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The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century and the Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution

by Gavin Weightman

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-306-81275-4
Publisher: Da Capo

A middling account of Guglielmo Marconi’s development of the “wireless telegraph”—the radio.

Whether that invention is the “most fabulous” of the 19th century is most arguable, of course, and radio would not come into its own until well into the 20th. Still, British journalist Weightman (The Frozen Water Trade, 2003) offers a bright portrait of Marconi, who, with the patronage of English scientists (the Italian government having had no interest in his work), demonstrated in 1896 that somehow, through processes he didn’t quite understand at the time, electrical impulses could be captured in his “magic boxes” and made to sound tones. Marconi’s London audience perceived the event, Weightman writes, as something akin to magic: “It was like some fantastic act at a music hall. In fact, those present might easily have dismissed the demonstration as the work of a magician and his assistant, for the young man had a suspiciously exotic Italian name, although he looked and talked like a smart Londoner about town.” Only later did Marconi realize that these signals could be charged with meaning, by which time he was in competition with several other inventors to establish standards and networks for the “wireless telegraph” and reap the rewards. Those inventors, among them Robert Marriott and Reginald Fessenden, were performing wonders in the early 1900s, establishing radio links between distant points, and the Marconi Company had its work cut out for it just keeping up with these rivals. Still, Weightman notes, when the Titanic sank in 1912 it sent out not the “SOS” of those competitors, but the Marconi system’s “CQD”—“seek you, distress.” And, for all his struggles, Marconi died wealthy and world-renowned—though, sadly, an apologist and de facto ambassador for the Mussolini regime.

Pleasant reading for students of technological history, but radio buffs may be disappointed with Weightman’s light treatment of technical matters.