Images downloaded by the author from books in the Internet Archive. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the sources, full details of which are given in the bibliography, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images for larger pictures.]
"Sig. Marconi: Inventor of Wireless Telegraphy" (Robinson, facing p. 50).
Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who achieved fame as a pioneer of wireless telegraphy, was born in Bologna, Italy, on 25 April 1874. However, as his biographer Marc Raboy points out, his "story and its myths do not belong exclusively to Italy" (3). He is, fittingly enough for one who did so much to establish global communications, a truly global figure. Even so, Britain has a particularly important share of his story.
As the second son of a Italian landowner and his wife Annie, née Jameson (of the Irish whisky family), the young Marconi grew up to be bilingual, and had his very earliest education in England, when his mother was staying in Bedford with her sons. His father even applied for naturalization as a British citizen at this time, apparently in the hope of joining his family there, but was "thwarted by an irregularity" (Raboy 20). Annie and the children returned to Italy in 1880, but after that she would take the children for part of the year first to Florence and then, from mid-1885, to Livorna ("Leghorn"). In both these places, the young Marconi would have been part of a very cosmopolitan expatriate community. At the same time, he was developing his understanding of electricity, the subject which increasingly fascinated him. He attended technical institutes and received private tuition as well. Three of the names that figure largely during these years are those of Marchese Luigi Solari, later an important collaborator, whom he met in Florence; Professor Vincenzo Rosa, who instructed him in Leghorn; and Professor Augusto Righi of Bologna University. He also had support from both sides of his family, notably from his mother's relatives who provided him with the latest scientific articles from Britain.
Alum Bay Station on the Isle of Wight (Baker, Boys' Second Book, 237).
All of this helps to explain how Marconi came to land on these shores early in 1896 with (in Giorgio Dragoni's words) "a practical and conceptual understanding of electricity," ready to embark on his most significant experiments. "It was only in England that he found the means and the will to develop his discovery," wrote his second wife, Maria Cristina Marconi (11). Here he was able to win the support of the chief engineer of the Post Office, Sir William Henry Preece, and soon his early transmissions were attracting the interest of the scientific establishment. His progress was rapid indeed. As soon after his arrival as 2 July 1896 he took out the first British patent for wireless telegraphy, and just over a year later set up his Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company on the Isle of Wight. Incredibly, he was still in his very early twenties.
The Isle of Wight was the ideal place, not only for transmission purposes, but also because of its proximity to the royal residence, Osborne House:
During July and August that year he transmitted messages between Queen Victoria's residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and the royal yacht, Osborne, carrying information about her son the Prince of Wales. This service was much appreciated by the queen and was of course an invaluable advertisement for Marconi's company. [Dragoni]
Although Victoria had originally mistaken him for an electrician, Marconi, who in many ways remained "[b]y tradition and breeding ... a man of the nineteenth century" (qtd. in Raboy 676), retained a great affection for the Queen, and also the Prince of Wales — the future Edward VII (see Marconi 111). He continued to increase the range of his transmissions and demonstrate their usefulness, for example by providing signals from the shore to aid and protect navigation. Just beyond the Victorian era in December 1901, he proved that wireless waves were not disturbed by the curvature of the Earth, by transmitting the first wireless signals across the Atlantic from Poldhu in Cornwall. They were successfully received in St John's, Newfoundland, over twenty thousand miles away.
Left: "The Wireless telegraph station at Poole, England, showing sending and recieving instruments. In the right-hand corner is the copper reflector used in directing waves" (Baker, Boy's Book, facing 79). Right: South Foreland, Kent, where Marconi installed wireless communication between the lighthouse at Dover and the East Goodwin lightship, twelve miles away (Baker, Boy's Book, facing p. 96).
Marconi loved London, especially the Savoy which he often patronised, and soon became "one of the most recognizable figures in the capital" (Raboy 236). His reputation flourished, and he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Glasgow Universities in 1904. The Bodleian Library at the former holds extensive Marconi archives.
Marconi with his assistant engineer, Mr. Bullocke (Baker, facing 92).
Dragoni quite fairly concludes that the "entire world" was Marconi's "experimental laboratory." Nevertheless, there was an ongoing relationship between Marconi and the United Kingdom long after those early days at the Isle of Wight. When he won the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for the advancement of wireless technology (a prize that he shared with Karl Ferdinand Braun for his own scientific discoveries), the announcement in the Times was soon followed by a report of his acceptance speech, relaying that part of it that focused on the history of wireless telegraphy, and dealt with the problems of transmission between England and America. In 1911, he was called on by the Italian government for technical assistance during the conflict with the Turkish empire. But it was by no means the end of his connection with the country which had first helped him proceed with his work. Among his many other honours, in 1914 he was made an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in England. His services were equally or more important to Italy in the First World War too, but it was on these shores that the Marconi Company thrived, and he continued to be its Chairman throughout. Another very important date in this country was when, in 1920, the Chelmsford Marconi factory in Essex became the location for the first entertainment radio broadcasts transmitted here.
While Marconi continued with his experiments, he still had time for a complicated personal life. After a broken engagement, his first marriage of 1905 was to the daughter of an Irish baron. The couple bought a mansion in Hampshire, Eaglehurst, in the grounds of which is Luttrell's Tower, where, according to the plaque on the wall, "Marconi concluded his wireless experiments during the Great War of 1914-1918." After this first marriage failed, he remarried in 1927. This time his wife was Italian, a Countess. With Maria Cristina he had another daughter, Elettra, to add to the three children from his first marriage. In Maria Cristina's memoir of their life together, she describes with great nostalgia the many years they too spent in England. She remembers being presented at court and moving among the very highest social circles. At Cowes Week, which they attended regularly, she recalls that her husband "looked even more English than usual" (108); she also recalls their visits to country houses like Polesden Lacey in Surrey, and the dinner parties they gave in return at the Savoy and the Ritz in London.
Marconi may have seemed the perfect gentleman, but he could be racist and supremacist, even by the standards of his times (see Raboy 135). His public life was complicated, too, by his closeness to Mussolini and involvement with fascism (see especially Raboy 666-67). However, when he died in Rome on 20 July 1937 after several heart attacks, at the relatively early age of sixty-three, there was general dismay. The Times published a long obituary of him the very next day, and ran a leader about him on that day as well. Interestingly, the leader considers a question that Marconi himself had been considering (see Raboy 676-77): whether global communications would be a force for ill as well as good in the modern world. The jury is still out on that one, but one thing is sure: there is no turning back now on the process that Marconi did so much to set in motion. As for the Victorians, they were not to know what the future held. For them, he was the amazing young prodigy, almost a magician, who could send signals through thin air without wires; and he for his part seems never to have forgotten how much he owed them.
Baker, Ray Stannard. 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 (illustration source). Web. 24 August 2017.
_____. Boys' Second Book of Inventions. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1909. Internet Archive. Contributed by the New York Public Library (illustration source). Web. 24 August 2017. (
Dragoni, Giorgio. "Marconi, Guglielmo (1874–1937)."Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 23 August 2017).
"Guglielmo Marconi — Biographical." Nobelprize.org. Web. 24 Aug. 2017.
"Marconi." The Times. 21 July 1937: 15. Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 August 2017.
Marconi, Maria Cristina. Marconi My Beloved. Anniversary edition, edited, enlarged and updated by Elettra Marconi. Boston: Dante University of America Press, 2001.
"Mr. Marconi On Wireless Telegraphy." The Times. 15 December 1909: 16. Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 Aug. 2017.
"Obituary: Marconi." The Times. 21 July 1937: 19. Times Digital Archive. Web. 23 August 2017.
Raboy, Marc. Marconi: The Man who Networked the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Robinson, Henry. Inventors and Inventions. New York: Henry Robinson, 1911. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Library of Congress. Web. 23 August 2017 (illustration source: this has no information about Marconi).
Created 23 August 2017