ago with the monumental audacity of an ambitious 20 year old in the Italian countryside. 

Fortunately for all of us, Guglielmo Marconi was always fascinated by the idea of transmitting and receiving messages over long distances without using wires. This year marks the 125th anniversary of Guglielmo Marconi’s stunning discovery of radio, the underlying technology that powers cellular, wifi, the Internet and, of course, your favorite AM and FM stations. Given the physical distancing restrictions that will change our world for the foreseeable future, his milestone is more relevant than ever.

Marconi, an Italian engineer and inventor in the 19th and 20th centuries, is best known for his contributions to long-distance radio transmission, creating “Marconi’s Law,” the radio telegraph system, and, of course, the invention of the radio itself. So what exactly led to his historic invention 125 years ago?

From a Handkerchief Wave to Global Impact

Early in the summer of 1895, Marconi was the first person to successfully transmit a signal that was received at a distance of about 2km, despite the Celestini Hill near his home at the Villa Griffone 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. 

While Marconi’s world-changing transmission in 1895 set the stage for many innovations, the genius of his work was rooted in discoveries by others who came before him. Marconi was greatly inspired by the work of other engineers and inventors, including Hertz and Tesla, and used their findings as a base.

By studying the work of his predecessors, Marconi connected the two ideas of radio waves and wireless communications. Just as Marconi built on the work of those before him, entire industries have been created by those building on Marconi’s innovations. 

After his early successes in 1895, Marconi continued experimenting. On Salisbury Plain in 1897, Marconi achieved a transmission range of 11.2 km (7 miles). He also established communication across the Bristol Channel during this time.

In 1903, history was made: a message from Theodore Roosevelt was sent to Britain’s King Edward VII from a Marconi station. Marconi had achieved transatlantic radio transmission. With this, Marconi showcased the idea of global communications to the world.

Guglielmo Marconi went on to win the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics at the age of 35 and to found several companies, including one which became the core of the BBC. His tenacity, creativity, scientific excellence and entrepreneurial spirit continue to be honored today by the Marconi Society and others who salute his legacy.

More Relevant than Ever 125 Years Later

Today’s network connections are critical part of our world and have been our literal lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. The life-saving role of the network has also shined a light on broadband and digital inclusion as a human right. One half of the planet remains unconnected and without the opportunities provided by the network.

This includes entire regions in emerging countries, a nearly unmoveable 11% gender gap in Internet access and deep connectivity disparities, even in developed countries, between the average population and those in lower income and rural areas. Now, more than ever, these differences are painfully being felt for students who are not able to participate in online school and those who do not have access to information or resources to help themselves. 

We honor the 125th anniversary of radio and the economies, connections and opportunities that it has spawned. The Marconi Society continues to celebrate innovators in the spirit of Guglielmo Marconi through our Marconi Prize for established scientists and our Young Scholar award for the innovators who are creating the next generation of our connected world.

While we honor these achievements, we will rest until every person in the world has access to the life-changing opportunities created by the network and the Internet. We will continue to create programs and to use our voices in service of the policies, technology and connections between engineers and practitioners that will build a digitally inclusive world. We invite everyone to join us.