The young Marconi

The story of the invention of wireless has been told in countless books: for experts, for the layman and even for children. It is a story of success. A young Italian hardly out of school brings to England the fruits of his research. He takes the country by storm, becomes rich and famous, and receives the Nobel Prize, the highest scientific accolade, at the age of 33.

The name of the young Italian was Guglielmo Marconi. He had a young and beautiful socialite for a mother and a rather morose country squire for a father. The mother was Irish, the father Italian. The young man had no formal education, he was never much good at academic subjects. The motivation to work on radio waves (called Hertzian waves at the time) had apparently come from his reading an obituary when Hertz died in 1894. Marconi was then 20 years old. He became so interested in the subject that he started to do experiments himself. His laboratory was in the loft of their country house, and he used the estate as his experimental ground. It was not particularly difficult to start the experiments. He could build the apparatus himself from published accounts, and he was probably able to borrow some equipment from his neighbour, Professor Righi, who did actually lecture on Hertzian waves at the University of Bologna.

What was the state of the art at the time when Marconi started his experiments? It had been known then for seven years that waves that propagate in air can be generated and can be detected. The distance between the transmitter and the receiver was typically a few metres, which is convenient for demonstrating the effect in a laboratory. Marconi's idea was to set the transmitters and receivers far apart, and use them for signalling from one place to another. How original was Marconi's idea? Not very. Anybody who had known about the existence of Hertzian waves could have come to the conclusion that those waves might one day become useful for communications. To those in the know one could add all the readers of the Fornightly Review, or at least those who read Sir William Crookes' article in the February 1892 issue entitled 'Some possibilities of electricity'. He made the point very clearly:

Rays of light will not pierce through a wall, nor as we know only too well, through a London fog. But the electrical vibrations of a yard or more in wavelength of which I have spoken will easily pierce such mediums which to them will be transparent. Here then, is revealed the bewildering possibility of telegraphy without wires, posts, cables, or any of our present costly appliances . . . Any two friends living within the radius of sensibility of their receiving instruments, having first decided on their special wavelength and attuned their respective instruments to mutual receptivity, could thus communicate as long and as often as they pleased by timing the impulses to produce long and short intervals on the ordinary Morse code.

So there must have been hundreds, probably thousands, of people who could have been fired with the ambition of wanting to realize wireless telegraphy. As it happened the fire of ambition touched Marconi only. With dogged determination he set out to improve his apparatus. Could that be qualified as pursuit of science? Hardly. He was no trained scientist and he was not guided by any desire to prove theoretical predictions. What he did was engineering pure and simple, using the time-honoured method of trial and error.

In 1896, when he was able to communicate for a distance of well over a mile, he judged the time ripe for bringing his invention to England. He arrived in the company of his mother who had good connections in London society. He wrote first to the War Office but when the reply was long in coming he succeeded, thanks to his mother's contacts, in obtaining an introduction to William Preece, the chief Engineer of the Post Office. We met him in the last chapter as the adversary of Lodge, the villain unwilling to believe in the beneficial effects of self-induction. Concerning wireless, was he a hero or a villain? He could have been a great hero by supporting the unconventional ideas on light and electromagnetic waves just taking shape in England that came from the disciples of Maxwell. It would have perhaps been too much to expect him actively to help his professional enemies. That would have required selflessness and magnanimity few chief engineers are endowed with. It would however not be improper to regard him as a minor hero who was at least able to recognize a promising device when he saw one, and was imaginative enough to foresee a potential market.

In spite of his youth, Marconi looked quite an imposing figure in the photograph (Fig. 6.1) taken soon after he arrived at England. He was clearly a man to be reckoned with. Preece had the same opinion. After their first meeting he immediately offered the help of the Post Office in arranging demonstrations. The first one of this series of demonstrations was held in July 1896 between two Post Office buildings in London. Its success was followed by a bigger demonstration in September on Salisbury Plain, where a distance of 1- miles was reached. With some further improvements in his apparatus Marconi succeeded in sending signals a distance of 4- miles in March 1897 and 9 miles two months later.

Fig. 6.1 Guglielmo Marconi shortly after his arrival in England in 1896.

Fig. 6.1 Guglielmo Marconi shortly after his arrival in England in 1896.

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