Guglielmo Marconi
Italian inventor and electrical engineer

1874 - 1937

Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer who gained international fame for his role in developing wireless telegraphy, or radio (see RADIO). In 1895, he sent the first telegraph signals through the air. Telegraph signals previously had been transmitted through electric wires, and so Marconi's system became known as wireless telegraphy. In 1901, Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic wireless communication. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun of Germany, who had invented a tube that improved wireless transmission. Their work helped lead to the development of radio broadcasting. Marconi also pioneered tests with short waves and microwaves.

Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy. His father was a wealthy landowner. As a child, Guglielmo was educated primarily by tutors and took a strong interest in science. He later failed the University of Bologna entrance exam and decided to pursue his scientific studies on his own.

Marconi read about the German physicist Heinrich Hertz's work with electromagnetic waves, and began experimenting with wireless telegraphy in 1894. He set up equipment in the attic of his father's estate and transmitted signals across the room. Marconi later began to experiment outdoors. Marconi found when his transmitter and receiver were grounded (connected to earth), he could greatly extend the signal's range by increasing the antenna's height. After this discovery, he transmitted signals farther than had ever been done before.

The Italian government showed no interest in the young, unschooled inventor's work, so Marconi went to Great Britain. There, in 1896, he received the first patent on wireless telegraphy. Marconi also gained financial support and formed the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, Ltd., in 1897 in London. In 1899, three British warships were equipped with Marconi's wireless equipment. That same year, he sent a wireless message across the English Channel to France. Private ships also began to use Marconi's system.

First transatlantic signal. On Dec. 12, 1901, Marconi and his staff sent the first wireless transatlantic communication in history. They transmitted the Morse code letter s from Poldhu, Cornwall, England, to St. John's, Canada. Soon afterward, ships used Marconi's equipment to communicate with each other and with the shore over distances up to 2,000 miles.

Marconi's fame grew when his wireless equipment helped bring rescue ships for the sinking ocean liners Republic in 1909 and Titanic in 1912, saving many lives. These accidents led to laws requiring that all large passenger ships have wireless equipment.

During the 1920's, Marconi turned his attention to short waves and microwaves. Marconi and other inventors had developed commercial wireless equipment using long airwaves, which required large, powerful transmission systems. But short-wave stations did not require such transmitters, and they cost less to build and operate. Short waves, unlike long waves, could be used as effectively during the day as at night. Marconi and his staff perfected the beam system, which used directional aerials and reflectors. This system made short-wave radio an efficient and reliable method of communication. Marconi's team also built the first microwave telephone system in 1932 and helped open the way for a revolution in microwave electronic communication.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Marconi received many other honors and awards. King George V of Britain gave him the honorary title of Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victoria Order in 1914. Marconi also received the John Fritz Medal, the most prestigious award in American engineering.

Contributor: David A. Hounshell, Ph.D., Luce Prof. of Technology and Social Change, Carnegie- Mellon Univ.

Additional resources

Gunston, David. Marconi: Father of Radio. Crowell Collier, 1965. First published in 1962. For younger readers.

Jacot de Boinod, B. L., and Collier, D. M. B. Marconi: Master of Space. Hutchinson (London), 1935. A classic biography.


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