Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Personal Recollections of Guglielmo Marconi

Everybody wants to know about Guglielmo, now that he’s dead and all.  They want to know about our childhood together. That’s why I’m talking to you. I am going to tell you, and you can spread it around and that’s it. I am done with it after I talk to you.  

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that I don’t like talking about Elmo, because I do. It’s just that with him being the most famous person in the whole world, it’s been too much pressure. Too many reporters hanging around asking questions and my wife is getting on my case and I don’t blame her. I mean it’s not like they’re paying me or anything, and even worse they don’t know anything about it.  That’s why I’m talking to you. But yeah, I know the whole story of what happened, and since you’re into wireless and Morse Code, and all, I figure I can trust you to get it straight. 

People say he wasn’t smart because he never attended a proper school, but they’ve got it all wrong. Elmo was the brightest kid in the Village. His older brother, Alfonso, got his early schooling in England at Bedford.  Elmo and his mom lived there off and on till he was six.  He figured he’d get the same treatment as Alfonso and he was looking forward to it. But, no. He was stuck at the Villa Griffone and not even his mother could talk Don Marconi into letting him go back to England for school. You see, Elmo was bored out of his mind. Can you imagine being a teenager trapped at that Villa? I mean, it’s a really nice estate and all, but in his mind, it was a prison. His father didn’t even let him go to school in Pontecchio with the rest of us. Brought in tutors. Some kids would have rebelled, but Elmo didn’t. He respected his father too much for that. For the most part, he just accepted and made the most of it by trying to please his tutors.

Elmo and I were the same age. We made friends at church when we were 13 and played together all the time. He was a good horseman and taught me to ride, too. We rode around the Villa Griffone and just hung out talking about girls and science. We were both into science stuff, and girls just as much. He didn’t actually have a girlfriend, though, so the only thing that got him by was that he really admired his science tutor, Vincenzo Rosa, and wanted to impress him. Rosa told Elmo about everything that was going on with electricity in Italy, Germany, and England and kept him up on all the latest inventions like the telephone and how it was spreading around Italy and got him all excited about it. You see, Elmo figured we should keep in closer touch about stuff and we didn’t have any way to do it. He had to come into town and visit me or I had to hoof it out to the Villa, and it was really a pain. We wanted the telephone but it wasn’t in Bologna, yet. So, we decided to build our own telephone line from magazine articles and drawings that Rosa showed Elmo about what Bell was doing in America.  Anyhow, that never went anywhere because we found out how much it would cost and we didn’t have any money and Elmo couldn’t talk his dad into giving him the money for it. So, that plan was dropped. 

A few years later, Rosa took Elmo to meet a friend of his, Augusto Righi, at the University of Bologna. Righi and Elmo really hit it off. Righi told Elmo all about what Heinrich Hertz was up to. When we finally met up again, he had a new plan. We didn’t need any wires, he said. We would just use Hertzian waves to signal each other with Morse code. Righi sent Elmo some articles about Hertz’s experiments and we went to work on copying them. Elmo’s dad was down with it because it was going to be a lot cheaper than our first idea and because Rosa convinced him that it would be good for Elmo to experiment with this new breakthrough in physics. 

So, that’s how the whole wireless thing started. It didn’t matter to Elmo that scientists were convinced the waves would not travel very far. In his imagination, they could, and Rossa didn’t say anything to dissuade him from trying. 

When Elmo turned 16, that’s when he got a butler. His butler was named  Roberto Mignani. At first, Elmo didn’t know what to do with Mignani and vice versa, but when we started the wireless project, it finally dawned on Elmo that Mignani should be our assistant. I was kinda Elmo’s assistant too, so I guess he had two assistants, me and Mignani.  But, truth be told, I was actually Mignani’s assistant because he was really good. You really couldn’t expect much ingenuity from a butler but Mignani was no ordinary butler. He could make just about anything and if he couldn’t, he knew someone who could. So, when Elmo enlisted Mignani, that’s when things really got going. Hertz had detected a wave across the room and Elmo wanted to go further, so that’s what we did. We had all the details and copied the experiment and tried it out and it worked just like Righi said it would.

Elmo was very excited to see just how far the waves could go. You see, he had this idea about using Hertzian waves for signaling and connecting people over long distances.  Nobody else in Italy, Germany, or England cared a whit about communicating with wireless but it’s all Elmo focused on. We called it “the distance game”. We started at about 10 feet and went from there. Alfonso and Mignani were all in with our game. They thought it was fun, too. So, every week for a year we’d set up a new test to make a new distance record. Sometimes it wouldn’t work so Elmo would mess around with his equipment and try something new.  We tried putting the antennas up higher and that helped a lot. We tried vertical wires, horizontal wires, longer wires, and shorter wires to see what effect they would have. Vertical and longer were better. Then we hit the wall again and Elmo tried connecting a ground rod to the receiving and transmitting apparatus and that helped a lot, too. 

Finally, after a lot of trial and error, we set up the receiving apparatus in the field about half a mile away, and Elmo’s brother, Alfonso, was able to detect our signal. Rossa and Righi congratulated Elmo on reaching “the limit”. You see, the famous English scientist, Oliver Lodge, had told Righi that one-half mile was the maximum distance the waves could travel and that’s what Rossa believed, too. But Elmo and I were playing the distance game and decided to push on until we couldn’t detect a signal anymore. Elmo didn’t care about what the scientists said. In his imagination, he was connecting the world and his messages could travel everywhere. 

Eventually, he got it working over a  mile. Way beyond what anyone thought he could do. That’s when he showed me how big he was thinking. He went to his dad with a bunch of ideas about how wireless could change the world. All he needed was more power, bigger antennas, and better equipment. In other words, a lot of money. His dad was impressed enough to introduce Elmo to some of Italy’s most important government and business figures, hoping to get him some backing. Elmo offered his inventions to the Italian navy, too. But, nobody in Italy was willing to back him. He got pretty discouraged. That’s when his mom suggested that maybe the Jameson’s could help him. 

Elmo’s mom, Donna Anne, being the granddaughter of the founder of Jameson whiskey, had lots of wealthy relatives in Ireland and England and figured one might be willing to sponsor Elmo. So, she took us to England where he presented his ideas to the family, the bankers, and even the British government. Of course, they all wanted a demonstration, which we gladly provided. By then we had the distance up to four miles. When they saw what we could do, some of them could see where things might lead and signed on to fund Elmo’s company, The Marconi Wireless Company. That was 1896. We were just 21 years old. 

Well, the rest of the story everybody knows. He kept on playing the distance game, breaking records every month. Elmo was always ahead of the scientists who had to play catch up and devise new theories to explain the impossible. When he broke the 12-mile barrier, the post office, the navy, and the bankers all got very excited as the possibilities finally became crystal clear. Then they said he couldn’t go further than 200 miles because of the curvature of the earth, but he proved them wrong again. Finally, in 1901, he made the first wireless contact between North America and Europe, spanning the Atlantic Ocean, making the front page of newspapers around the globe. Elmo’s fame was unparalleled which resulted in a lot of public adulation, including from the ladies, as he was still a bachelor at that time.  

Wireless would connect the world and usher in a new era of civilization, just as he had imagined, and the Marconi Company would be at the forefront. Elmo cleverly set it up as a service company. It didn’t sell equipment but instead leased it along with trained operators. Some of the first customers were the ocean liners because the passengers wanted to send telegrams but were totally out of touch for weeks at a time when at sea. When the Titanic disaster happened, without the Marconi operators aboard there would have been no survivors. The Marconi Company and its wireless operators were hailed as heroes and shipboard wireless was deemed a public necessity. More orders rolled in. 

Italy had long since recognized the importance of its native son and now it, indeed the world, poured on the honors. He was ennobled as Marchese by the King and elected a Senator. He was made a commander of the Navy. He was even awarded the Nobel prize in physics for boldly defying scientific convention and emerging a winner, which was a stunning accolade because he considered himself more of an entrepreneur than a physicist. I was not surprised at all by these accolades. Elmo relentlessly pursued his vision overcoming every obstacle. Radio communication was, by then, recognized as one of the most important technological advancements in the history of the world. 

Elmo was idolized the world over. Mothers and fathers of teenage boys encouraged their sons to learn the art and science of wireless. Given Elmo’s youthful appeal, it didn’t take much encouragement. Radio was an exciting game and its popularity exploded. Eventually, the boys made such a racket on the airwaves that some governments decided to crack down and create some order out of the chaos. There was even some talk in America about banning the unruly “hams” altogether, but Hiram Percy Maxim of the ARRL stood up against that.  Elmo, being friends with Maxim, backed him but wanted the hams moved up in frequency and out of his precious long-wave bands.  That’s what happened, and you know the rest of the story. The hams got lucky.

My life since those magical early days has been pretty dull, actually. I could have stayed with the company but I got homesick and returned to Pontecchio, got married, and settled down. I haven’t lost any of my excitement for radio communication, though. I am a ham myself, now. I have my own apparatus here at home and making shortwave radio contacts is my favorite pastime. Elmo and I kept in touch with each other through the years, often by radio. In fact, he installed a wonderful laboratory on his yacht, Elettra, and was playing the distance game right up to the end, exploring the potential of microwaves.

Now, let me pour you another drop of Jameson and I’ll tell you all about his glamorous girlfriends...

73, Walton Stinson W0CP