Born on April 25, 1874, in Bologna, Italy, into a wealthy family, and educated largely at home, Guglielmo Marconi possessed a strong interest in science and electricity.
In 1894, he began experimenting with radio waves as a student at the Livorno Technical Institute. Incorporating the earlier scientific work of Henry R. Hertz and Oliver Lodge in electromagnetic radiation, he was able to develop a basic system of wireless telegraphy. Though not a scientist, Marconi recognized the value of wireless technology and was adept in putting the right people together to invest in it. In 1897 he received his first patent in England.
Groundbreaking Work and Nobel Prize
Marconi founded the London-based Marconi Telegraph Company in 1899. Though his original transmission traveled a mere mile and a half, on December 12, 1901, Marconi sent and received the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall, England, to a military base in Newfoundland. His experiment was significant, as it disproved the dominant belief of the Earth’s curvature affecting transmission.
Beginning in 1902, Marconi worked on experiments that stretched the distance that wireless communication could travel, until he was finally able to establish transatlantic service from Glace Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada, to Clifden, Ireland. For his work with wireless communication, Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Braun in 1909. Not long after, Marconi’s wireless system was used by the crew of the RMS Titanic to call for assistance.
Marconi held several positions in the Italian Army and Navy during World War I, starting the war as a lieutenant in 1914 and finishing as a naval commander. He was sent on diplomatic missions to the United States and France. After the war, Marconi began experimenting with basic short wave radio technology. On his beloved yacht, Elettra, he conducted experiments in the 1920s proving the efficacy of the “beam system” for long-distance communication. (The next step would lead to microwave transmission.) By 1926, Marconi’s “beam system” had been adopted by the British government as a design for international communication.
In addition to his groundbreaking research in wireless communication, Marconi was instrumental in establishing the British Broadcasting Company, formed in 1922. He was also involved in the development of radar.
Marconi continued to experiment with radio technology in his native Italy until his death, on July 20, 1937, in Rome, from heart failure.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some of his patents’ source of discovery was questionable and as a result restored some prior patents to other scientists, including Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla, predated some of his findings. The Court’s decision had no effect on Marconi’s claim that he was the first to produce radio transmission, he just couldn’t claim credit for their work.