Kenneth Mitchell on the life of Guglielmo Marconi, whose Irish connections played an important part in his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission and a radio telegraph system

One night in the small town of Pontecchio, Italy, a young man excitedly woke his Irish mother pleading with her to come with him. Perplexed and confused, she followed his lead to discover he had built a secret laboratory in the attic. Here, he had been experimenting with sound waves and he showed his mother how he had developed a wireless system to make a bell ring by pressing a button at the other end of the room.

Understanding the breakthrough he had just made, she insisted he show his father. On seeing this device work, his slightly more sceptical father searched the room, checking for hidden wires. On finding none, he retrieved his wallet and gave his son its contents. The year was 1894, the boy was Guglielmo Marconi and the radio age had begun.

Six years later, on the 12 December 1901, Marconi would cement his place in history as he transmitted a radio message 2,200 miles from Ireland across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland.

Early life

Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi was born to Italian aristocrat, Giuseppe Marconi and his Irish whiskey-heiress wife, Annie Jameson. He grew up in various countries and when he was 18, he attended the University of Bologna studying under renowned physicist Augusto Righi.

From the aforementioned attic laboratory, Marconi began developing the idea of wireless telegraphy, building off the concept of the electric telegraphy and the work of researchers such as Henrich Hertz and Oliver Lodge on electromagnetic radiation.

The simple transmitter he invented in his attic used a copper sheet as an antenna and was able to transmit in Morse code

The simple transmitter he invented in his attic used a copper sheet as an antenna and was able to transmit in Morse code

His next course of action was to turn this novel lab experiment into a functional communications system. Inventing many of the constituent parts himself; he incrementally improved his device and expanded the range. Marconi was soon using the full extent of his father’s estate in his experimentation and, a year later, he was transmitting a half mile which was then thought to be the maximum transmission distance achievable.

Undeterred by this apparent limitation, Marconi increased the antenna height and earthed his equipment, the sound of a pre-arranged gunshot on receipt of the signal from the other side of a distant hill confirmed that he had broken this barrier.

Buoyed by this discovery but requiring funding to continue his research, Marconi wrote to the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs outlining his research. They never replied and indeed, years later, the letter was discovered with a note indicating they thought that Marconi belonged in an insane asylum.

Frustrated at this lack of response, Marconi and his mother travelled to these islands. Her family had significant contacts in British and Irish society and they were confident they could raise the funds. His cousin, engineer Henry Jameson Davis was particularly supportive, introducing him and his research to the British Post Office.

Seeing the potential, they enthusiastically embraced this new technology and Marconi was given the funding he needed. His cousin also ensured that his invention was commercially protected and hired a patent lawyer which was employed to great effect. Together, the cousins with the backing of seven Irish corn merchants set up The Wireless Telegraphy and Signal Company, which was later renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co.

British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi's radio equipment during demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897

British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi’s radio equipment during demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897

This funding was utilised to great effect and, by March 1897, Marconi was transmitting six kilometres across Salisbury Plain. In May, he sent the first radio communication over sea from the Welsh mainland to an offshore island. The message read, ‘Are you ready’.

Experiments in Ireland

Relocating to Somerset, the range now extended to 16 kilometres and, once the copyright and patents were in place, Marconi’s wireless telegraphy was announced to the world in a series of academic and public lectures. This garnered international attention including that of his previously uninterested Italian homeland. It was about this time that Marconi began to experiment in Ireland and he conducted his first tests here between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island on 6 July 1898.

It was not long after that reporters began to investigate this ground-breaking new technology that was being tested in rural Ireland and they soon realised the potential for their own profession.

At the invitation of the Dublin Daily Express and the Evening Mail, Marconi was able to report via Morse code as he followed the annual regatta of the Royal St George Yacht Club in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) in a tugboat up to 40km offshore. This was the first ‘live’ transmission of a sporting event in the world. He was soon invited by the New York Herald to repeat the feat in the reporting of the prestigious America’s Cup yacht.

Marconi watching associates raising the kite (a ‘Levitor’ by B.F.S. Baden-Powel) used to lift the antenna at St John's, Newfoundland, December 1901

Marconi watching associates raising the kite (a ‘Levitor’ by B.F.S. Baden-Powel) used to lift the antenna at St John’s, Newfoundland, December 1901

With the turn of the century, Marconi now turned his mind to the challenge that would make him a legend: sending a signal across the Atlantic Ocean. Firstly, he needed to build the infrastructure and Ireland figured heavily in his plans. He built four transmission stations: at Rosslare in Wexford, Clifden in Galway, Poldhu in Cornwall and across the ocean at St Johns in Newfoundland. These would act as the communications bridge between the two continents.

Utilising a 500-foot kite supporting antenna in Newfoundland, the first cross-Atlantic message was received on 12 December 1901. The message was a series of three clicks; the Morse code for the letter ‘S’.

His claim to have received the signal was met with scepticism, as he sent it in the worst atmospheric conditions and with no independent verification. Rising to the challenge, Marconi prepared a more detailed and verifiable test.

In February 1902, he sailed from Britain, carefully documenting the signal from his Cornish transmission station as he received them on board. He was unable to repeat the results of the first test, but he did prove that the signal could be sent hundreds of miles – well beyond the assertions of some that Earth’s curvature affecting transmission. In 1903, he was able to prove his system worked beyond any doubt when he sent a message from the president of the United States to the British King.

Commercial breakthrough

The big commercial breakthrough was made in 1904, when he launched a commercial service to communicate with ships at sea. Daily news was transmitted to passenger ships, which were then reprinted on their on-board newspapers.

Three years later, a regular trans-Atlantic radio-telegraph service was set up, transmitting from Clifden in Galway to Nova Scotia in Canada. At the time, these transmission stations in rural areas must have seemed outer-worldly, with their eight 210-feet-high masts sparking brightly and loudly into the atmosphere as they surged with electricity.

Clifden transmission Station c.1907 courtesy of the Marconi Company

Clifden transmission Station c.1907 courtesy of the Marconi Company

The system was not seamless, however, and the vagaries of weather and atmospheric conditions affected reliability regularly. Nonetheless, it was the first system that broke the isolation of ships at sea and a Marconi radio operator was soon to be found on most merchant ships and ocean liners providing a vital link with the land.

The system soon proved its worth in emergencies and the most famous example of this was when the Titanic sunk in 1912. Fifteen hundred lives were lost in this tragedy but no fault could be attributed to the Marconi radio operator, who sent out the distress call that brought ships to rescue those that made it to the lifeboats.

In a tragedy with many villains, the Marconi radio operator Jack Philips was feted as the hero of the hour – his heroism being made all the more poignant by the fact that he also died in this tragedy, doing his duty till the end.

While Marconi was the forerunner of this technology, other companies were also launching their own radio devices which were superior to Marconi’s technology in several ways. Adapting these technologies (and sometimes flouting patent law in the process), Marconi was able to replace his Morse code telegraphic system with a sound transmission system.

In 1919, he made the first trans-Atlantic telephone call from his Ballybunion telegraphic station to Nova Scotia and in 1920, the first radiobroadcast for entertainment purposes was made with the transmission of an opera to the general public. This proved highly popular and soon regular shows were been transmitted from the Marconi Research Centre in the UK. This would form the basis of the BBC, which was launched in 1922.

Personal and professional developments

In 1905, Marconi married Irish woman Beatrice O’Brien and they would go on to have four children. In 1909, he would receive the ultimate accolade when he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Braun. In 1913, he joined the Italian military during WW1, commanding the Italian military’s radio service, serving in both army and navy and finally being a member of the Italian delegation to the peace talks.

Marconi with his wife c.1910

Marconi with his wife c.1910

After the war, he dove back into his research; he turned his yacht ‘Elettra’ into a floating laboratory and began experimenting with short waves. The ‘beam’ system he came up with through this experimentation was soon adopted as a means for long-distance communication.

He then turned his brain to microwaves and soon established them too as a means of communication – but, more significantly, for radar technology. His practical utilisation of both his and others’ research and inventions helped form the world we know today.

Politically and personally, Marconi was not without controversy. When he and his wife moved to Italy, they were feted by Italian society and his wife became a lady-in-waiting to the Italian queen. Marconi was subsequently made a Marquis by King Victor Emmanuel III.

It was not a blissful marriage, however. The Marconi’s divorced in 1924 and the marriage was later annulled so they could both remarry. Marconi married again in 1927 to Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali and they had one child. In a final snub to his first wife and their children, he excluded them from his will, leaving his fortune to his second wife.

He joined the Italian Fascist party after WW1 and when Mussolini seized power he was appointed the President of the Royal Academy of Italy and made a member of the Fascist Grand Council.

In 1937, Marconi, aged 63 died in Rome after a period of ill health. In Italy a day of national mourning was held and he was given a state funeral. As a mark of respect, all BBC, post office and ship-radio devices ceased transmitting for two minutes, making this possibly the last time in history that the world experienced ‘radio silence’. A fitting tribute to the man responsible for filling our airways and launching the communications revolution that we so enjoy today.

Kenneth Mitchell is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering.


Further reading: HarringtonTechaudio,Canada,electronics
One night in the small town of Pontecchio, Italy, a young man excitedly woke his Irish mother pleading with her to come with him. Perplexed and confused, she followed his lead to discover he had built a secret laboratory in the attic. Here, he had been experimenting with sound...