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Transmitting Waves

Guglielmo Marconi, is popularly known as “the inventor of radio,” a mischaracterization that critics and supporters of his many rivals are quick to seize upon. Marconi was actually the first person to use radio waves to communicate. His first patent was for “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals and in Apparatus Therefor,” and he considered what he was doing to be a form of wireless telegraphy. But Marconi was indeed the first truly global figure in modern, mass communication. What came to be known as radio would have been impossible without the groundwork laid by Marconi. As soon as he discovered how to send signals across a room in his parents’ attic in 1895, Marconi was convinced that he would eventually be able to connect any two points on earth by wireless. Conventional physics scoffed at the idea but Marconi was right. Marconi was also a global media celebrity, followed everywhere by paparazzi who recorded his every move. However, much about him that made him who he was has either never before been known or has been forgotten.

Here are some little-known facts about Marconi:

1. Marconi was half-Italian and half-Irish. His father was a landed gentleman from Bologna, where Marconi was born and grew up, but his mother was a member of the Jameson Whiskey family. Annie Jameson’s family business connections in London were crucial to the launch of Marconi’s global company in 1897, when he was 23.

2. Marconi had no formal higher education. He did poorly in school as a child and his parents hired private teachers to tutor him in chemistry, math, and physics. His most important mentor was a high school physics teacher in Livorno by the name of Vincenzo Rosa. He was an avid, self-guided reader of popular scientific journals, where he learned of the discovery of radio waves by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

3. Marconi was the first inventor-entrepreneur to win a Nobel Prize, for Physics, in 1909 (he shared the prize with German physicist Ferdinand Braun). The Nobel Committee had never before awarded the prize for a practical application rather than theoretical accomplishments. In 1909, it considered giving the prize to the Wright brothers, but decided on Marconi because of public concern about the safety of airplanes.

4. No one would have survived the Titanic disaster had it not been equipped with a Marconi transmitter. Thanks to wireless, the nearby Carpathia arrived at the scene in time to save 705 passengers and crew members. Marconi, who happened to be in New York at the time, was one of the first witnesses called by the US Senate Inquiry into the disaster. He advocated that ships at sea be obliged to operate their wireless equipment round the clock, and this was endorsed by the committee.

5. When Marconi died, radio stations all over the world went silent in his honour. The Vatican Osservatore Romano reported that he had died “a Christian death,” but in fact Marconi declined to receive the last rites of the Church.

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