Guglielmo Marconi: Father of the Radio

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 to 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. Radios made by the Marconi Co. 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: Inventor of the radio in the form of the wireless telegraph
  • Born: April 25, 1874, in Bologna, Italy
  • Died: July 20, 1937, in Rome, Italy (heart attack at age 63)
  • Parents: Giuseppe Marconi and Annie Jameson
  • First Wife: Beatrice O'Brien (married in 1905, divorced in 1927)
  • Second Wife: Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali (married in 1927)
  • Children with Beatrice: - Luicia (daughter, 1906-1906), Degna, (daughter, 1908-1997), Vittorio Giovanni Giulio (son, 1910-1971) - Gioia Iolanda (daughter, 1916-1996)
  • Children with Maria Cristina: Maria Elettra Elena Anna (daughter, 1930- )
  • Education: Audited classes at the University of Bologna and the Istituto Cavallero in Florence
  • Key Accomplishments: First successful radio transmission across the English Channel, 1899. First successful transatlantic radio transmission, December 12, 1901
  • Awards: 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics (shared)

Early Life and Education

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.

Early Experiments in Radio Telegraphy

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 Morse. While wireless telegraphy had been explored by numerous researchers and inventors 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 Mignani, 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 antenna capable of transmitting radio signals outdoors, but only up to a distance of a half mile, the maximum possible distance predicted earlier by respected physicist Oliver Lodge.

By tinkering with different types and heights of antennas, Marconi soon increased the range of his radio’s transmissions up to two 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 laboratory and, along with his mother, moved back to England.

Marconi Makes It Big 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. By March 1897, Marconi had applied for his first patents and had demonstrated that his radio was capable of transmitting Morse code signals over a distance of 12 miles (19.3 km). In 1898, a wireless radio station he had built on the Isle of Wight impressed Queen Victoria by allowing Her Majesty to communicate with her son, Prince Edward, aboard the royal yacht.

In 1899, with his radio signals now spanning a 70 mile (113.4 km) portion of the English Channel, Marconi traveled to the United States where he built his quickly growing “rock star” fame by providing wireless telegraphic reports on the America’s Cup yacht race being held in the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey.

First Transatlantic Radio Transmission: The Letter ‘S’

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.

In Cornwall, Marconi’s team fired up a radio transmitter so powerful it was said to have sent out foot-long sparks. Some 2,200 miles (3,540 km) away, atop Signal Hill near St. John’s, 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 p.m. 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.

The Nobel Prize and the Titanic Disaster

In 1909, Marconi and German physicist Karl F. Braun, the inventor of the cathode ray tube, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. However, Marconi’s claim to the title “Father of Radio” was 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 in 1893. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 invalidated four of Marconi’s later radio device patents, citing their similarity to Tesla’s earlier work. 

By 1910, Marconi Company radio telegraph 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 700 souls.

On June 18, 1912, Marconi 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.”

In 1933, another man, Edwin Howard Armstrong, invented FM radio.

Family Life

Marconi married his first wife, the Irish artist Beatrice O'Brien, in 1905. The couple had three daughters, Degna, Gioia, and Lucia (who died soon after birth), and one son, Giulio. The couple divorced in 1924, and in 1927, Marconi, then a member of the Anglican Church, had his marriage to Beatrice legally annulled, allowing him to remarry. In 1927, Marconi married his second wife, Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali. They had one daughter, Maria Elettra Elena Anna. Marconi also had a brother, Alfonso, and a stepbrother, Luigi. Shortly before his marriage to Maria Cristina in 1927, he became a devout member of the Catholic Church.

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. During 1935, he toured Europe and Brazil to defend Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.

Marconi died of a heart attack at age 63 on July 20, 1937, in Rome. The Italian government gave him a state funeral, and at 6 p.m. the next day, 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 in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, but he is buried in Sasso, Italy, near his hometown of Bologna.

Notable Quotes

Some of Guglielmo Marconi’s more notable quotes have proven prophetic. Others, not so much.

  • “Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?”
  • “The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.”
  • “Every day sees humanity more victorious in the struggle with space and time.”
  • “In the new era, thought itself will be transmitted by radio.”
  • “The mystery of life is certainly the most persistent problem ever placed before the thought of man. … The inability of science to solve it is absolute. This would be truly frightening were it not for faith.”