Guglielmo Marconi, History of Radio, Broadcasting

Guglielmo Marconi: The Father of Modern Radio (Live365 History of Radio)

Previously, we gave you all some cool fun facts relating to the history of radio. This week, we'd like to take a closer look at how radio was created - particularly the person who is considered the father of modern radio: Guglielmo Marconi.

Marconi lived from 1874 until 1896 in Italy. He was a physicist and inventor of a successful wireless telegraph system. Later, he worked on the development of shortwave wireless communication, which constitutes the basis of nearly all modern long-distance radio. Although Marconi did not discover radio waves and wasn't even the first person to demonstrate "wireless telegraphy," he did prove the feasibility and practicality of radio communication. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have Top 40 radio stations or sports broadcasts. Therefore, we think he's a guy in history every radio fanatic should know.

Starting Out

Marconi went to the technical school in Leghorn, Italy to pursue science. It was there, in studying physics, he investigated electromagnetic wave technique. He followed the earlier mathematical work of James Clerk Maxwell and the experiments of Heinrich Hertz, who first produced and transmitted radio waves. He also looked up to Sir Oliver Lodge, who conducted research on lightning and electricity.

In 1895, he began laboratory experiments at his father’s country estate in Pontecchio where he succeeded in sending wireless signals over a distance of one and a half miles. In 1896, Marconi took his invention to England where he was introduced to Sir William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office. Later that year, he was granted the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy.

Marconi demonstrated his system successfully in London, on Salisbury Plain and across the Bristol Channel. His demonstrations were pretty fun, often including balloons and kites to obtain greater height for his aerials. He was able to send signals over distances of up to 6.4 km (4 miles) on the Salisbury Plain and to nearly 14.5 km (9 miles) across the Bristol Channel.

His awesome presentations earned him much-needed publicity, and in July 1897, he formed The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Limited. It was also formed with the help of his cousin, Jameson Davis. In 1900, Marconi changed the name of the company to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Limited.

Popularizing Modern Radio

Around the end of the 1800s, there was still much skepticism about the useful application of wireless telegraphy and a lack of interest in its development. Thankfully, Marconi didn't give up and used every opportunity to take his invention to the next level.

During the first years of Marconi's company, he was devoted to showing the full possibilities of radiotelegraphy. In 1899, a wireless radiotelegraphy station was established at South Foreland, England. It was used for communicating with Wimereux in France, a distance of 50 km (31 miles). In the same year, British battleships exchanged messages at 121 km (75 miles).

Marconi's radiotelegraphy didn't get real attention until September 1899, when he equipped two American ships with machines to report to newspapers in New York City the progress of the yacht race for America’s Cup. The success of this demonstration peaked worldwide interest for this new form of communication and led to the formation of the American Marconi Company.

In 1900, Marconi filed his now-famous patent No. 7777 for Improvements in Apparatus for Wireless Telegraphy. The patent, based on the earlier work of Sir Oliver Lodge, enabled several stations to operate on different wavelengths without interference. However, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned patent No. 7777 - indicating that Lodge, Nikola Tesla, and John Stone appeared to have priority in the development of a radio-tuning apparatus.

Marconi's Greatest Triumph

Despite the opinion expressed by some mathematicians that the curvature of the Earth would limit practical communication by means of electric waves to a distance of 161–322 km (100–200 miles), Marconi proved them wrong in December 1901 in receiving at St. John’s, Newfoundland, signals transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean from Poldhu in Cornwall, England.

How did he do it? Marconi and his assistant, George Kemp, confirmed the reception of the first transatlantic radio signals with a telephone receiver and a wire antenna kept aloft by - of all things - a simple kite. They heard Morse code for the letter "S" transmitted from Poldhu, Cornwall. This particular experiment showed that radio signals extended far beyond the horizon. In fact, we now know radio signals can extend into outer space and beyond. Marconi's experiment gave radio a new global dimension for communication in the 20th century.

This achievement created buzz in every part of the civilized world. Though much remained to be learned about the laws of propagation of radio waves around the Earth and through the atmosphere, it was the beginning of the vast development of radio communication, broadcasting, and navigation services that would take place over the next 50 years. People now cared about radio because of Marconi's work. Because of that, a radio eventually became a common household item by the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Marconi still played a part in radio's development even after his famous transatlantic radiotelegraphy stint. He was the first to discover that, because some radio waves travel by reflection from the upper regions of the atmosphere, transmission conditions are sometimes more favorable at night than during the day. He figured this out while traveling on the U.S. liner Philadelphia in 1902 and it would come to be known as the "daytime effect" in broadcasting. That same year, he also patented a magnetic detector. It would become radio's standard wireless receiver for many years.

Ater conducting more experiments into different types of radio waves, serving in the Italian army, receiving a Nobel Prize in 1909, and even establishing a radio telephone system in the Vatican for the pope, Guglielmo lived until 1937, when he passed away in Rome. He was 63 and was survived by his countess wife, as well as one son and three daughters.

Before he died in the 30s, Marconi left a little recorded message for the world. You can watch it below. It may even make you tear up a little.

That's about it for our little history lesson on Marconi. Excited for more deep dives into radio's origins? Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming Live365 History of Radio posts! In the meantime, happy broadcasting!


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Article Image: Guglielmo Marconi sitting behind his wireless apparatus in 1897. (Unknown Author [Available through Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey