On the right wavelength #history


Extract from The PC Pioneers

On this day in 1896 Guglielmo Marconi made his patent application for radio.

While at Bologna University he was inspired by the work of Heinrich Hertz who first demonstrated back in 1888 what became known as radio waves, though Hertz called them Hertzian or Aetheric waves.

Marconi began to experiment in his family’s attic and set out to develop what he conceived of as wireless telegraphy. This was not particularly new, others had been working on it for some fifty years. By the time he was twenty-one he could transmit signals across 2400 metres; he was convinced that with the proper backing he could extend this range.

He wrote to the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs to describe his experiments, but the director scrawled ‘to the Lungara’ across the letter, a reference to the lunatic asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome.

Introduced by letter to the Italian Ambassador in London, he was advised to move there and to quickly file for copyright. On arriving in Dover with his mother the customs officer was disturbed by the devices in his baggage and reported him to the Admiralty. Happily this meant he achieved support from William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office, to take forward his plans.


This was the same William Preece whom history does not paint as being much of a pioneer. He was quoted as saying in 1878 – ‘The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys!’

In the interim Preece had become more insightful and introduced Marconi’s work to the public in two lectures in 1896/7.

By 1897 Marconi showed he could transmit a Morse signal wirelessly for 6 km (3.7 miles) across Salisbury Plain, then did the same thing across water from Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel to Wales. He moved the equipment to Brean in Somerset and achieved 16 km (9.9 miles).

In 1897 he founded what would become the Marconi Company and by 1899 he had transmitted across the English Channel. By 1901 he succeeded in a transatlantic transmission from Cornwall, via Ireland, to St Johns in Newfoundland.

That same year Marconi built a station near South Wellfleet, Massachusetts. On 18 January 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt transmitted a greeting to King Edward VII, the first transatlantic radio transmission originating from the United States. A regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was instituted in October 1907.

In 1909 he was jointly awarded the Nobel prize in Physics.

TitanicIn 1912 he was lauded by the British postmaster-general for his invention’s role in saving some from the Titanic disaster, ‘Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi…and his marvellous invention.’

The Marconi organisation would be a pioneer in many fields and in early computing. It significantly launched the Transistorised Automatic Computer in 1959.

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