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RULING THE WAVES

SIGNOR MARCONI’S MAGIC BOX By Gavin Weightman, HarperCollins, £10.99

From an invisible, electro-magnetic link between two incongruous wooden boxes, an eccentric Italian pioneer discovered a century ago that he could make a bell toll two miles away. Hot-wired to a signalling contraption, the current could activate a Morse code ticker tape machine, sending out reams of coded message transmitted to the receiver. The discovery broke new ground, and the rest made radio history.

A well-researched, at times exhaustive account of the revolutionary impact of radio on the modern world, Gavin Weightman’s life of Guglielmo Marconi embarks on a slow trawl through the annals of trans-Atlantic communication. Drawing heavily on the archives, Weightman’s workmanlike chronicle re-enacts the momentous social repercussions following in the wake of late Victorian technological advance. This is at once an amateur historian’s sepia-tinted romance, steeped in the gas lit mists of Victorian London, and a layman’s speculative portrayal of the eclectic personalities involved in the early hit-and-miss attempts to harness wireless technology.

In a bid to bring forgotten facts to life, the author turns habitue of Whitechapel’s fusty public records offices. Yesteryear’s yellowing newsprint is reproduced at length, culled from Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, and Harmsworth’s newly published Daily Mail.

Peopled with a pantheon of the century’s most eminent pioneers, including light bulb innovator Thomas Edison, and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Weightman’s account hails Marconi’s breakthrough as the “greatest discovery of the 19th century”. Unfortunately, the original wireless pioneer, Calcutta’s Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose, who rang a bell by electro-magnetic waves a year before Marconi in 1895, is inexplicably relegated to a footnote.

Marconi is portrayed as an urbane and cultivated aristocrat who chanced upon a revolutionary advance in technology. In what is essentially a biography of the coincidental inventor turned corporate big businessman, Marconi is seen in his element, living the dilettante socialite’s high life, spending a lifetime on first class liners, romancing actresses, entertaining kings on yachts and cruisers, and erecting strange aerials on the grounds of English country manors.

The social repercussions of scientific advance are shown in all their bewildering, often frightening dimensions. “Wireless mania” spread like wildfire in the United States, amid a new world of motor cars, railroads, light bulbs, and telephones. The new technology sometimes defied even the comprehension of its inventors.

Originally envisaged for shipping, allowing boats to remain in contact with the shore, radio was subsequently employed by newspapers as a substitute for expensive cabling. The introduction of piped music, and voices carried on the airwaves, would bring radio to the masses as public service broadcast. The Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to Marconi in 1909, following a series of great sea rescues made possible by wireless, culminating with the operation to save survivors of the Titanic.

Marconi emerges as a difficult character, with the reader’s sympathy drawn to his long-suffering wife Beatrice, confined to her bedroom by a jealous husband who indulged in a string of affairs while being obsessed with his work. The inventor turned political svengali and Italian senator but his susceptibility to fascism is evident in his friendship with Mussolini, the first to arrive at his deathbed in 1937.

Marconi’s greatest achievement would remain the transmission of the single letter “S “by wireless 2,300 miles across the Atlantic, from Poldhu, Cornwall to Newfoundland, Canada, in December 1901.

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