On Nov. 28, 1918, young Degna Marconi was quietly studying her school lessons in her family's porticoed mansion in Rome when her father walked in the room wearing his radio headphones.Skip to next paragraph
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'' 'Come, there's something very interesting happening,' '' she says he told her excitedly. After he went and listened a few moments longer, her father declared: ''Kaiser William II (of Germany) has abdicated!''
That was the end of World War I. The man who proudly announced the news to his daughter was the first to hear of it in Italy. His name was Guglielmo Marconi, ''the father of wireless.''
It would be almost another two years, on June 15, 1920, before the first advertised public broadcast would be aired from Marconi's transmitter in Chelmsford, England, and radio as we know it today was born. But by 1918, Marconi was already an international celebrity. Twenty years earlier, in 1896, he had installed the first private wireless system for Great Britain's Queen Victoria.
On Dec. 15, 1902, Marconi had shocked the world by receiving the first transatlantic wireless message, proving that the curvature of the earth was in no way an obstacle to radio waves. The message sent from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, to The Times of London, via Marconi at his receiving station in Cornwall, England, read: ''Times, London. Being present at transmission in Marconi's Canadian station, have honor to send through Times inventor's first transatlantic message of greeting to England and Italy.''
But we must go back even further, to the lush green hills around Bologna, Italy, where Marconi, a slight, sad-eyed youth, toyed in the attic of his family's villa with an assortment of homemade electrical gadgets. His father, Giuseppe, a proud Italian landowner, feared Guglielmo would dream away not only his youth but the rest of his life as well. Young Marconi had no interest in going to a university and had failed to qualify for the Naval Academy.
His mother worried, too, especially when she found him, as she often did, still up in the attic at 3 a.m., his dinner hardly touched. But she also recognized in her son a tenacity and single-mindedness, qualities that were soon to help establish him as one of the greatest inventors of his time.
In 1894, the 20-year-old Marconi fell upon an article about Heinrich Hertz and his experiments with electromagnetic waves. Hertz, who had passed on seven years earlier, had developed a battery-powered mechanism that would cause a spark to leap across a gap between two ball electrodes. To record the ''waves'' of electricity that crossed this gap, Hertz had fashioned a primitive ''detector.'' Marconi's experiments essentially took up where Hertz's had left off and soon outgrew the cramped confines of the attic.
In 1895, Marconi moved out into the garden. Using elevated aerials at both the transmitting and receiving side of his equipment, he found he could transmit Morse code signals, which could be recorded on an attached tape, at a distance of 1 3/4 miles.
But at first no one believed him.
''My chief trouble,'' Marconi later wrote, ''was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic that it seemed difficult to believe no one else had thought of putting it in practice. In fact, Oliver Lodge had, but he had missed the correct answer by a fraction. The idea was so real to me that I did not realize that to others the theory might appear quite fantastic.''