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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 12:44 GMT
Profile: Marconi, the wireless pioneer
Marconi: AP
Marconi (left) making shortwave broadcasts from Rome in 1934
Helen Briggs

Marconi's Atlantic experiment was the culmination of a scientific curiosity that began many years before in the attic of an Italian villa.

As the son of a wealthy Italian, Guiseppe Marconi, the young Guglielmo was able to indulge his passion for science at the family home near Bologna.

By the age of 20, he spent much of his time carrying out rudimentary experiments in two attic rooms of the country house, having become fascinated by electricity at school.

Marconi portrait 1901: Marconi plc
Marconi in 1901
Image: Marconi plc

It was here that his dream of developing wireless telegraphy was kindled.

At the time, little was known about electricity. The Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell had predicted in 1864, 10 years before Marconi was born, that various types of rays, including light, were forms of electromagnetic waves. Maxwell had also predicted that changes in the amount of electricity in a wire could send out waves through the air.

A couple of decades later, the German scientist Heinrich Hertz developed equipment to send and detect electromagnetic waves. He was able to transmit waves over several metres.

Attic experiments

In 1894, after reading about the work of Hertz during a holiday in the Alps, Marconi had an idea. He wondered whether electromagnetic waves could send messages as signals through the air just as messages could be sent along wires in the telegraph and telephone.

He decided to work on the concept, setting up experiments in the attic. One night in 1895, Marconi called his mother to the makeshift laboratory.

Children watching TV in 1950s: BBC
Marconi changed the way the world communicated
He had set up a transmitter at one end of the room that sent out radio waves. About nine metres away, at the other end, was a receiver connected to a bell. When Marconi pressed a switch on the transmitter, it sent out electromagnetic waves that were detected by the receiver and the bell rang.

His mother, Annie Jameson of the Irish whisky distillery family, was impressed by the experiment, unlike his father. Nevertheless, Marconi moved on to the next stage of his work, setting up more powerful equipment in the garden of the villa.

He was soon able to send messages in Morse code between a transmitter and receiver that were two kilometres apart.

 Click here to listen to Sir Ambrose Fleming, whose equipment was used in Marconi's Atlantic experiment - talking about the early days of wireless.

First patent

Marconi was quick to seize on the commercial applications of wireless telegraphy. The Italian Government already had a system of overhead telegraph lines and underwater cables and was not interested in his experiments - so he travelled to London with his mother.

Marconi wireless pack: Marconi plc
Marconi wireless pack from 1915
Image: Marconi plc

On a visit to the General Post Office, he gained the support of the Engineer-in-chief, who arranged for Marconi to have an assistant. This was George Stephen Kemp, who became his life-long friend.

In 1896, Marconi obtained his first patent and in 1897, he formed the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited with his cousin Henry Jameson Davis. In 1900, the company became Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy Company, Ltd., the forerunner of Marconi plc.

Several milestones followed, which gave Marconi the confidence to carry out his costly (50,000) Atlantic experiment.

  • The world's first pair of coastal radio stations were set up at a hotel near the Needles on the Isle of Wight and at another hotel in Bournemouth (later moved to a hotel near Poole, Dorset).
  • In 1898, Marconi's company set up two radio stations on the north coast of Ireland that were used to send information about passing ships to the mainland.
  • The same year, Marconi installed radio equipment on Queen Victoria's Royal Yacht so that the Queen, who was staying at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, could communicate with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who was convalescing on board.
  • In December 1898, the company opened the world's first wireless factory at Chelmsford in Essex.
  • The first messages across the Channel were sent in March 1899 from a radio station near Boulogne.
  • In 1900, Marconi patented improvements for transmitters and receivers that solved the problem of the jamming of wireless signals. The famous "Four Sevens" Patent was later challenged by other radio companies.

Radio bridges the Atlantic

The radio station at Poldhu, Cornwall, was built in 1900, followed by the receiving station at St John's in Newfoundland.

Wireless room
Part of the apparatus used for the first experimental transmissions at Poldhu.
Image: University College London

Marconi and his assistants travelled by sea to Canada where they set up their equipment on nearby Signal Hill. They used kites and balloons to try to hold up the aerial wires in the wind off the ocean.

At about 12.30 pm on 12 December, 1901, Marconi heard three faint clicks in his telephone connected to the radio receiver.

It was the Morse code for the letter "s" - - sent from Cornwall. The Atlantic Ocean had been bridged by radio for the first time.

Silencing sceptics

Not everybody was convinced by Marconi's claims, questioning whether he might have picked up stray signals.

The Anglo-American Telegraph Company threatened legal action and long patent battles ensued.

But Marconi carried on with his work, improving the system and making radio more reliable. His dream was to see a network of radio stations linking the world.

  • In 1909, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, and finally won his legal battle over patent 7777.
  • In 1912, Marconi was accused of secret trading with the British Government to set up a string of radio stations in what was known as the "Marconi Scandal". Later in the year, Marconi lost an eye in a motoring accident in Italy.
  • During World War One, Marconi returned to Italy where he was in charge of wireless telegraphy for the army.
  • He later bought a yacht, Elettra, which he used as a floating laboratory. He lived aboard the yacht with his second wife, Countess Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scala.
  • Marconi began work on shortwave radio in 1924 and then turned his attention to beam transmitters.
  • In 1931, the 30th anniversary of his first transatlantic signal, his own voice circled the globe in a radio broadcast.
Marconi memorial, Cornwall: BBC
Marconi memorial at Poldhu
Marconi continued to work and travel on his yacht until his death in Rome in 1937 of a heart attack.

During his funeral, wireless stations around the world closed down and transmitters fell silent for two minutes.

When Marconi was born, in 1874, long distance communication was only possible by telegraph and telephones linked by wires. By the time of his death, global wireless communication was a reality.

Across the Atlantic and Beyond - a special programme on Marconi's historic transmission will be broadcast on Wednesday, 12 December, at 15.30 GMT on BBC Two in the South West.

The BBC's Matt Pengelly in Cornwall
"Marconi was a mysterious man"
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