Guglielmo Marconi

(1874—1937) physicist and inventor of wireless transmission

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Italian electrical engineer, the best known and most successful pioneer of radio telegraphy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics (jointly) in 1909.

Marconi was born in Bologna, the son of a wealthy landowner and his Irish wife, Anne Jameson, a member of the well-known distilling family. He was educated first privately and then at the Leghorn Technical Institute and the University of Bologna. Marconi's interest in radio was aroused in 1894 when he first heard of Hertzian waves. He began, in collaboration with Augusto Righi (1850–1920), to investigate the possibilities of transmitting these waves over greater distances. Experimenting on his father's estate, he managed to broadcast a signal over a distance of a mile but, finding the Italian government uninterested in his work, Marconi left for Britain in 1896; he first demonstrated his wireless apparatus for the British Post Office the same year.

The crucial question to be decided was whether radio waves would follow the curvature of the earth's surface or travel no further than the horizon. Convinced of their ability to travel around the earth, Marconi took out the necessary patents and on 12 December 1901 apparently proved his point by transmitting a signal, the letter ‘S’, in Morse code from Poldhu in Cornwall to Newfoundland in Canada. The explanation of the phenomenon was not as Marconi supposed but, as Arthur Kennelly later showed, due to reflection by the ionosphere. Nevertheless, the critics were silenced and Marconi became instantly famous. He also proved to be an astute businessman. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd, founded in 1900, set about establishing radio stations on land and at sea throughout the world to receive and transmit radio waves; in 1901 messages were first sent across the Atlantic. Initially Marconi worked with long waves but in the 1920s he investigated the advantages to be gained from using short waves. Much of the 1920s was therefore spent by Marconi aboard his 700-ton yacht, Elettra, testing short-wave reception and transmission. By the end of the decade Marconi had set up a worldwide system of short-wave stations.

With his numerous triumphs and the success of his company, Marconi in the 1930s had become one of the best-known Italians in the world. Having been a member of Mussolini's Fascist Party since 1923, Marconi was given the title of Marchese (Marquis) in 1929. He was consequently, despite declining health, chosen in 1935 to make a tour of Latin America and Europe to defend his country's invasion of Abyssinia. Nevertheless he feared political pressure and hoped that radio waves would serve as an instrument of peace. He died shortly afterwards from a series of increasingly serious heart attacks. Although Marconi was not a pioneer of broadcasting, he recognized the importance of radio telephony and all BBC stations were silent for two minutes on the day of his funeral.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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