Biography of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian scientist who invented the radio

William Marconi (Bologna 1874 – Rome 1937) was one of the most famous Italian scientists and is celebrated throughout the world as inventor of radio communications and radio. At the end of the nineteenth century he carried out the first experiments and managed to build instruments capable of receive and transmit signals remotely: radio was born. In the space of a few years Marconi perfected his invention and managed to transmit signals across the oceans. The discoveries earned the scientist prestigious awards, including the Nobel and the nomination as senator. During the years of fascism he obtained very high profile political and cultural positions and continued his research until his death, which occurred in 1937.

The youthful years and the invention of the radio

Guglielmo Marconi was born in 1874 in Bologna by a landowner and an Irish woman. He spent his childhood between Emilia and Tuscany, enrolling at the Technical Institute of Livorno. She did not complete her studies, but became passionate about electromagnetic radiation.

Marconi (seated, centre) as a young man with his parents
Marconi (seated, centre) as a young man with his parents.

In this regard it should be remembered that in 1873 the Scottish physicist Maxwell he had discovered electromagnetic waves and a few years later the German Hertz he had managed to generate waves using electrical energy. The discoveries aroused the interest of various technicians and scientists, including Alexander Popov and Nikola Tesla, intent on finding a way to transmit signals over a distance.

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Marconi, who had the same aim, made his first experiments in 1894, when he managed to ring a bell by pressing a telegraph button located a few meters away. He therefore built an instrument capable of transmitting acoustic signals, with which one could use theMorse alphabet, based on a system of short and long sounds (it was the system used in the telegraph, which had existed for several decades). In the summer of 1895 Marconi managed to transmit a signal at a distance of one mile. The experiment is considered the birth certificate of radio.

The move to the UK and success

Marconi and his family realized that the discoveries had a enormous scientific and commercial value. In 1896 the young inventor moved with his mother to the United Kingdom in search of better opportunities to continue his research and filed the first patent for the “wireless telegraphy”, as the radio was called then. He carried out some experiments in the presence of political leaders and founded his first company, the Wireless Telegraph Trading Signal Company (later Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company). Gradually, he perfected his invention, transmitting signals over ever greater distances.

Transmitter device from 1902
Transmitter device from 1902.

Naturally, we must not think of the radio as we understand it today, which is used for communication circular broadcasting (i.e. it is based on broadcasting stations and receiving equipment all picking up the same transmissions). At the beginning of the twentieth century the radio was used for communication “one to one” communication and he could not transmit the voice, but only acoustic signals. For the first time, however, it was possible to communicate remotely through the air: the potential of the invention was enormous.

Marconi's experiments on the Atlantic and the Nobel Prize

Marconi was convinced that radio waves could cross the Atlantic, following the curvature of the earth, and the December 12, 1901 he managed to send a message (an S in Morse code) from the island of Newfoundland, Canada, to a receiver installed in Great Britain, about 3000 km away. It was the first transoceanic radio broadcast. The experiment provided further impetus to the diffusion of the radio, which was also installed on some ships, and increased the fame of Marconi, who in 1909 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics together with the German Karl Braun.

The paternity of the invention of the radio was however contested by Nikola Tesla and the question was debated in various English and American courts, with mixed results.

Aerial of the radio station in Poldhu (England) in 1914
Aerial of the Poldhu radio station (England).

The radio in the sinking of the Titanic

The potential of the instrument invented by Marconi emerged during the sinking of the Titanic. The ship was equipped with a radio and, after the fatal impact with the iceberg, was able to send a distress message to the other boats, which made it possible to save around 700 shipwrecked people. The survivors of the shipwreck paid homage to Marconi, giving him a gold plaque, and the event contributed to making the usefulness of radio known throughout the world.

In the same 1912, having returned to Italy, Marconi was the victim of a serious car accident, in which he lost his right eye.

Marconi between war and fascism

Marconi had now become a very popular character. In 1914 he was appointed senator and the following year Yes he enlisted volunteer to fight in the First World War, serving in the navy. In the years between the two world wars he was a supporter of fascism and received numerous awards high profile, including the presidency of the National Research Council and of the Italian Academy. Furthermore, in 1931 the pope Pius XI commissioned him to inaugurate the first radio station in the Vatican.

Marconi and Pius XI in 1931
Marconi and Pius XI in 1931.

The scientist continued his research and conducted experiments to build a device capable of detect metal objects in the distance: a progenitor of radar, which however he did not develop. In 1937, while he was in Rome, he fell ill and died shortly afterwards.

Marconi's memory

After his death, Marconi continued to be celebrated in Italy and around the world. Suffice it to say that in 1938 the municipality of Sasso Bolognese, where he had carried out the first experiments, changed its name to Sasso Marconi; in the years of the Republic, the scientist's effigy appeared on the coin 100 lire issued in 1974 and on the banknote from 2000 lire issued in 1990.

Radio Rivista – Special issue dedicated to Guglielmo Marconi, 1974

Guglielmo Marconi Foundation