Shrinking the World: Marconi’s Revolution in Wireless Telegraphy
From the Titanic's communication system to the Pope's summer telephone, Guglielmo Marconi's revolutionary advances in wireless radiography helped to establish a more connected world.
Today, wireless is considered the standard in communication technology. However, this wasn't always the case. Thanks to all of the curious engineering minds throughout history, the world has become a smaller place as far as communication goes.
One major contributor to today's RF technologies is Guglielmo Marconi.
Portrait of Guglielmo Marconi. Image used courtesy of the Library of Congress
Learning From His Forerunners
Marconi was an Italian physicist born in Bologna, Italy, in 1874. Since childhood, he was interested in both mechanical and electrical sciences. Much of Marconi's interest was inspired by studying James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, and Oliver Lodge's works.
The first sign that his studies were paying off was with his creation of a telegraph transmitter when he was 16. By the time he turned 21, he had created a wireless transmitter that could cover over 2,000 meters (or roughly 1.5 miles). These achievements were just the beginning of Marconi’s career.
Newer Is Better With Wireless Telegraphy
Marconi's first significant contribution to wireless communications was his creation of a basic wireless telegraphy system. Though his system would eventually revolutionize modern communication, Marconi initially faced setbacks to get others on board.
After trying and failing to convince the Italian Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs that wireless was more advantageous than current cabled methods, he eventually found support in England from Dr. William Preece, the general post office's chief engineer. With Preece's support, he was able to refine and eventually patent his system in 1897.
Marconi and his transmitter. Image used courtesy of the Clifden and Connemara Heritage Society
Marconi's system used long-wave signals and spark transmitter technology, which required large, high-powered transmitters and long antennas. Despite those requirements, there were many advantages to his system, namely for communicating across open water.
In the late 1800s, communication at sea was extremely limited with communication through visuals like flags and light, which could often be obscured by distance and weather conditions. Those in the maritime industry saw the potential of Marconi's system and were eager to adopt it, which spurred even greater innovation.
Pushing the Limits of a Long-range Radio
After proving his concept to others and gaining their support, Marconi then set out to push the limits of how far his system could transmit. To show how far radiotelegraphy could travel, Marconi's newly-established Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd. created permanent stations across England and France's coastlines that utilized powerful transmitters and massive masts. Though these stations helped spread out the signal, they faced significant issues with interference.
Marconi created and patented a system for tuned or syntactic telegraphy to combat interference issues. This system allowed for selective wavelength tuning, which helped remove the issues ships were having with communication. This system also proved a fundamental principle: wireless waves were not affected by the earth's curvature.
Eventually, Marconi established transatlantic communication from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Clifden, Ireland. With this achievement, Marconi's system proved to work for great distances and was used for commercial and military communication. One famous use of his system was the RSS Titanic, which used Marconi's system to send its infamous distress call.
A reproduction of Marconi's wireless system in the RSS Titanic. Image used courtesy of Michelle McLoughlin/AP Images and Britannica
After pushing wireless technology into the modern age, Marconi went back to inventing.
Connecting a Wireless World
After WWI, Marconi bought a yacht, Elettra, and converted it into both a home and a laboratory. It was here that he experimented to bring more connectivity to the world, mainly with sonar, short-wave radio, and microwaves.
Marconi in his laboratory on Elettra. Image (modified) used courtesy of the Library of Congress
Marconi left behind a robust legacy that prominently affects fields beyond engineering; he brought innovations like public broadcasting and beam transmitting to life, and even installed the first microwave telephone link in the Pope's summer residence. Historians and electrical engineers now largely regard Guglielmo Marconi as a revolutionary figure in creating the wireless world we know today.