Guglielmo Marconi was arguably the first truly global figure in modern communication. Today’s globally networked media and communication system has its origins in the 19th century, when, for the first time, messages were sent electronically across great distances. Marconi was the first to develop and perfect a practical system for wireless, using the recently-discovered “air waves” that make up the electromagnetic spectrum.
Between 1896, when he applied for his first patent in England at the age of 22, and his death in Italy in 1937, Marconi was at the center of every major innovation in electronic communication. Some like to refer to him as a genius, but if there was any genius to Marconi it was this vision.
Marconi’s career was devoted to making wireless communication happen cheaply, efficiently, smoothly, and with an elegance that would appear to be intuitive and uncomplicated to the user—user-friendly, if you will. There is a direct connection from Marconi to today’s social media, search engines, and program streaming that can best be summed up by an admittedly provocative exclamation: the 20th century did not exist. In a sense, Marconi’s vision leapfrogged from his time to our own.
Marconi invented the idea of global communication—or, more prosaically, globally networked, mobile, wireless communication. Initially, this was wireless Morse code telegraphy, an improvement on the telegraph, the principal communication technology of his day. Marconi was the first to develop a practical method for wireless telegraphy using radio waves.
Tracing Marconi’s lifeline leads us into the story of modern communication itself. Marconi was quite simply the central figure in the emergence of a modern understanding of communication.
In his lifetime, Marconi foresaw the development of television and the fax machine, GPS, radar, and the portable hand-held telephone. Marconi’s biography is also a story about choices and the motivations behind them.
Marconi placed an indelible stamp on the way we live. Marconi not only “networked the world,” he was himself the consummate networker. At the same time, Marconi was uncompromisingly independent intellectually.
In June 1943, the US Supreme Court ruled on a patent infringement suit taken by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America against the United States government in 1916. The company claimed that the government had infringed a 1904 Marconi patent for radio “tuning.”
When the Marconi company sold its U.S. assets, including its patents, to the new Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919, it reserved this unresolved claim for its own prosecution. It was Marconi’s last commercial interest in the United States. The suit claimed that the U.S. government was using Marconi’s patent without paying royalties. The government argued that the patent was not original and hence invalid. The 1943 Supreme Court ruling, written by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone stated, “Marconi’s reputation as the man who first achieved successful radio transmission rests on his original patent… which is not here in question.
Reprinted from Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Marc Raboy.
Marc Raboy is professor and Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University.