‘Turn it up’: Celebrating the father of the radio on World Radio Day
‘Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio!’
Words made immortal by Starship in 1985 through their hit song We Built This City.
While many know and love the lyrics behind this karaoke classic, the song’s subject matter is perhaps lesser known.
The invention of the radio itself is widely credited to technology pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.
Today on 13th February as the world recognises the annual ‘Day of the Radio’, we take a moment to look at Marconi’s life and his achievements that changed the world.
Born into nobility in 1874, Marconi was the second son of Italian aristocrat Giuseppe Marconi and Annie Jameson, an Irish woman best known as the granddaughter of famous whiskey mogul John Jameson.
Although Marconi was never formally educated, he always had a keen interest in science and technology.
He learned science and mathematics from private tutors and in the 1890’s first began his work on the concept of ‘wireless telegraphy’.
The idea itself was not a new one, but at the time it was considered a pipedream. The world could scarcely imagine that wireless technology would ever become a commercial success.
At the age of 20, Marconi began building on the work of physicist Heinrich Hertz.
Hertz was the first person to prove that it was possible to produce and detect electromagnetic waves, now known as ‘radio waves’.
Marconi conducted homemade experiments in the attic of his family’s villa in Italy, with the help of his private butler.
The first big breakthrough came one night in 1894, when Marconi first demonstrated a radio transmitter and receiver to his mother by pressing a button that rang a bell on the other side of the room. From there it was milestone after milestone.
In 1895, Marconi improved antenna technology to increase the distance that radio waves could travel. His system was capable of transmitting signals of more than three kilometres and over hills.
A year later he made his first demonstration to the British Government and by 1897 had doubled the distance radio waves could travel. But it still wasn’t enough.
America got the first taste of Marconi’s tech at the turn of the 20th century and by 1901 the plan was to establish a transatlantic system that could compete with cables.
After many trials and tests, in 1902 a transmission from Marconi’s station in Nova Scotia became the world’s first radio message to cross the Atlantic from North America.
Marconi’s technology played a major part in maritime rescues, including the RMS Titanic, which highlighted the true value of radio.
Regarding the Titanic rescue effort, Britain’s postmaster-general declared, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi… and his marvellous invention.”
During his twilight years Marconi was responsible for the Italian military’s radio service and was made an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the UK’s Royal Victorian Order.
He joined Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist Party in 1923 and was later appointed President of the Royal Academy of Italy by the dictator.
Following a series of heart attacks, Marconi died in 1937 at 63 years of age.
To honour the iconic inventor, all BBC transmitters and wireless Post Office transmitters held a moment of broadcasting silence the day after his death.
Without Guglielmo Marconi’s genius, it may have been a much longer time before the world ever had the pleasure of listening to its favourite music on the radio.
While Starship ‘built this city on rock and roll’, Marconi built a whole new world from thin air.