Marconi's dream

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.

'' '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.''

In fact, some prominent Italian scientists had witnessed Marconi's wireless experiments with their own eyes. But the Italian government flatly refused to grant Marconi any financial support to carry on his experiments. His mother urged him to go to England for help. But another setback ensued when British customs agents inadvertently damaged Marconi's equipment.

He rebuilt it, and that same year, 1896, he was granted the world's first radio patent. The following year he founded the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd. - and the dawn of radio communications began.

Many of the leading scientists of the day, however, remained skeptical of Marconi's advancing wireless developments.

After hearing reports that the first full telegraph message had been sent across the Atlantic on Dec. 15, 1902, the great Thomas A. Edison was far more than skeptical. Impossible, Edison declared.

Edison, however, would quickly change his opinion after reconsidering what he knew of Marconi's reputation for integrity.

The first meeting of the two great inventors shortly after this seemed more a comedy of errors than a momentuous occasion.

In a recent interview, Degna Marconi, who wrote ''My Father, Marconi'' in 1962, explained that Edison had invited Marconi to lunch. But several hours elapsed without any sign of lunch. Degna said: ''My father, who was always very punctual - and was probably hungry when he arrived - finally piped up and said, 'When are we going to eat?' Edison had forgotton all about lunch. Edison became awfully upset and gave my father some biscuits.''

The above incident may also give a clue about Marconi, the man. Though he was never happier than when he was spending long hours investigating scientific questions, he did not fit the stereotype of some famous inventors and other creative people - rumpled in manner of dress and appearance, chronically late for appointments, erratic in work habits.

Quite the contrary, Marconi was dapper and prompt, and often worked with a kind of unhurried and logical, if tenacious, precision.

''He looked like an ordinary businessman,'' Degna Marconi's sister, Gioia Marconi Braga, who now lives in New Jersey, said in an interview.

Mrs. Braga now serves as chairwoman of the distinguished Marconi Council, which since 1974 has awarded the Marconi International Fellowship. The Marconi Fellowship is granted every year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the advancement of the technology of communications and, most important, ''a concern for the betterment of the human condition.'' The fellowship is accompanied by a $35,000 grant.

Many recipients have gone on to further prominence. For example, Prof. Arthur L. Schawlow was awarded the fellowship in 1977 for his research in the fields of optical and microwave spectroscopy. Dr. Schawlow won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1981. Last year, Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps best known for writing ''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' won the fellowship. He was cited for forecasting the potentialities of satellites in geostationary orbits, and for his ''lifetime of promoting the belevolent use of advanced space technology."

George Bugliarello, president of the Polytechnic Institute of New York, is secretary of the Marconi Council. The Marconi International Fellowship is also administered in the New York City offices of the Polytechnic Institute.

In a recent interview, Dr. Bugliarello said that young Marconi took ''what was at that time still a laboratory curiosity, and through his experiments, turned (it) into reality.''

Like Christopher Columbus, ''Marconi believed in a very fundamental thing and pursued it to its logical conclusion,'' he explained.

But how did Marconi, who lacked much of the formal education of many of his contemporaries, come to contemplate even such a ''fundamental thing''? Marconi's daughter Degna says: ''My father used to say that how these things came to him was by deeply studying nature.'' He thought about how sunlight is transmitted across space - the sun doesn't need to travel along wires. Or how a bell's sound reaches the ear.

This might indicate that even if Marconi wasn't the kind of frenetic, unkempt individual one often associates with highly creative people, he had another characteristic in common with many inventors: He was a dreamer. But as soon as one tries to pin this label on him, one of his prodigious practical achievements comes to mind, such as the 1907 launching of the world's first commercial transatlantic wireless service between Table Head, Nova Scotia, and Clifden, Ireland.

''Having studied his life,'' Degna Marconi writes in her book about her father, ''I find that the parodoxes in his nature . . . have a logic of their own. He was vain in that he accepted his genius, but not conceited. He was jealous but he envied no one. His delight in tearing down the accepted theories of physicists was impish. He was audacious; it took audacity to propose throwing an arc of (electronic) waves from here to heaven knows where, but he backed his boldness with precision.''

But many observers, and even some of his closest colleagues, often saw only a rather emotionless and austere side of the great inventor. To his family, however, he opened his heart. This is especially seen in some of his letters to his wife Beatrice and to his daughters.

One of the most moving letters focused on a disaster at sea which was ultimately to change the course of ship communications: the sinking of the Titanic on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

Marconi, who was in New York at the time, was to have sailed on the ''unsinkable'' ship himself, but business had kept him in New York. Yet he had another reason for being deeply affected by the tragedy: Despite the high toll, more than 700 lives had been saved, largely because of wireless.

''I've witnessed the most harrowing scenes of frantic people coming here to me and then to the offices of the (Marconi) company,'' he wrote Beatrice, whom he called ''Buzzel'' in the letter, ''to implore and beg us to find if there might not be some hope for their relations.

''But although only a few were saved, everyone seems so very grateful to wireless - I can't go about in New York without being mobbed and cheered worse than Italy. . . .''

In the wake of the Titanic disaster, a whole new series of international laws was adopted to make sure that wireless became an integral part of the entire maritime industry.

As Dr. Bugliarello of Polytechnic Institute points out, the advancing forms of wireless went on to play a key role in submarine warfare during World War II and in today's highly sophisticated electronic weapons.

But Marconi's dream was ever for its peaceful use, as the Marconi International Fellowship indicates.

Perhaps US Sen. John Glenn summed this up best when he said, ''Because of Marconi's development of wireless radio, we can explore and utilize near-Earth space as well as learn about our solar system and perhaps someday the universe.''

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