Biography of Guglielmo Marconi, Italian Inventor and Electrical Engineer

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), Italian Physicist And Radio Pioneer
Marconi with typical apparatus, including 10-inch induction coil spark transmitter (right), morse inker and grasshopper key in center. Print Collector / Getty Images

Guglielmo Marconi (April 25, 1874—July 20, 1937) was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, including the development of the first successful long-distance wireless telegraph in 1894 and the broadcast of the first transatlantic radio signal in 1901. Among many other awards, Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to radio communications. During the 1900s, Marconi Co. radios greatly facilitated ocean travel and helped to save hundreds of lives, including survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and the RMS Lusitania in 1915.

Fast Facts: Guglielmo Marconi

  • Known For: Development of long-distance radio transmission
  • Born: April 25, 1874 in Bologna, Italy
  • Parents: Giuseppe Marconi and Annie Jameson
  • Died: July 20, 1937 in Rome, Italy
  • Education: Attended lectures at the University of Bologna
  • Patents: US586193A (July 13, 1897): Transmitting Electrical Signals
  • Awards and Honors: 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Spouses: Beatrice O'Brien, Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali
  • Children: Degna Marconi, Gioia Marconi Braga, Giulio Marconi, Lucia Marconi, Maria Eletra Elena Anna Marconi
  • Notable Quote: “In the new era, thought itself will be transmitted by radio.”

Early Life

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874. Born into Italian nobility, he was the second son of Italian country aristocrat Giuseppe Marconi and Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford, Ireland. Marconi and his older brother Alfonso were raised by their mother in Bedford, England.

Already interested in science and electricity, Marconi returned to Italy at age 18, where he was invited by his neighbor Augusto Righi, professor of physics at the University of Bologna and expert on the electromagnetic wave research of Heinrich Hertz, to attend lectures at the university and use its library and laboratories. While he never graduated from college, Marconi later attended classes at the Istituto Cavallero in Florence.

In his 1909 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Marconi humbly spoke of his lack of formal education. “In sketching the history of my association with radiotelegraphy, I might mention that I never studied physics or electrotechnics in the regular manner, although as a boy I was deeply interested in those subjects,” he said.

In 1905, Marconi married his first wife, the Irish Artist Beatrice O'Brien. The couple had three daughters, Degna, Gioia, and Lucia, and one son, Giulio before divorcing in 1924. In 1927, Marconi married his second wife, Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali. They had one daughter together, Maria Elettra Elena Anna. Though he had been baptized as a Catholic, Marconi had been raised in the Anglican Church. Shortly before his marriage to Maria Cristina in 1927, he became and remained a devout member of the Catholic Church.

Early Experiments in Radio

While still a teenager in the early 1890s, Marconi began working on “wireless telegraphy,” the transmission and reception of telegraph signals without the connecting wires required by the electric telegraph that had been perfected in the 1830s by Samuel F.B. Morse. While numerous researchers and inventors had explored wireless telegraphy for over 50 years, none had yet created a successful device. A breakthrough came in 1888 when Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that “Hertzian” waves of electromagnetic radiation—radio waves—could be produced and detected in the laboratory.

At age 20, Marconi began experimenting with Hertz’s radio waves in the attic of his home in Pontecchio, Italy. In the summer of 1894, assisted by his butler, he built a successful storm alarm that caused an electric bell to ring when it detected radio waves generated by distant lightning. In December 1894, still working in his attic, Marconi showed his mother a working radio transmitter and receiver that made a bell across the room ring by pushing a button located across the room. With the financial help of his father, Marconi continued to develop radios and transmitters capable of working over longer distances. By mid-1895, Marconi had developed a radio and radio antenna capable of transmitting radio signals outdoors, but only up to a distance of half-a-mile, the maximum possible distance predicted earlier by respected physicist Oliver Lodge.

Photograph of inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s first radio transmitter
Guglielmo Marconi’s first radio transmitter (1895). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

By tinkering with different types and heights of antennas, Marconi soon increased the range of his radio’s transmissions up to 2 miles (3.2 km) and began seeking the funding he needed to build the first complete, commercially successful, radio system. When his own Italian government showed no interest in funding his work, Marconi packed up his attic laboratory and moved back to England.

Marconi Succeeds in England

Shortly after he arrived in England in early 1896, the now 22-year old Marconi had no problem finding eager backers, particularly the British Post Office, where he received the assistance of post office chief engineer Sir William Preece. During the remainder of 1896, Marconi continued to extend the range of his radio transmitters, often by using kites and balloons to lift his antennas to greater heights. By the end of the year, his transmitters were able to send Morse code up to 4 miles (6.4 km) across the Salisbury Plain and 9 miles (14.5 km) over the waters of the Bristol Channel.

By March 1897, Marconi had applied for his first British patents after demonstrating that his radio was capable of wireless transmission over a distance of 12 miles (19.3 km). In June of the same year, Marconi erected a radio transmitting station in La Spezia, Italy, that could communicate with Italian warships 11.8 miles (19 km) away.

Old photograph of British Post Office engineers inspecting Marconi's radio equipment during a demonstration on Flat Holm Island, May 13, 1897
British Post Office Engineers Inspecting Marconi's Radio Equipment, May 13, 1897. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1898, a wireless radio station Marconi had built on the Isle of Wight impressed Queen Victoria by allowing Her Majesty to communicate with her son Price Edward aboard the royal yacht. By 1899, Marconi’s radio signals were capable of spanning a 70-mile (113.4 km) portion of the English Channel.

Marconi gained further notoriety when two U.S. ships used his radios to transmit results of the 1899 America’s Cup yacht races to New York newspapers. In 1900, the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, Ltd., began work on developing radios for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore transmissions.

Also in 1900, Marconi was granted his famed British patent No. 7777 for Improvements in Apparatus for Wireless Telegraphy. Intended to enhance previous developments in radio wave transmission patented by Sir Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla, Marconi’s “Four Sevens” patent enabled multiple radio stations to transmit simultaneously without interfering with each other by transmitting on different frequencies.

First Transatlantic Radio Transmission

Despite the ever-increasing range of Marconi’s radios, many physicists of the day contended that since radio waves traveled in a straight line, transmission of signals beyond the horizon—as in across the Atlantic Ocean—was impossible. Marconi, however, believed that radio waves followed the curvature of the earth. In fact, both were correct. While radio waves do travel in straight lines, they bounce, or “skip,” back toward the earth when they hit the ion-rich layers of the atmosphere collectively known as the ionosphere, thus approximating Marconi’s curve. By utilizing this skip effect, it is possible for radio signals to be received over great, “over-the-horizon” distances. 

After Marconi’s first attempts at receiving radio signals sent from England some 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away in Cape Cod, Massachusetts failed, he decided to try a shorter distance, from Poldhu, Cornwall on the southwestern tip of England, to St. John’s, Newfoundland on the northeast coast of Canada.

Guglielmo Marconi watching associates raising the kite used to lift the antenna at St. John's, Newfoundland, December 1901
Guglielmo Marconi Preparing for First Transatlantic Radio Transmission, December 1901. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In Cornwall, Marconi’s team turned on a radio transmitter so powerful it was said to have sent out foot-long sparks. At the same time, atop Signal Hill, near St. John’s in Newfoundland, Marconi powered on his receiver attached to a long-wire antenna hanging from a kite at the end of a 500-foot-long tether. At approximately 12:30 pm on December 12, 1901, Marconi’s receiver in Newfoundland picked up groups of three Morse code dots—the letter S—being sent from the transmitter in Cornwall, some 2,200 miles (3,540 km) away. The achievement ushered in period rapid advances in the field of radio communications and navigation.

Further Advancements

Over the next 50 years, Marconi’s experiments led to a greater understanding of how radio signals traveled, or “propagated,” around the Earth through the atmosphere.

While sailing on the U.S. ocean liner Philadelphia in 1902, Marconi discovered that he could receive radio signals from a distance of 700 miles (1,125 km) during the day and from 2,000 miles (3,200 km) at night. He thus discovered how the atomic process known as “ionization,” combined with sunlight affects the way in which radio waves are reflected back to earth by the upper regions of the atmosphere.

In 1905, Marconi developed and patented the horizontal directional antenna, which further extended the radio’s range by focusing the transmitter’s energy toward the specific location of the receiver. In 1910, he received messages in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sent from Ireland, some 6,000 miles (9,650 km) away. Finally, on September 23, 1918, two messages sent from the Marconi radio station in Wales, England, were received some 10,670 miles (17,170 km) away in Sydney, Australia.

Marconi and the Titanic Disaster

By 1910, Marconi Company radiotelegraph sets, operated by trained “Marconi Men,” had become standard equipment on virtually all oceangoing passenger and freight ships. When the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg just before midnight on April 14, 1912, its Marconi Company telegraph operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were able to direct the RMS Carpathia to the scene in time to save some 700 people.

On June 18, 1912, Maroni testified on the role of wireless telegraphy in maritime emergencies before a Court of Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. Upon hearing his testimony, Britain’s postmaster-general stated of the disaster, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvelous invention.”

Later Life and Death

In the two decades following the Titanic disaster, Marconi worked to increase the range of his radios, often testing them while sailing aboard his elegant 700-ton yacht, the Elettra. In 1923, he joined the Italian Fascist party and was appointed to the Fascist Grand Council by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1930. In 1935, he toured Europe and Brazil to defend Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.

Though a member of Italy’s Fascist Party since 1923, Marconi’s passion for fascist ideology grew during his later years. In a 1923 lecture, he stated, “I reclaim the honor of being the first fascist in the field of radiotelegraphy, the first who acknowledged the utility of joining the electric rays in a bundle, as Mussolini was the first in the political field who acknowledged the necessity of merging all the healthy energies of the country into a bundle, for the greater greatness of Italy.”

Marconi died of a heart attack at age 63 on July 20, 1937, in Rome. The Italian government honored him with an ornate state funeral, and at 6 pm on July 21, radio stations in America, England, Italy, and on all ships at sea broadcast two minutes of silence in his honor. Today, a monument to Marconi is located in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, but he is buried in Sasso, Italy, near his hometown of Bologna.

Despite Marconi’s achievements, however, his popularly accepted designation as the “Father of Radio” was and continues to be hotly contested. As early as 1895, physicists Alexander Popov and Jagdish Chandra Bose had demonstrated the short-range sending and receiving of radio waves. In 1901, electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla claimed to have developed a working wireless telegraph as early as 1893. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Marconi’s 1904 U.S. version of his 7777 British patent—U.S. patent No. 763,772—ruling that it had been superseded by radio-tuning devices developed by Tesla and others. The ruling led to the ongoing and undecided argument of whether Marconi or Nikola Tesla had actually invented the radio.

Honors and Awards

Marconi received many honors in recognition of his achievements. For the development of wireless telegraphy, he shared the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics with German physicist Karl F. Braun, the inventor of the cathode ray tube. In 1919, he was appointed as one of Italy’s voting delegates to the Paris peace conference after the end of World War I. In 1929, Marconi was made a nobleman and appointed to the Italian senate, and in 1930, he was chosen as president of the Royal Italian Academy.

On February 12, 1931, Marconi personally introduced the first Vatican radio broadcast by a Pope, Pope Pius XI. With Pius XI standing beside him at the microphone, Marconi stated, “With the help of God, who places so many mysterious forces of nature at man's disposal, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will give to the faithful of the entire world the joy of listening to the voice of the Holy Father.”

Sources

  • Simons, R.W. "Guglielmo Marconi and Early Systems of Wireless Communication." GEC Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1996.
  • "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1909: Guglielmo Marconi - Biographical.“ NobelPrize.org.
  • ”Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921“ Elsevier Publishing Company. Amsterdam. (1967).
  • ”Guglielmo Marconi - Nobel Lecture“ NobelPrize.org. (December 11, 1909).
  • "Radio falls silent for death of Marconi." The Guardian. (July 20, 1937).
  • “Guglielmo Marconi: radio star.” PhysicsWorld (November 30, 2001).
  • ”Marconi forged today’s interconnected world of communication“ New Scientist. (August 10, 2016).
  • Kelly, Brian. "80 Years of Vatican Radio, Pope Pius XI and Marconi" Catholicism.org. (February 18, 2011).