Guglielmo Marconi, the radio, and wireless transmission

In the world of scientific research and technological innovation, Guglielmo Marconi stands out as one of the most accomplished Italian pioneers. 2009 marked a hundred years since he won the Nobel Prize for Physics

Detector magnetico MarconiNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Even today, in the age of digital technology and globalization, many of the technologies that characterize our society and our daily activities - like the smartphone, satellite, radio and television, are based on wireless or wireless connections, of which Marconi was the visionary pioneer.

Time Covers - The 20S (1926-12-06)LIFE Photo Collection

The "Wizard of the ether"

Marconi is among the most well-known and admired Italians. His fame lies primarily in the peculiarity of his invention: wireless communication captured the public's imagination, earning him the nickname "Wizard of the ether". But what also garnered attention was his extraordinary eclecticism - allowing him to occupy the roles of inventor, scientist, entrepreneur and modern man of communication.

LIFE Photo Collection

He had just turned twenty-one and had no academic qualifications when, in 1895, Marconi obtained the first results in wireless communication, a technology that exploited the radio waves discovered a few years ago by HR Hertz.

In that same period, in laboratories all over the world, academics and scientists were carrying out research to understand the nature of the same waves that the young Bolognese man had been using for months in the isolation of Villa Griffone, a family summer residence.

LIFE Photo Collection

Augusto Righi in Italy, Oliver Lodge in England, Aleksandr Popov in Russia, Edouard Branly in France are just some of the big names who were involved in such research in those years.

Yet, the young self-taught Bolognese man was the first to devise and perfect the new wireless communication system, becoming in a few years the reference point for research on radio waves and their application.

The reasons for this unstoppable rise lie not only in the early and remarkable technical and scientific abilities of the young inventor, but also in his propensity to consider, first of all, the practical and useful applications of his research. Marconi, in fact, unlike the aforementioned scientists, was less interested in theoretical speculations and, as historian Hugh Aitken states, his project was very clear: it was the distance that mattered, for Marconi, and not only at Villa Griffone. For all the rest of his life this was his technological obsession.

LIFE Photo Collection

Following his obsession and building ever more refined instruments, Marconi eventually overcame the challenges of transmitting over great distances. On December 12, 1901, managed to cross over the 3,000 km of Atlantic ocean that separate the new from the old continent.

This extraordinary accomplishment, achieved at the age of just 27, represents the most important scientific result that Marconi obtained in his career, and today raises him into the ranks of the great innovators of history.

The intense research and the extraordinary scientific results obtained in the first years of activity did not divert Marconi from another important goal: the commercialization of his invention.

Marconi Guglielmo 1874-1937LIFE Photo Collection

The entrepreneurial spirit of the young Marconi was evident from the days following the first experiments. In the winter of 1895 he asked the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs to present the invention and its possible applications.

The response received was not particularly enthusiastic and Marconi, in February 1896, decided to leave for England, hoping that the economic conditions there could offer him more opportunities to develop his invention.

Particularly important for Marconi was the collaboration with the Post Office - the body that managed all the telegraphic communications of the English empire, which gave the young Italian credibility in London's scientific and financial circles. The collaboration stopped in the spring of 1897 when the Post Office asked Marconi to sell him the patents of his invention in exchange for an immediate gain.

Although flattered by the interest shown to him and attracted by the secure gain, Marconi bravely decided to go his own way, sensing that, in this way, he could maintain control over every subsequent development of his invention.

LIFE Photo Collection

In July 1897, with the support of eight donors, Marconi founded the Wireless and Telegraph Signal Company, which became Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company in 1899.

It was in the years following the foundation of the company that Marconi demonstrated his ability as a modern man of communication.

Marconi, in fact, sensed that the potential of radio communication was much wider than the short connections obtained in the demonstrations carried out between 1896 and 1897 and under the aegis of the Post Office programmed a series of spectacular experiments to attract the attention of the press and opinion public.

Each new test was carried out in the open field, strictly before journalists and political figures.

In the summer of 1898, for example, with his instruments he kept in touch Queen Victoria, on vacation on the Isle of Wight, with her son convalescing on the royal yacht.

The following year, in the United States, he organized the radio broadcast of the America's Cup and in the same year linked France and England through the English Channel.

LIFE Photo Collection

Thanks to these experiments and to an intense activity of improvement of its equipment, since 1901 the Marconi Company signed the first significant contracts and, at the end of 1902, 70 commercial ships were equipped with Marconi radio systems able to communicate with 25 coastal stations.

Marconi's instruments, also thanks to the income of his company, became increasingly reliable and, after conquering the sea, they passed to the earth and then to the sky.

Magnetic detector built in a cigar box.National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

The Marconian collection at the Museo della Scienza, Milan

Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, looks after one of the largest collections of Marconi's inventions, including more than one hundred objects built and used by Guglielmo Marconi and his companies.

Detector magnetico MarconiNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Particularly interesting is the magnetic detector used by the Italian inventor on board the Royal Ship Carlo Alberto during the experimental campaign of the summer 1902.

With it, he demonstrated the technical reliability of this receiver and the ability of radio waves to overcome large obstacles and vast portions of earth.

Detector magnetico MarconiNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Among those of industrial origin, ranging from the first products marketed at the beginning of the twentieth century to the products for television technology of the forties, passing through the valve technologies of the twenties and thirties of the last century, we note the first receiver built industrially in 1901, the famous tuned coherer receiver.

Marconi-Franklin Multiple TunerNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

A first important step in the practical application of radio communication is the possibility of being able to transmit and receive individual frequencies.

The first receivers in fact captured all the signals that reached the antenna without the possibility of distinguishing those coming from one or other of the equipment that were transmitting at that time: the signals could then overlap making it difficult to understand the message, a problem increasingly serious as the number of transmitting stations and transmitted messages increased.

In 1900 Marconi patented, with the number 7777, a circuit that allows to tune to a specific frequency allowing to select the frequency of the radio wave transmitted or received.

Sea Wrec Titanic (1910/1920)LIFE Photo Collection

Did you know that thanks to SOS signals sent by radio, many lives were saved during the sinking of the Titanic?

The section dedicated to Marconi and to the Radio of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia, Milan.

Credits: Story

Mostra del
Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia
Leonardo da Vinci

Via San Vittore 21

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Once Upon a Try
A journey of invention and discovery with CERN, NASA, and more than 100 museums around the world
View theme
Google apps