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Marconi makes waves in thin air

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, Inventions, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Marconi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Marconi, picture, image, illustration

Radio spanned the Atlantic for the first time in 1901 when a morse signal sent from Cabot Tower in Newfoundland (inset) was received by Marconi and his assistants

A little over 60 years ago there was no BBC, no home radio, no television, nothing to switch on or off. Families had to rely on themselves for home entertainment. Today we take radio and the two most important branches of this electronic science – television and radar – for granted, just like water out of the tap.

The invention of radio may not be the most important of all times, but it is difficult to think of another that is so universally used. In the early 1920s, radio was the province of the home enthusiasts who hunched over crystal sets listening on headphones for hour after hour. The wireless in the 1930s was to become as necessary a background to home life as the ticking of the clock.

By then headphones had long been replaced by loudspeakers. Now radio and television are an essential part of 20th century living.

Radio was not invented by any one man. Its discovery and development as a means of communication was primarily due to the work of three people. The theory of electro-magnetic waves – the radio wave is one – was originated by a British physicist, James Maxwell, in 1864, while it was the German physicist Heinrich Hertz who in 1888 produced these waves by electrical means.

It fell to Guglielmo Marconi, the third member of the trio, to develop the use of radio waves and make them a practical means of communication. He carried out experiments on a home-made set in his native Italy and in 1895 sent a signal in morse over a distance of 1.5 kilometres.

Then in 1896, he came to Britain and in 1897 formed The Marconi Company, the first wireless signalling company.

The British Post Office became very interested and gave him every help. Marconi succeeded in establishing contact between Penarth and Weston-super-Mare, without wires – hence “wireless telegraphy”. Very soon he was able to increase the signal range. By the time of World War One, voice transmission, as distinct from morse code telegraphy, was developing fast. Radio as we know it was on the way.

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