Wireless Communication

"Young man, you have done something truly exceptional"; these were the words William Henry Preece, chief engineer of the British Postal Service, spoke in 1896, when Guglielmo Marconi sent a signal from the General Post Office Building to another building 1,600 metres away.

To Marconi, born in Bologna in 1874, we owe one of the most extraordinary scientific discoveries of modern times: wireless communication, namely the distance sending of telegraph signals without any connecting wire.

Not yet twenty, he set up his first laboratory for his experiments in the so-called "silkworm room", on the attic of his family's mansion, "Villa Griffone", and located nearby Bologna, at Pontecchio, where silkworm used to be kept for breeding. His painstaking attempts to duplicate the systems exploiting electromagnetic waves, already experimented by other scientists, date back to 1894. Marconi tried also to improve the performance of already-known equipment and in particular he created, as he said in his own words, "a new set-up", enabling to increase the distance through which communication would be possible regardless of interposing obstacles. The natural obstacle that Marconi was able to bypass was the Celestini hill, standing just a mile away from "Villa Griffone".

One day in the summer of 1895 operations were carried out according to a well-tried scheme, except for the signalling procedure to indicate that the outbound signal had been duly received. It could not be carried out, as before, by waving a handkerchief as the two points (receiver and sending ends) were not visible one from the other. A rifle shot was then the signal communicating that the experiment had succeeded, but it came also to symbolise the birth of the radio and all its subsequent applications with relevant effects in the field of physics, engineering, medicine and related application in medical appliances for the treatment of several diseases.

At the core of all that Marconi achieved in his life was experimental research as relentlessly and obstinately pursued, together with his commitment to apply his inventions to the benefit of his fellow human beings, and in particular to place radio telegraphy to the service of anyone in need of rescue in dangerous situations (G. C. Corazza). Let us recall here that the over eight hundred passengers rescued from the tragic shipwreck of the Titanic in 1921 owed their lives to the radio telegraphic station installed on the ship from which the S.O.S. signal was sent out (G. Maioli). The scientist said in an interview in 1897: "My discovery is not the result of long hours of meditation, but of experiences…". This was probably one of the reasons why at the end of the 19th century Bologna's official cultural and scientific milieus did not show any interest in Marconi's achievements, as the inventor did lack a formal university education.

Other significant experiments and discoveries followed that epoch-making day, which enabled the scientist from Bologna, Nobel Laureate for Physics in 1909, to show his extraordinary talents of inventor and researcher: from the first communication from Poldhu in Cornwall to St. John in Newfoundland, Canada, to the direct transmissions between Italy and Eastern Africa (1910); from the radiotelegraph and radiotelephone connection between London and the British colonies (1924), to the transmission of a radio signal, from the yacht Electra, at anchor in Genoa's harbour, which switched on the lighting system of the World Exhibition in Sydney, Australia.


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Letter hand-written by Guglielmo Marconi, 28th April 1926. Marconi thanks the Mayor of Bologna inviting him to participate in the solemn celebrations organised in his honour by the town, in the 30th anniversary of the first patent for radió telegraphy (ASCBo, Carteggio amministrativo, tit. IV, rubr. 6, Photo: MV).
Transmitting device used by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895 for his first experiments at "Villa Griffone" (Marconi Foundation, Collection M. Bigazzi, ASCBo, photograph from "Visite alla Villa Griffone", Pontecchio Marconi, s.d., Photo: MV).
Coherer receiver used by Guglielmo Marconi in 1897 (Marconi Foundation, Collection M. Bigazzi, ASCBo, photograph from "Dagli esperimenti a Villa Griffone al superamento dell'Atlantico" edited by M. Bigazzi and G. Masetti, s.d., Photo: MV).
Spark transmitter used by Guglielmo Marconi in 1897 (Marconi Foundation, Collection M. Bigazzi, ASCBo, photograph from "Dagli esperimenti a Villa Griffone al superamento dell'Atlantico" edited by M. Bigazzi and G. Masetti, s.d., Photo: MV).