Bologna Celebrates 150 Years of Guglielmo Marconi and His Global Legacy

| Thu, 04/18/2024 - 14:00
Marconi illustration
Vintage engraving of Marconi at work / Morphart Creation via Shutterstock

150 years ago next week, one of the world’s most influential people, often described as the inventor of radio, was born in Bologna.

Guglielmo Marconi altered the course of human history forever when he sent the first radio signal from his home in the Bologna countryside in 1894. Now, 150 years after his birth, his homeland is paying tribute in a big way. 

“Marconi Days” — a program of concerts, shows and talks — will culminate with a large celebration on the inventor’s birthday, April 25. Held at Villa Griffone, the Marconi family’s country house a few miles outside Bologna in Pontecchio Marconi (once known simply as “Pontecchio”), the event will include a scientific conference featuring 2023 Nobel Laureate in Physics Anne L’Huillier and NASA astrophysicist Mark Clampin. Marconi’s daughter, Elettra Marconi, 94, will also be present to help inaugurate a new commemorative postage stamp honoring her father.

“We will do wonderful things,” Elettra Marconi told reporters. “My father is always with me and I have many fond memories of his experiments here at Villa Griffone.”

Giulia Fortunato, President of the Guglielmo Marconi Foundation, is determined to see the Marconi Day initiative further advance his legacy: “We want Villa Griffone to open up to local, national and international collaborations and synergies,” she said.

Alongside Galileo, Marconi “is Italy’s best-known inventor and scientist abroad,” Fortunato explained. But who was the man and how’d his fame reach that point?

A look back at Guglielmo Marconi’s life

Marconi with Steinmetz
Marconi (R) with German-American mathematician and electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz / Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock

Guglielmo Marconi was born at Palazzo Marescalchi in the center of Bologna on April 25, 1874. His father, Giovanni Marconi, was a wealthy merchant from a small village in the Apennines while his mother, Annie Jameson, was the Irish granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of the Jameson distillery in Dublin. She was in Italy to study opera when she met Giovanni. 

Between the ages of two and six, Marconi lived with his parents in the English city of Bedford before moving back to Bologna. Due to his family’s itinerant lifestyle, Marconi had an unorthodox education, and was mostly tutored at home. In fact, in his entire life, he never had anything higher than a primary school diploma.

Back in Bologna, Marconi became acquainted with Augusto Righi, a physics professor at the University of Bologna and pioneer in the field of electromagnetism. Marconi never formally enrolled at the university, but Righi took a shine to him, allowing him to attend his lectures and use the university’s library and laboratory.

Learning in waves

Villa Griffone
Villa Griffone with tomb of Guglielmo Marconi in the foreground / Photo: Fabio Caironi via Shutterstock

In the early 1890s, Marconi became interested in electrowaves after stumbling upon a paper by German physicist Heinrich Hertz. He began voraciously reading the work of Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell and Righi —  all of whom had been studying the phenomenon of electromagnetism. 

Villa Griffone, his family’s country home, was where he really began tinkering. His first functioning electromagnetic device was built in 1894; it was a storm alarm which went off whenever it detected electromagnetic waves produced by lightning. Marconi was intrigued by the way waves could communicate across the atmosphere without the need for wires and wondered: What if we could use electromagnetic waves to communicate ourselves across long distances?

In December 1894, Marconi, 21 years old at the time, built a radio transmitter that could make a bell ring on the other side of the room. Most scientists were satisfied with simply studying how electromagnetism worked, but Marconi was one of the first to investigate how it could be exploited.

Living off his family’s money, Marconi was able to devote himself full-time to his obsession. By summer 1895, he could receive intelligible telegraph signals up to 2400 meters (about 7874 feet) away. On the advice of his mother, Marconi moved to England in 1896 to patent his invention. Two years later, he set up Marconi's Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company which would become the main vehicle and outlet of his continued experimentation. 

In 1912, two of his employees working as wireless operators on the Titanic were able to send an SOS radio signal to the RMS Carpathia 58 miles away, ultimately saving hundreds of lives. Marconi himself prominently featured in coverage of the rescue mission, turning him into a household name and leading to his inventions being adopted by every developed country in the world.

A complicated legacy

Plaque in Newgate Street, London / Photo: Chris Dorney via Dreamstime
A plaque on Newgate Street, London / Photo: Chris Dorney via Dreamstime

In 1909 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. He became an Italian Senator in 1914 and a Marquis in 1929, the hereditary title bestowed on him by King Victor Emmanuel III. He also played a pivotal role in the creation of the BBC, helping set up its first radio station in London in 1922. 

More solemnly, Marconi was an ardent supporter of fascism and joined the Italian Fascist Party in 1923. This part of his life remains a source of controversy, though one usually viewed in isolation from his extraordinary scientific achievements, which universally benefited humankind. 

Marconi died of a heart attack in 1937 at the age of 63 and was buried in a grand mausoleum beneath Villa Griffone.

Today he remains celebrated both in Italy and the wider world. He was on the 2000 lira banknote; the Bologna airport bears his name; plaques attesting to his sojourns and accomplishments hang proudly throughout Italy and in London; a RAI miniseries, starring Bolognese actor Stefano Accorsi, is set to air later in 2024; and a statue of him stands in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Marconi revolutionized communication, making it global and borderless, and the world was never the same.

If you go

Giornata di Marconi (Marconi Day)
April 25, 2024, at Villa Grifone
Pontecchio Marconi (BO)