Transmission : Invention and Empire
Illustrated by Chaimae Khouldi
Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), renowned engineer and inventor, was raised in Bologna, Italy (Adler 120). Born on April 25th, 1874 to an Italian father and Anglo-Irish mother, he would later become the “inventor of radio” (Hong 107). In 1894, Marconi succeeded in creating the world’s first wireless form of communication: the wireless telegraph (Adler 120). This device, that would change communication entirely, was critical in changing the face of war as it permitted long-distance radio transmission (Headrick 117). However, Marconi’s wireless telegraph had great implications for the role of science in political and commercial realms (Headrick 117). Though he was a great physicist and electrical engineer, Marconi focused on enterprise (Guagnini 357). The following essay will explore the birth of the device itself, its initial commercial success, and its repercussions on a political level.
Marconi, as a scientist, was generally regarded as a “practitioner – a man who had little knowledge of theory”: his science was mainly applied and hands-on (Hong 108). Rather than theorizing and making mathematical predictions, he persevered: John Ambrose Fleming, Marconi’s adviser, noted he harnessed the “power of continuous work” (Fleming 57). Marconi relied on “personal logic and intuitive talent” (Hong 108) instead of theoretical knowledge when he was inventing. However, Marconi, like the majority of scientists and innovators, was only capable of his greatest achievement through the amalgamation of the inventions of other men, namely, “he did not invent radio all by himself” (Headrick 117). Using several previous inventions including the antenna and the tuning circuit, Marconi succeeded in creating a machine that could transmit information in Morse code, “travel[ing] over a wall of ocean”, by sending and receiving electromagnetic waves: a wireless telegraph (Hong 107). Though this invention was clearly an achievement, the Italian Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs did not acknowledge its merit (Adler 120). Marconi felt that was a clear loss because he knew the value of his creation for marine communications. As a result, he took his invention, as well as his knowledge and scientific prowess, to London where Great Britain’s enormous and powerful navy would be more interested (Adler 121).
In Britain, the wireless telegraph really took off and, with the aid of William Preece, Chief Electrical Engineer of the Post Office, Marconi’s invention was given due attention and seen for the innovative device it was (Adler 121). Preece had previous interest in the telegraph and electromagnetism but had not been successful to the extent Marconi was (Adler 121, 122). Preece would lend his full support to Marconi and his scientific cause, giving him “the publicity he needed for his experiments” (Headrick 117).
Marconi was clear that his ambitions lay further than simply scientific innovation. He saw the commercial value in his wireless telegraph and founded a company that would manufacture and install his telegraph system on boats (Hong 108). The Post Office, and Preece, were caught off-guard by this as they had expected Marconi to give his invention to the Post Office, considering all the support he had received from them in order to conduct his experiments (Headrick 117). Marconi later decided that the best way to capitalize on his invention was to claim the electromagnetic spectrum, as a whole, as his (Hong 108). The result Marconi predicted was that his company, if involved in radio communications, could grow immensely powerful (Headrick 118). Yet, this success was predicated on the need for his company to get involved in the communications business directly, rather than simply in the manufacture of radio sets (Guagnini 359). His ambitions were halted by the fact that the British Post Office held a monopoly on internal communications. This did little to quell Marconi who decided to expand his enterprise internationally so he would be free to develop more effectively (Garratt 149).
As it turns out, Marconi was not only adept in science but also in “public relations.” He travelled, and demonstrated his invention and its use to different potential customers (Headrick 118). The navies of both Britain and Italy were won over when Marconi equipped their ships, and his system proved indispensable. These two countries became Marconi’s first and best customers (Headrick 118).
With these important clients under his belt, Marconi would begin to create his “monopolistic scheme” (Headrick 119). Thus, he created Marconi’s International Marine Communication Company in April 1900, known simply as Marconi’s: a private enterprise that ran independently, operating both ship and shore stations (119). In an effort to create and subsequently solidify his monopoly of the electromagnetic spectrum, he instituted a policy that would require any ship wishing to contact his customers (now the majority of ships) to only do so under his terms and policies (120). In this sense, the company could be very selective with regard to with whom it corresponded. Tensions heightened politically especially when Britain’s rivals, France and Germany, refused to install Marconi’s system (122). In Germany, after a ship carrying a prince was refused communication because it was equipped with a non-Marconi telegraph set (Slaby-Arco brand), the government issued a law that would ensure German stations only used Slaby-Arco sets (Headrick 121). Two competing German firms in the radiotelegraph industry merged, forming the Telefunken (Hong 109). This large company (acting as a representative of the German government itself) then organized a conference, the first of its kind, dealing with international radiotelegraphy.
From August 4-13, representatives from Britain, Spain, Austria, France, and Russia met in Berlin to discuss the German proposal: it would hold that radiotelegraphs would need to be sent and received despite which system they were being sent by (Adler 122). Essentially, this proposal would completely nullify Marconi’s non-intercommunication rules (Hong 121). Marconi responded with a nearly propagandist campaign which established the conference itself as “an attack by Germany on a British industry” (Headrick 120). During this conference, it was determined that radiotelegraph technology was much too recent a technology to necessitate regulation. Therefore, they simply drafted resolutions (that Britain and Italy would choose to ignore) (Headrick 121).
Despite this, the selectiveness of correspondence was met with much critique as many British powers wished to limit Marconi’s company to a manufacturing role (and give the State monopoly over international communications) (Headrick 117). The Post Office greatly opposed Marconi’s and this opposition would lead to the first instance of telegraph-related regulation in Britain: the Wireless Telegraphy Act of January 1, 1905 (Garratt 151). The result of this Act would be the governmental licensing of all radiotelegraph stations, thereby bringing British policy closer to that of other governments (especially those that had met at the conference in Berlin) (152). The Post Office now had to grant licenses to radio stations. For example, Marconi’s held an eight-year license for its shore stations, enabling the company to do its work. However, nothing in this Act would take away the company’s ability to be selective in its contacts (153). Another conference was called shortly afterwards again by Germany and with the same aim (Headrick 121). This 1906 conference was larger in scale consisting of thirty attendee nations (Headrick 121). Unlike the first conference, this one did result in the drafting of a treaty that would ensure free marine communication (Garratt 154). Twenty-one nations signed the treaty with Britain and Italy maintaining their initial view (155). Other matters were discussed at this conference including issues dealing with overcrowding of the electromagnetic spectrum, which greatly hindered communication (154). Again, Germany attacked Marconi’s in this area and insisted that the longer, greater electromagnetic waves, measuring from 600 to 1,600 metres be reserved for government and military use, while the shorter 300-600 metre waves be given to privately owned companies (Headrick 121). Many compromises and revisions had to be made. Britain finally agreed to free marine communication in exchange for allowing the longer waves to be used for commercial purposes; this would greatly colour the functioning of Marconi company (120). The final treaty (signed on November 3, 1906) was titled Convention for the Regulation of Wireless Telegraphy and came into effect in 1908 (121).
Marconi’s telegraph is an important case for scientific innovation because it meshes with both commerce and politics. The new invention required regulation (Garratt 154). The birth of the telegraph clearly exemplified the turn towards scientific innovation as a means for enterprise. Marconi, though clearly a brilliant scientist, was much more focused on the commercial implications of his new technology. This focus led him to attempt to monopolize the electromagnetic spectrum as a whole; a goal that could only lead to political implications as there was obviously competition for these waves from different countries (Hong 108). Furthermore, in establishing a non-intercommunication policy, in an attempt to ensure he got the most clients possible, Marconi created a political divide between the countries who were equipped with his system and those who were not (Headrick 119). He acted with commercial intent and focused on the financial benefit for his company regardless of political repercussions.
Marconi’s device would completely change the field of communications, as well as the role of scientific innovation. He clearly demarcated a turn towards science as enterprise as evidenced by his attempts to monopolize the field of telegraphy on a commercial level and towards science as playing a part in politics, as evidenced by his invention requiring regulation by an international conference.
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Headrick, Daniel R. The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
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