Guglielmo Marconi: Biography & Inventions

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson delves into the life and work of Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian scientist and inventor who pioneered the fields of wireless telegraphy and radio. We will learn about several of his patented inventions, and the theories of electromagnetic waves upon which they were based.

''Wireless'': A Disambiguation

These days it's second nature to assume that wifi and radio travel from a distant source and imperceptibly find their way into our computers and mobile devices. But when technology works seamlessly and invisibly, it isn't often that we wonder how it works.

Today, we know that electromagnetic (EM) waves travel through space and bring information into our computers and mobile phones. Wireless is one of those words that we take for granted. But do we truly know what it means? Before wireless telegraphy (the foundation for radio) was introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, telegraphic transmission was bound to cable networks splayed across the earth and under oceans.

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) led the wireless revolution at the turn of the 20th century. Back in the 19th century, scientists believed that an invisible ether existed in the air that allowed sound and light to propagate. People like Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) and his predecessor Marconi proved them wrong, long before Einstein's relativity theory debunked the ether and replaced it with a theory of waves.

His story is about the prehistory of radio.

Who Was Guglielmo Marconi?

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1874. He developed a passion for science at an early age. He studied physics at the Livorno Technical Institute in Leghorn. There, he discovered the writing of Hertz. In 1888, Hertz had discovered radio waves. In 1894, the year of his death, Hertz published Untersuchungen über die Ausbreitung der elektrischen Kraft (Investigations into the Propagation of Electrical Energy). Marconi poured over it, intrigued by the possibility of sending telegraphic transmissions over radio waves. He wondered if electricity can travel through insulated wires from one place to another. Would it also be possible for signals to travel over Hertzian waves?

Before the invention of radio, radio waves were called Hertzian waves after their discoverer. Radio waves, like light waves and wifi, form the electromagnetic spectrum, the range of electromagnetic radiation both perceptible and imperceptible to the human senses. Most waves are imperceptible to human senses, with the notable exception of light. We need technological devices to perceive radio, infrared, and X-rays, for example.

Electromagnetic Spectrum
EM Spectrum1

At the age of 20, Marconi started experimenting in ways to apply Hertz's theories to practical telegraphy. Back at home, he started off his experiment small. He first tried sending signals across a room, then down a hallway, and then across the backyard. Finally, he succeeded in transmitting a signal over a 2 km distance.

Later, in 1901, Marconi demonstrated a significant scientific discovery. In a broadcast from Cornwall to Newfoundland, a distance of 2100 miles, he proved that the transmission of EM waves was not hindered by the curvature of the Earth.

Marconi was honored with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909.

Patents and Inventions

Marconi made history in 1896, when he filed his patent for wireless telegraphy, the first indication that radio was on the horizon. He titled his British patent 'Improvements In Transmitting Electrical Impulses And Signals, And In Apparatus Therefor.'

A year later, Marconi founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. They set up show on Hall Street, Chelmsford, to the east of London, England, the following year in 1898. The company was renamed Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company two years later. Perhaps Marconi, drunk on fame, figured he could cash in on name recognition.

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