Great Inventors: They called Marconi a lunatic

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It was during the summer of 1894 when an unknown twenty-year-old Italian by the name of Guglielmo Marconi called his parents into a room to show them how he could make a bell, on a far wall, ring by simply pressing a button. He had done so by using electromagnetic radiation, first introduced by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1888.


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Once Marconi’s father, a wealthy landowner, had checked for trickery (there were no wires) he handed over the contents of his wallet; enabling his son to buy the equipment he needed for some even more ambitious experiments.

Within a year Marconi was able to send and receive electronic signals over a distance of two and a half kilometres, both around hills and through buildings.

Convinced of the value of his invention, particularly to the military and the telegraph companies who were busy stringing wiring all over the world, Marconi wrote to Pietro Lacava, the Italian politician who had become the Minister for Post and Telegraphs in 1889, outlining his ‘wireless telegraph’ and requesting funding.

Marconi never received a reply although the document did turn up much later at the ministry with the words ‘to the Longara’ scrawled across the top; a reference to the infamous lunatic asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome.

Meanwhile the young Italian continued with his experiments, achieving ever improving results over longer distances and decided to travel to England in 1896 where he presented his ideas to William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, who had himself been experimenting with wireless transmission since 1892.

Preece immediately recognised the value of Marconi’s new technology and introduced it to the Royal Society during a lecture called ‘Signalling through Space without Wires’ which was given in London on 4 June 1897, the very same year that the President of the very same Society, Lord Kelvin, had piously announced ‘Radio technology has no future.’

However, by early 1899 Marconi was transmitting wireless messages between Cornwall and France and in November of that year he was invited to America to demonstrate his equipment. On the return journey aboard the SS St Paul, Marconi and his assistants set up a transmitter and the passenger liner became the first in history to report its estimated arrival time from a distance of sixty-six miles short of the English coast.

By 1902 Marconi had managed to transmit and receive messages between North America and Europe, he had built a station at South Wellfleet in Massachusetts and on 18 January 1903 famously connected the American President, Theodore Roosevelt, with the English King Edward VII in what was the first ever transatlantic wireless communication, using Morse Code, between America and mainland Europe.

Within a decade Marconi’s company had built powerful transmitters on both sides of the Atlantic and was responsible for nearly all of the communication between ship and land, even establishing a nightly news service for Captains to relay to their passengers.

It was a Marconi wireless telegram that alerted the British police to the likelihood that the notorious murderer Dr Crippen was heading for Quebec aboard the Canadian Pacific Liner SS Montrose, allowing detectives to board a faster ship and arrest him on his arrival on 31st July 1910.

It was the first time wireless communication had ever been used to catch a killer. Marconi’s wireless telegram station also received news of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, allowing messages to be relayed to other ships in the area and saving countless lives in the process.

As hard as it is to imagine now, it is quite possible that, without Marconi’s technology, all lives would have been lost and the sinking of the Titanic may, today, remain a mystery as nobody would ever have known why she failed to arrive in New York.  In the same way that had the equipment been developed a little sooner then the fate of the Mary Celeste would not be a mystery.

Ironically, the inventor himself had been offered free passage aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage but had instead chosen to travel three days earlier on another ship. Back in the Marconi Station an employee called David Sarnoff was co-ordinating the rescue efforts and listing the names of the known survivors.

Apparently he alone manned the station for seventy-two hours without a break, or so he claimed, but this was not how Sarnoff would secure his place in wireless radio history. Sarnoff has an even better story than that.

For it was David Sarnoff, an ambitious Marconi employee, who realised there was a much greater potential for the use of wireless radio waves than simple point to point communication. The telephone had already been providing that service since 1892, albeit with the use of wires that limited its reach.

Sarnoff, on the other hand, recognized that the same message could be picked up by multiple receivers, if they were all using the same radio wave frequency. If he could have one listener, he reasoned, then why not one hundred, or one million, or even ten million, for exactly the same cost to the broadcasting company?

But he had to be cautious as in 1913 an inventor called Lee de Forest (1873 – 1961) who worked at the Federal Telegraph Company was being sued by the United States Federal Attorney, on behalf of shareholders who felt they had been defrauded by his own plans to develop wireless radio.

The Prosecuting Attorney is recorded claiming that, ‘Lee de Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company.’

de Forest was later acquitted but nearly bankrupted in the process. Sarnoff learned the lessons and, instead of making public announcements, he quietly experimented until he hit upon the idea of broadcasting music, from a gramophone player. It was the first time the radio wave technology had been thought of as a medium for entertainment, rather than for transmitting information.

His colleagues were less than impressed and one famously commented, ‘The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?’

Undeterred, in 1916 Sarnoff outlined his ideas in a memo to Edward J Nally, a vice president and General Manager at Marconi who, whilst recognising the potential, deferred the idea as the company was already stretching their resources thanks to the ongoing First World War.

In 1919 The General Electric Company of America bought Marconi and Sarnoff again submitted his memo, this time to Owen D. Young the new Chief Executive who had formed the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) during the same year which had dealt primarily with military communications.

Again Sarnoff was ignored but with the increase of amateur radio enthusiasts, using self-built receivers all across America, Sarnoff finally demonstrated the potential of his idea by arranging commentary of a heavyweight boxing match between the legendary Jack Dempsey and the French war hero Georges Carpentier on July 2nd 1921.

It was billed as the fight of the century and the first with a million dollar ticket sales as nearly 100,000 people turned up to watch. Meanwhile a staggering 300,000 people listened to Sarnoff’s radio commentary on crackling, home-made receivers all across the country.

By the end of that year the demand for home radio equipment had become so large that transmitting stations were popping up in every state and the radio industry had been born, despite the predictions of esteemed American inventor Thomas Edison who claimed, in 1922, that ‘the radio craze will soon die out in time.’

Sour grapes for Mr Edison? In truth, in modern times nearly 85% of Americans still listen to the radio at some point in each day, as do more than 90% of all Europeans.

So, whatever happened to the Italian politician Pietro Lacava who had suggested Marconi was a lunatic as a twenty-year-old? Well, he went on to enjoy spells as the Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister for Finance in successive Italian Governments. No wonder the Italians never achieved meaningful anything after the Renaissance.

I thought it was because they were all too busy having sex and watching football. Instead it seems to be because they had men like Lacava in charge. He died peacefully on Boxing Day in 1912, three years after the lunatic Marconi had been awarded a Nobel Prize for his work.


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