Thursday May 04, 2017

Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World

Biographer Marc Raboy on Marconi's role in the Titanic disaster 1:02

Listen to Full Episode 53:56

Our phones, our laptops, even our cars communicate invisibly through the air. Our wireless world owes thanks to an Italian teenager who went on to win the Nobel Prize and changed how wars were fought. But Guglielmo Marconi also supported the rise of Italian fascism. McGill professor Marc Raboy has just published a major biography of Marconi and he takes IDEAS producer David Gutnick on a tour of Marconi's influences in Montreal. **This episode originally aired November 10, 2016.


"Marconi was the first person to speak publicly about what we now call cellphones, tasers, and radar. He was forever being egged on by the press to make outlandish predictions, but he refused to forecast anything he was unable to demonstrate empirically. "Spiritualists", such as the writer A. Conan Doyle, considered wireless communication a form of mental telepathy but Marconi insisted that it was rooted in the natural universe."
-- Marc Raboy

Guglielmo Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On July 2, 1897, at the age of 23, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was granted a patent in the United Kingdom for "improvements in transmitting electrical impulses and signals and in apparatus therefor."

Guglielmo Marconi, and his lawyers, had out-sprinted competitors like Russian Alexander Popov and Serbian Nikola Tesla who had also invented ways of using electromagnetic waves -- radio waves -- to send signals through the air.

Within a few years Marconi had managed to send Morse code signals across the Atlantic, from his transmitter in England to a receiver in St. John's, Newfoundland.

He became one of the most celebrated Italians in the world. In 1909 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, and went on to advise governments on the importance of networking the world. 

When Marc Raboy was a young boy in Montreal he lived across the street from an electronics factory.  There was a big sign out front:  'Marconi'. It was one of the first words Marc Raboy learned to read.

Today, Marc Raboy teaches communications at McGill university and has just published a major biography of Guglielmo Marconi. In his book, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World,  Marc Raboy delves into the life of the teenage wunderkind who invented a wireless transmitter in his bedroom, challenged governments with his corporate chutzpah and publicly promoted Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism. 

Marc Raboy is Full Professor and Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

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**This episode was produced by David Gutnick.