A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications

A brief history of radio and wireless technology from Marconi’s early demonstrations in the 1890s to the beginning of regular public broadcasting in the 1920s. This is the story of a technology that has shaped the modern world.
Susan Fourtané
One of Marconi's first radio receivers (c.1896) (left), microphone used for first radio broadcast in 1920 (right)©Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Guglielmo Marconi's wireless technology is the technology that has shaped the modern world. At the start, the major purpose for wireless was meant for sending individual messages in Morse code, with much greater flexibility than the established telegraph system, which relied on connections by wires.

Wire-less, on the other hand, would have military applications and would be especially valuable for communications at sea. However, there was nothing to stop people listening in and, with the coming of voice messages, the public grew excited for a completely different concept in communication: Broadcasting. 

Two decades later, after the first wireless transmissions, radio signals were entering the home, bringing information and entertainment, and anyone could listen in. The commonly used expression ‘listening in’ perfectly captured the shift from private and individual communication to public broadcasting accessible to everyone.

We can think of Guglielmo Marconi's wireless communication as the Twitter of today. Short wireless radio messages could be heard by anyone across the ocean who were listening. Wealthy passengers on board the Titanic sent messages using the novel technology before the ship was hit by the iceberg.  

Guglielmo Marconi

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Guglielmo Marconi portrait, Source: ©MHS, Oxford

Guglielmo Marconi, 1st Marquis of Marconi, title given by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy in 1929, was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer. He was appointed Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in England.

He was created Chevalier of the Civil Order of Savoy in 1905. Marconi was the recipient of honorary doctorates of several universities and many other international honors and awards, including the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909, which he shared with Professor Karl Braun.

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy on April 25, 1874 to a wealthy Italian father and an Irish mother. He died in Rome, Italy on July 20, 1937 at the age of 63. Every year, the International Marconi Day is celebrated on April 25, the date the world celebrates the life, work, and contributions to science, technology, and society of this extraordinary inventor, pioneer, and electrical engineer who pioneered wireless communications and wireless radio. The International Marconi Day is a 24-hour amateur radio event that is held annually to celebrate the birth and life of Guglielmo Marconi. 

His pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, his development of the Marconi's law, and the radio telegraph system led him to sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun in 1909 "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy." 

Marconi was the founder of The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in The United Kingdom in 1897, which later on became the Marconi Company.

Enrico Tedeschi: The radio enthusiast who helped stop the auction that almost scattered the Marconi Collection around the world in 1997

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Enrico Tedeschi holding the Fimi-P 547 Radio at his Museum of the Radio in Rome, Italy in the 1980s, Source: Richard Tedeschi, personal archive

Enrico Tedeschi was an Italian-born independent computer software professional, historian, writer, and passionate private collector of electronics for over half a century. He continued doing this until his passing in 2014 at the age of 74. Born in 1939, Enrico Tedeschi had moved his collection from his first Radio Museum in Rome to Brighton, England in 1993. Tedeschi possessed over 10,000 objects in his personal collection and an avid collector of Marconi's radios and other memorabilia.

Disappointed by the lack of understanding of the institutions in his native Italy, Enrico Tedeschi, author of the Guide of The Radio Collector, did not feel enough support in Rome for his radio museum; so he decided to move it to England, together with his family, where there was an interest in the Guglielmo Marconi period compressing the years 1922 to 1929.

Guglielmo Marconi's radio collection and the history of wireless communication valued in £3 million (or almost $4 million), according to The Guardian's report, was almost scattered worldwide at auction in 1997. Marconi's first patents, the 1912 Titanic telegrams, which record warnings of ice and attempts to contact other ships for help, and the microphone used to make the first radio broadcast in 1920 would have been forever lost. 

The auction was stopped after Enrico Tedeschi mobilized an international crowd of scientists, historians, former employees, and also Marconi's daughter, the Princess Elettra Marconi-Giovanelli. The entire collection and archive were then transferred to the University of Oxford, where the artifacts are in exhibition at the History of Science Museum in Oxford, England; all the documents and patents are available to scholars.

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It was thanks to the tenacity of Enrico Tedeschi, his passion for the history of radio and Marconi's work, and the success of his Internet protect campaign that the Marconi Collection is now safely preserved and available for everyone to see. 

The Marconi Collection at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford 

Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, England, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

In 2004, the Marconi Collection was presented to the University of Oxford by the Marconi Corporation. The Collection is a large and unrivaled archive of objects and documents that record the work of Guglielmo Marconi and the wireless telegraph company he founded. The documents are kept in the Bodleian Library and the objects in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England. 

The Marconi Collection is a legacy --now for anyone to see-- from the beginnings of Marconi's pioneering experiments and demonstrations at the end of the 19th century to the beginning of public radio broadcasting in the 1920s. 

Marconi's wireless telegraphy and first wireless receiver

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
One of the first wireless receivers, made by Marconi in 1896. It was used in his celebrated public demonstration of wireless in London’s Toynbee Hall in 1896Source: ©MHS, Oxford

Guglielmo Marconi began his research on radio waves while at home in Bologna, Italy. He was inspired by the possibilities he saw in the work of early pioneers such as Heinrich Hertz, Augusto Righi, and Oliver Lodge.

Marconi brought his vision and his enthusiasm to England in 1896 where he was in search of support and commercial applications. In the same year, Marconi applied for a patent for a system of wireless telegraphy. The Italian electrical engineer and Nobel laureate was the first to patent a system of wireless telegraphy. 

Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his system to the Navy, Army, and representatives of the Post Office in several trials on Salisbury Plain. Marconi arranged a demonstration to accompany a public lecture on telegraphy by William Preece, chief engineer to the General Post Office.

In December 1896, the demonstration was held in Toynbee Hall, the educational and charitable institution in London’s East End. Preece operated the transmitter, and whenever he created an electric spark, a bell rang on a box Marconi took to any part of the lecture room. There was no visible connection between the two. The demonstration caused a sensation and made Marconi a celebrity.

At the end of the 19th century, Guglielmo Marconi worked to extend the range of his radio signals and to demonstrate their practical value. Marconi then established stations on the south coast and the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England. He successfully exchanged signals with ships at sea. In March 1899, Marconi transmitted the first wireless message across the English Channel. He had not neglected the commercial side, establishing a factory in Chelmsford, in December 1898.

Marconi's first tuned transmitter

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Marconi’s first tuned transmitter, completed in Poole in 1899. The technique of tuning was of vital importance for the history of radio, Source: ©MHS, Oxford

Once Marconi went beyond simple demonstrations of radio transmission and reception, he had to work on the problem of interference between signals. He tackled this by tuning the ability to transmit waves of a particular frequency, adjusting the receiver to accept one frequency at a time.

Applications and use of early Marconi radio technology include the first portable wireless transmitter used in the British Army in 1907, and a Marconi Crystal Receiver Type 31C used in 1910. 

The Four Sevens patent 

In April 1900, Marconi’s successful method of separating signals through tuning was granted a patent. The patent happened to be allocated a striking and memorable number: 7777. Consequently, this established the fame of the Four Sevens patent.

Marconi had hired John Ambrose Fleming, an electrical engineer and Professor at University College London. His subsequent work on thermionic valves would be crucial to the further development of radio.

Transatlantic signals in 1901 

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
The telephone earpiece used to detect the first transatlantic signal, the three dots of Morse code for the letter 'S', in Newfoundland in December 1901. Marconi famously handed this receiver to his assistant with the words, ‘Can you hear anything, Mr Kemp?,' Source: ©MHS, Oxford

Guglielmo Marconi’s most audacious early ambition was to send a radio signal across the Atlantic. It was believed that the curvature of the Earth made this impossible, since the waves were expected to travel in straight lines and thus could not pass through the earth.

Wireless services became increasingly sophisticated as technology developed. Ocean newspapers originated as early as 1899, when Guglielmo Marconi, sailing from the United States on the liner St Paul, produced a single sheet of news derived from wireless messages, for the benefit of passengers as the liner neared Britain.

In subsequent years, and with increasing range, news was conveyed to ships at more distant positions and incorporated into pre-printed newspapers containing more general articles.

In 1901, two wireless stations were set up: A transmitter of unprecedented power at Poldhu in Cornwall and a receiving station at St John’s in Newfoundland, where the aerial was to be raised by a balloon or a kite. Guglielmo Marconi and his assistants George Kemp and Percy Paget arrived in Newfoundland in December and, although the balloons failed and one of the kites was blown away, after an anxious wait they finally detected the pre-arranged signal from Poldhu. On 12 December, they heard the three dots -- it was the letter ‘S‘ in Morse-- on a telephone wired in series with a sensitive detector.

The signal was too weak to be printed on tape in the way telegraphic messages were usually recorded; and this led to problems in convincing everyone that the trial had succeeded. However, two months later the signals were successfully transmitted over 2,000 miles to Marconi who was on board the Philadelphia, leaving no room for doubt.

The Titanic and the use of radio to rescue the survivors: 1912

The value of wireless communication at sea was dramatically demonstrated by the Titanic disaster in April 1912. Large ships were now being fitted with wireless sets and at least one operator was included among the crew. Titanic had two operators and the latest and most powerful equipment from the Marconi company.

After she struck an iceberg and was holed below the water and sinking, the operators were able to send out distress calls to nearby ships and to receive word of their plans to assist. Marconi was celebrated as the savior of the 700 people who were rescued from Titanic. 

The thought of how scary and painful sinking in freezing water was for those who did not survive is enough for me. Yet, some others could find the possibility of a second Titanic experience worth trying. 

The following documents are copies from the original distress messages sent by Marconi's communications operators from and to the Titanic as well as between other ships using Marconi's wireless telegraphy. The original documents are at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. 

From Titanic to Celtic using Marconi's wireless telegraphy

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Message sent from Titanic, as received by Celtic: ‘CQD require assistance position 41.46 N 50.14 W struck iceberg Titanic’. ‘CQD’ was the international help signal used before the introduction of ‘SOS’, Source: ©Bodleian Library, Oxford

From the Virginian to the Californian using Marconi's wireless telegraphy 

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
A message from the Virginian to the Californian: ‘Titanic struck berg wants assistance urgently ship sinking passengers in boats her position Lat 41.46 Long 50.14’, ©Bodleian Library, Oxford

From Olympic to her sister ship Titanic using Marconi's wireless telegraphy 

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Message from Olympic to her sister ship Titanic: ‘Am lighting up all possible boilers as fast as can’, ©Bodleian Library, Oxford

Some of the most remarkable and compelling material in the Marconi archive is the original documentation that records this influential, memorable yet tragic episode in the history of wireless telegraphy.

Titanic aftermath and her radio operators 

The two Marconi operators on board Titanic were Jack Phillips, a young operator who was 25 years old, and Harold Bride. Their first distress message was sent out at 00:05 hours (ship’s time) on April 15, about 25 minutes after the ship struck the iceberg. Right after, they were continuously occupied in emergency communications until loss of power to their equipment meant they could do no more. Both then abandoned the ship, shortly before it was lost at sea at 02:20 hours. 

Jack Phillips, the senior operator, was lost, but Bride was picked up by Carpathia, where he assisted the sole radio operator in dealing with a constant exchange of messages in the following hours. The Carpathia finally docked at New York on April 18, and Guglielmo Marconi visited his exhausted operators on board. He had recently arrived there himself on the Lusitania, having at a late stage changed his original plan to cross the Atlantic on Titanic.

The development of radio in World War I 

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
The Marconi Company’s studio in Chelmsford in 1920Source: ©MHS, Oxford

From the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it was obvious that wireless technology had become of great strategic importance. The British government immediately took control of parts of the Marconi Company, such as its latest transatlantic stations in Wales and also its factory in Chelmsford. 

The company then established an ambitious training program for wireless operators. Government restrictions meant that public developments were suspended, however, the demands of war --from land, sea, and airborne services-- meant that other technical developments had to be accelerated.

War time priorities emphasized the potential for counter-offensive inherent in wireless communication. Pretty much this meant that signals could be intercepted and direction-finding techniques could locate the positions of enemy transmitters. It was the time when sophisticated spy technology was used by secret agents for espionage. 

Once it was possible to locate trench wireless sets, enemy troop positions could also be known, as well as Zeppelins, and other hostile aircraft. It was the detection of wireless traffic that alerted the British navy about the movements of the German fleet, and in turn, this precipitated the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

The use of Marconi radio in the First World War included a Marconi Crystal Receiver Type 16 from 1916, a Forward Spark ‘B’ Wavemeter circa 1918, and a Marconi Bellini-Tosi Direction Finder circa 1916. Important documents in the Marconi collection include an intercepted message announcing the outbreak of the war, and a Zeppelin tracking chart from 1916.

Broadcasting and the foundation of the BBC

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Telephone Microphone No 100L (1920) used and signed by Dame Melba during her historic broadcast from Chelmsford on 15 June 1920, Source: ©MHS, Oxford

The Marconi Collection included the Telephone Microphone No 100L from 1920, pictured above. Opera diva Dame Nellie Melba used it on June 15, 1920 for her famous public entertainment broadcast from Chelmsford. She signed it Nellie Melba 1920.

Before World War I, techniques for using wireless technology to transmit speech were developed in order to replace Morse signals. But it was after the war that amateur radio became increasingly popular, and simple radio receiver sets were developed for a rapidly expanding market. This also meant that wireless could be used for broadcasting as well as for sending more targeted messages.

A History of Vintage Electronics: The Guglielmo Marconi Collection and the History of Wireless Communications
Dame Nellie Melba making her famous broadcast in 1920, using the microphone pictured above and now part of the Marconi Collection at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, EnglandSource: ©MHS, Oxford

Guglielmo Marconi’s company pioneered regular broadcasts of information and entertainment in Britain. In 1920, the company organized the first-ever broadcast of live public entertainment by the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba from Marconi's Company in Chelmsford. 

Later on, the company set up broadcasting stations at Writtle in Chelmsford and at Marconi House in London in 1922. Strict regulation was enforced by the Post Office, as the licensing authority for broadcasting. However, the increasing clamor for licenses from several organizations resulted in their coming together as the British Broadcasting Company --later Corporation-- (BBC) in December 1922. The era of popular broadcasting for the home --first by radio, later by television-- had just begun. 

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