Invention of the Radio: Guglielmo Marconi's Genius And His Brushes With Death

By | October 27, 2020

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Guglielmo Marconi, portrait, head and shoulders, facing left. (Pach Brothers/Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1874 in Bologna, Italy, Guglielmo Marconi was the great-grandson of the founder of Jameson's Irish Whiskey. His father's side of the family was incredibly wealthy, so he grew up learning from the finest tutors before traveling to study at the the Livorno Technical Institute and the University of Bologna.

When he was only 20 years old, Marconi began investigating the so-called "invisible waves" discovered by German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. To convince his mother that he was serious about radio technology after he returned to his family's estate in Italy, he created a radio transmitter and receiver setup that rang a small bell when he pressed a button on a bench in the home.

His family was supportive enough to push him to keep working and even provided him with a lab that allowed him to build out his experiments. He ended up transmitting waves up to half a mile away, which was then considered the maximum transmission distance. He constructed a more impressive version of his wave-generating machine in an attempt to find government contracts for his experiments, but when that didn't work out, he went elsewhere.

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Marconi caricatured by Leslie Ward for Vanity Fair, 1905. (Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Marconi In England

After the Italian government failed to show any interest in his work, Marconi and his mother traveled to England in 1896, where they were pretty much stars from their arrival. One of Marconi's biggest supporters was the British Post Office, who set the inventor up with enough funds to create a machine that increased the broadcasting range up to 12 miles. Shortly afterward, he constructed a wireless station that allowed Queen Victoria to send messages to Prince Edward whenever he was on the royal yacht, which was technologically marvelous but must have been annoying for the prince.

Demonstrations in the United States were even more impressive. In Sandy Hook, New Jersey, Marconi covered the America's Cup international yacht races for the New York Herald in fall 1899. Following the impressive demonstration, Marconi and his team installed wireless equipment aboard the American Line's S.S. Saint Paul, making it the first ocean liner to report its arrival in Great Britain by wireless from 66 nautical miles off the English coast.