Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited as the inventor of the radio. His initial breakthroughs occurred in the 1890s and early 1900s, a time when several other inventors were working with the same technology. His 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for “… contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.”
He is credited as being the first person to take the elements that many inventors were working on to create an apparatus that could send focused radio signals over a significant distance.
He first did this in 1895, sending a transmission across 1.5 miles at his father’s Italian estate at Pontecchio. A year later he conducted several successful demonstrations in England. In 1899 he transmitted a signal across the English Channel. Then, in 1901, the first truly modern moment of radio history was achieved when a signal was sent from Poldhu, Cornwall, England, to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada — over a distance of 2,100 miles.
But clearly, he was not working in a vacuum. In fact, he shared his Nobel Prize with the German inventor Karl Ferdinand Braun, who created the first cathode-ray tube (CRT) in 1897. Braun did important work on inductive coupling and developing the use of crystals in radio receivers. A number of other inventors were also working at the same time as Marconi, especially Nikola Tesla and Nathan Stufflefield, who both took out early patents for early radio transmitters.
Marconi was a somewhat typical member of the 19th-century landed gentry. His Italian father lived on inherited wealth and his mother, Annie Jameson, was the granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of the Irish whiskey brand Jameson & Sons. He had the education and leisure time necessary to pursue his interests in the sciences, eventually specializing in radio transmissions.
His famous No. 7777 Great Britain patent of 1900 for “tuned or syntonic telegraphy” was the beginning of modern radio technology. This is a somewhat controversial beginning though, since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 overturned the American version of Marconi’s patent when it found that it had been “anticipated” by the work of Tesla. This is still an argument not yet settled among radio aficionados.
Marconi continued to develop new equipment and techniques for radio transmissions following the famous trans-Atlantic transmission of 1901. These included a magnetic detector that was a standard part of wireless receivers for many years, the horizontal directional antenna, and the “timed spark” system that made the generation of continuous waves possible.
He also concentrated on the continued development of trans-Atlantic radio, building up the length and strength of transmissions, culminating in the first commercial radio service between Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Clifden, Ireland. A wireless telegraphy system was also put in place between Bari, Italy, and Avidari, Montenegro.
His company became synonymous with radiotelegraphy and found a rich market in the maritime industry. Marconi Company radios became standard equipment on ships and in 1912 the survivors of the Titanic had a Marconi radio to thank for their survival. Distress signals were broadcast from the ship to the nearby RMS Carpathia, whose crew was able to pull the Titanic’s 700 survivors from the sea.
During World War I Marconi served in the Italian army, and later navy, and eventually was a member of the Italian diplomatic mission at the Paris Peace Conference.
After the war, Marconi concentrated on shortwave radio technology. In the 1920s his company set up a system of long-distance communications for the British government, the “beam system,” which was used to improve communications across the far-flung British Empire.
His work in later years continued in the shortwave spectrum, leading to important developments in microwave radio transmissions and eventually the technology that led to the invention of radar in 1935 by Sir Robert Watson-Watt. Marconi died two years later in 1937.
Image via Guglielmo Marconi