Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937)

Marconi was both an inventor and an entrepreneur, the pioneer of radio in Europe. He was born in Bologna to an Italian father and an Irish mother. In his twenties he began to use the radio waves demonstrated by Heinrich Hertz to create a practical system of wireless telegraphy. His first experiments took place in Bologna, but attracted little interest, and in 1896 he moved to Britain, where he was encouraged by William (later Sir William) Preece, the chief engineer at the Post Office.

His system drew much from the work of other inventors, which led to many legal suits regarding patents, but it was a system that worked, and Marconi successfully exploited its commercial potential. He made a series of demonstrations for the British government, including the sending of a signal across the Bristol Channel in 1897 that was the first radio transmission over water. In 1897 he transmitted signals over the English Channel, and gave demonstrations in the United States. In 1901 he claimed that he had transmitted a signal across the Atlantic from his company’s station at Poldhu in Cornwall to Signal Hill, St John’s, Newfoundland. Doubts were expressed about his claim but subsequent demonstrations showed clearly that signals could be sent for hundreds of kms, and in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States sent a greeting to King Edward VII of the United Kingdom.

His companies did much to establish communications between ships at sea and their owners ashore. In 1898 his Marconi Wireless Telegraph and Signal Co opened a factory in Hall Street, Chelmsford, and with rapid growth moved to larger premises in New Street in the same town in 1912. From 1915 Marconi began to work with continuous wave transmissions, and in 1920 the first entertainment broadcast was made from the Chelmsford factory. Until the formation of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1922 his company played a significant role in the development of radio broadcasting in Britain.

Marconi shared with Karl Ferdinand Braun the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi served with the Italian forces in the First World War, and subsequently supported the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. That government’s extravagant claims concerning his inventions have in part obscured his role as an entrepreneur whose influence has been felt in every country in Europe.