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Definition: Marconi, Guglielmo from Philip's Encyclopedia

Italian physicist who developed radio. By 1897, he was able to demonstrate radio telegraphy over a distance of 19km (12mi). In 1899, he established radio communication between France and England. By 1901, radio transmissions were being received across the Atlantic Ocean. He received the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics.

Summary Article: Marconi, Guglielmo (1874-1937) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Italy

Subject: biography, technology and manufacturing

Italian electrical engineer who saw the possiblity of using radio waves - long-wavelength electromagnetic radiation - for the transmission of information. He was the first to put such a service into operation on a commercial scale, and was responsible for many of the developments that made radio and telegraph services into major industries.

Marconi was born in Bologna into a wealthy family on 25 April 1874. His education consisted largely of private tutoring, although he was sent for a brief period to the Technical Institute in Livorno where he received instruction in physics. He studied under a number of prominent Italian professors but never enrolled for a university course.

His studies of radio transmission began on his father's estate in the 1890s. By 1897 he had established a commercial enterprise in London, based on developments from his early work. He became famous in 1901 when he succeeded in sending a transatlantic coded message.

In 1909 he was awarded, jointly with Karl Ferdinand Braun, the Nobel Prize for Physics, and was honoured by the receipt of the Albert Medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1929. He was also being made a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, and was given the title of Marchese by the Italian government. From 1921 he lived aboard his yacht Elettra, which served as a home, laboratory, and receiving station. Marconi was given a state funeral after his death in Rome on 20 July 1937.

Marconi's researches began in 1894, the year of Heinrich Hertz's death, when he read a paper on the possible technical applications of the electromagnetic waves discovered by Hertz in 1886. Marconi realized that the waves could be used in signalling and began experiments with Augusto Righi of the University of Bologna to determine how far the waves would travel.

Marconi based his apparatus on that used by Hertz, but used a coherer to detect the waves. (The coherer was designed to convert the radio waves into electric current.) Marconi improved Hertz's design by earthing the transmitter and receiver, and found that an insulated aerial enabled him to increase the distance of transmission. During 1895 he slowly increased the distance over which he was able to transmit a signal, first from the house into the garden and eventually to about 2.5 km/1.5 mi - the length of the family estate.

The Italian government was not interested in the device, so Marconi travelled to London, where he enlisted the help of relatives to enable him to obtain a patent and to introduce his discovery to the British government. He obtained his patent in June 1896 for the use of waves similar to those discovered by Hertz but of longer wavelength, for the purpose of wireless telegraphy. Marconi enabled Queen Victoria to send a message to the Prince of Wales aboard the royal yacht, and increased his transmission distance to 15 km/9 mi, then to 30 km/18 mi. The first commercial ‘Marconigram’ was sent by Lord Kelvin.

The Wireless Telegraph Company was founded in London in 1897, and later became the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd in Chelmsford in 1900. In 1899 Marconi went to the USA and sent reports about the presidential election taking place there. On 12 December 1901, after many hold-ups, Marconi succeeded in sending a radio signal in Morse across the Atlantic Ocean from Pondhu in Cornwall to St Johns in Newfoundland, Canada.

Marconi became increasingly involved with the management of his companies from 1902, but he attracted many distinguished scientists to work with him. Some of the most important developments were the magnetic detector in 1902, horizontal direction telegraphy in 1905, and the continuous wave system in 1912.

During World War I Marconi worked on the development of very short wavelength beams, which could be used for many purposes including enabling a pilot to fly an aircraft ‘blind’. After the war these short wavelength beams contributed to communication over long distances. In 1932 Marconi discovered that he could detect microwave radiation - that is, waves with very high frequencies. These wavelengths were soon to form the basis of radar.

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