Guglielmo Marconi: The Grandfather of Modern Radio

Born on April 24, 1874, Guglielmo Marconi was known for his pioneering work on long distance radio transmission. Like many physicists of his day, Marconi thought that electromagnetic waves traveled like light, in a straight line. He wondered what would happen when sending a signal thousands of miles beyond the horizon- would the curvature of the earth affect transmission?  Marconi’s tremendous discoveries in the field of radiotelegraphy lead to the development of valuable technology around the world in the early 1900’s. Because of this, he is widely regarded as the grandfather of modern radio. Marconi’s fascination lead him to start experimenting with transmitting radio waves across the Atlantic Ocean. His experiments eventually lead to an increased understanding of the behavior of radio waves for which he went on to receive a Nobel Prize. This work laid the foundation for invaluable radio technology during the early 20th century.

In July of 1900, Marconi began a rather large experiment: he attempted to send a radio wave across the Atlantic Ocean. In Poldhu Cornwall, at the lower tip of England, Marconi constructed a ring of masts, 200 feet in diameter with transmitting aerials. He then designed a receiver station in South Wellfleet at Cape Cod. Before he could successfully conduct the experiment, a series of rather large windstorms ripped the masts out of the ground in Poldhu. A similar situation happened at the receiver station at Cape Cod. The high winds destroyed the site just one short month before Marconi was scheduled to deliver his first transatlantic transmission.

Refusing to be discouraged, Marconi erected a fan shaped antenna in Poldhu. On the North American side, he found a hill top plateau on Signal Hill overlooking St. Johns Port in Newfoundland. There, with his two assistants, he attached the antenna to a kite and sent it soaring 400 feet above the stormy Atlantic. On December 12, 1901, Marconi and his team took turns listening through a pair of earphones for signals from Cornwall. At noon, they heard three sharp clicks; a Morse code signal for the letter “S.” To Marconi’s excitement, the radio signal was successfully carried 2,137 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and it was uninterrupted by the curvature of the earth. This remarkable discovery marked the dawn of the age of radio.

Throughout his life, Marconi continued experimenting in radiotelegraphy. The Italian inventor eventually became known for Marconi’s Law, which focuses on the relation between the height of antennas and the maximum signaling distance radio transmissions can travel. He postulated that the potential distance of radio transmission is directly proportional to the height of the transmitters and receivers. The formula reads, H=C√D, and was used to successfully establish that the transmitter/receiver height divided by the square of the potential broadcast distance would be a constant. That constant is what allowed for predictable outcomes of broadcast distances.

In 1909, Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun won the Nobel Prize in recognition of their contributions of the development of wireless telegraphy. At the time, wireless telegraphs aboard ships were considered a costly luxury. This idea altered in 1912 when the Titanic sank in less than three hours. It was during this historical catastrophe, that people truly benefited from Marconi’s work- S.O.S. wireless messages brought a rescue ship to save over seven hundred passengers. The efficiency of the Titanic’s wireless message demonstrated a compelling need for ships to be outfitted with wireless equipment.

The authentic 1912 telegraph equipment you’ll see in the Marconi Room is identical to that installed in Titanic’s wireless room.  This primitive system was the ship’s only link to the world and a popular means for passengers to send messages home. Two men employed by the Marconi Company worked in this small windowless room near the bridge. Their main job was to receive and send messages by radio waves using Morse code. Little did they know they would soon be tapping out one of the first S.O.S signals from a ship in distress.

Also, here is a simulated radio transmission from the RMS Titanic. This recording is in all likelihood a simulation, but its exact origin is not known.

In later years, Marconi’s interest turned to transmitting the voice by radio, and in 1920, he began a regular news broadcast in Britain. Radio was marketed to large institutions seeking point-to-point communications. Newspaper articles about the advancements of radio fueled the public’s fascination. The invention of inexpensive crystal radio sets opened up the airwaves to people who were not inventors and their institutional clients in 1920. By 1912, several hundred thousand amateur radio enthusiasts, known as “hams,” were using Marconi’s findings on their “ham radios.” Ham radio used designated frequency spectra for purposes of private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, and emergency communication. Hams did not just listen to radio messages; The beauty was that they could also transmit them.

Here is a vintage Crystal Radio set

The 1912 Radio Act required the licensing of all radio operators, and partitioned the airwaves into separate sections for different types of uses. According to the act, amateurs were only allowed to broadcast via shortwave radio. By the time WWI commenced, radio became restricted for wartime communication due to the need for protection and national security efforts. It wasn’t until after the war ended that radio became rather profitable throughout multiple avenues. Radio became a retail sales opportunity, which included department store sales, commercials, and programming.

In many ways, the broadcasting system has changed very little in the last seventy-five years. Marconi’s mission was to create a wireless version of the telegraph and the telephone, and that he did. Thanks to Marconi, hundreds of programs filled the airwaves, and the world’s love affair with radio was born. The most incredible aspect of the story is that the radio phenomenon occurred a mere twenty years after Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal. Radio, as an information-spreading medium became an essential part of day-to-day culture. By all means, Guglielmo Marconi changed how the world spread and received information to masses of people.

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