This was the leader printed in the Times of 21 July 1937, the day after Guglielmo Marconi's death. It is a remarkably prescient and balanced consideration of the likely benefits, risks and potential of the means of transmission that Marconi introduced, and stands as both a tribute to him and an expression of faith in humanity. Incidental comments (for example, on "an Imperial Commonwealth, constantly relaxing rather than tightening its formal bonds") are also of great interest. The leader has been formatted for the web, with the addition of an illustration and links, by Jacqueline Banerjee.

MARCONI

Marconi with his early apparatus for wireless transmission (Baker, facing 80).

When the early twentieth century comes to be surveyed by historians yet unborn, and its great personalities to be estimated, not according to the figure they cut in our eyes, but by the measure of their influence on the world our posterity have inherited, and the lives they live, it is probable that many names now venerated and resounding will sink into a minor repute; but it is difficult to imagine any diminution of the fame of GUGLIELMO MARCONI. He may even be regarded as the supremely significant character of our epoch, the name by which the age is called. That would, no doubt, be an injustice to many fellow-workers in the same field of exploration. The experimental sciences offer unfavourable ground for that solitary pre-eminence of the individual which is natural to the arts, and which some aspire to engraft upon politics. Marconi, like NEWTON and all other great men of science, stood upon the shoulders of giants: and the work he did has only yielded its rich harvest through the labours of hosts of less famous successors, who have been no mere disciples but contributors of original and potent invention. Earlier students than MARCONI had investigated the nature of electric radiation, and sketched the uses to which it might be put; the crucial discovery of the thermionic valve, which alone made possible the vast new developments of wireless telephony, was not made by the master. Yet the popular judgment, which selects MARCONI as the representative of the whole body of workers in this field, is accepted by the community he is chosen to represent.

This is indeed the man by whose genius one of the thousand branches of scientific inquiry, hitherto exercising the minds of only a few specialists, was so transfigured that it burst the walls of the laboratory and transformed the world. Like many others who have carried knowledge forward by great leaps instead of by patient plodding steps, he combined diligent study with an intuitive impulse that followed a course of its own. It was not in abstract learning that he surpassed others; indeed that could hardly be expected, seeing that his first striking success — the conveying of an electric signal without wires over a distance of 30 feet — was achieved when he was but twenty years old. It has even been said that MARCONI succeeded through ignorance: that he went forward unaware of the existence of technical obstacles that had daunted more learned men. The paradox is plausible, for it is not least true in science that the native hue of resolution is sometimes “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"; but it does not detract from the honour due to the pioneer. What other men had been content to prove impossible, he accomplished; and this is surely greatness. The history of wireless communication has been a history of miracles; but the true miracle, as CARLYLE remarked, is the life of a man — the vision. and the faith, the patient labour illuminated by the unshakable resolve, which sunnount all the barriers and in the end confound the wise.

Whatever vision may have been before the eyes of the young MARCON! in his attic in 1894, or even in 1901. when he strained his ear upon the Cornish shore to catch the first faint signal from across the ocean. the world surely passed in his lifetime beyond the farthest horizon his imagination can have conceived. And the end is not yet. Probably we are only at the beginning of the mere technical invention; certainly for centuries to come MARcoN1’s discoveries will be still broadening their influence upon the lives of men. From the very beginning the whole world became conscious of their potency. They halved at one stroke the necessary perils of the sea; they doubled the driving force of science in winning and exploiting the mastery of the air. But these great benefactions to mankind are made to seem superficial by comparison with the effect wireless communication is already seen to exercise, through its latest application, broadcasting, upon the very bases of human society. When a single voice can simultaneously address a nation, or an empire, or the world, then the whole course of history, for good or ill, must be transformed by the fact. The new force is capable of operating in ways of diverse import; and the possibility of its use to cause millions of men to think one thought at one time, and that thought not their own but dictated by an external will, has manifestly enhanced beyond measure the opportunities of arbitrary power. It has become almost a truism that none of the variegated dietatorships of the modern world could maintain itself without the aid of broadcast oratory.

That the totalitarian State has been the first to seize the chances offered by the new invention is no proof, however, that the invention itself need everywhere curtail the liberty of the mind. It is only another demonstration of the truth that in government autocracy is the easy way. The way of liberty is rougher and steeper, but it leads to greater heights. The history of the only other invention that, in the profundity of its social implications, is in any way to be compared with broadcasting, affords a probable indication of the line of future progress. In the first days of printing, so soon as the potentialities of the new art were appreciated, there was unanimous determination on the part of established authority to subject it to rigid censorship and control. The attempt had in different countries, according to the temper of their people and institutions, very different degrees of success. But its ultimate failure was everywhere absolute. For that which increases knowledge must in the long run increase liberty: and for the diffusion of knowledge printing and broadcasting are the two most powerful engines yet given to men.

That for a people whose instinct is towards liberty the wireless may be an emancipating force has already been proved in the experience of our own nation and Empire. It is only necessary to think of some of our recent crises to realize how mighty is the help of this invention in enabling that public opinion, which among us is sovereign, to formulate itself. It goes far indeed to confer upon democracy that swiftness of decision which has hitherto been the principal advantage of the autocrat. It may operate in less dramatic ways to aid an Imperial Commonwealth, constantly relaxing rather than tightening its formal bonds, to maintain its social and spiritual coherence. The Christmas broadcasts of the Empire, lightly convivial as for the most part they are on the surface, are an indication of the power of the electric wave to bring about mutual understanding in defiance of the barriers of geography. As the progress of invention goes forward we may hope that it will demolish barriers more formidable than this. MARCONI has not died without seeing the beginning of another wonderful extension of the force he liberated; before long, no doubt, broadcasting to the eye as well as the ear will have become a commonplace — without ceasing to be a marvel. With these added technical resources it is surely not too much to hope that that which has already surmounted the barrier of space may wear thin the barrier of language and overleap the barrier of blood. If it is not so, the reproach will not rest upon the memory of MARCONI — himself, as a loyal son of his own country and a faithful friend of ours, deserving well of the cause of peace. That which scientific invention can bestow upon men is but power, without moral implication; it may be a blessing or a curse according to the use men make of it. That which MARCONI has left us is, however, in its essence a power of illumination, opening up the ways of truth; and there can be no faith in the future of humanity without conviction that "the truth shall make you free."

Related Material

Sources

[Illustration source] Baker, Ray Stannard. The Boy's Book of Inventions: Stories of the Wonders of Modern Science. New York: Doubleday & McClure, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Library of Congress (illustation source). Web. 24 August 2017.

"Marconi." The Times. 21 July 1937: 15. Times Digital Archive. Web. 23 August 2017.


Created 23 August 2017