Marconi essay

Simply air vibrating

It is hard to determine the veracity without having been there, but the tale is a good one. Guglielmo Marconi had a series of heart attacks in the mid 1930s – that much we know for sure. By this time, he was in his late fifties and an Italian hero: a pioneer of long-distance radio transmission, a statesman, a friend of Mussolini. Somewhere around the time of his fourth or fifth heart episode, so the story goes, Marconi became convinced that sounds live forever. He believed that sound waves, after their initial transmission, lingered on as low-level energy, as an archive in the atmosphere, just out of reach. If he could build a receiver powerful enough, position it correctly, and tune it to exactly the right frequency, Marconi believed it would be possible to hear Lazarus rise from the dead, or Hamlet performed for the first time, or the distress calls from the Titanic, or his earliest words to his first wife, or his second.

Stories work in odd ways. Marconi didn’t invent the radio. He was important in its evolution – but not the most important person – yet the legend persists, in part because of a tendency to seek out and valourise male genius in the strangest of places, and in part because of Marconi’s control of his own mythology during his lifetime. He was described simultaneously as stylish and aloof, as highly strung and timid, as affable and charming and seductively energetic. There are plenty of photographs, taken between the late 1890s and early 1930s, that attest to this: a small-headed, stern-faced man with slicked back hair, always in a well-fitting suit. More often than not he is looking away from the camera, head down, usually towards his equipment, or diagrams, or notes.

There is one photograph, taken at Signal Hill in Newfoundland in 1901, shortly before the first successful transatlantic radio transmission. Four men, folding their bodies in different ways, are hunched over a kite, attached to which is an antenna. Marconi stands at a distance, in a brimmed hat and long grey coat, one foot slightly in front of the other. He is not yelling orders, and he doesn’t look menacing or even that commanding, but he seems in control.

Fifteen years before the photo was taken, Heinrich Hertz had demonstrated James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. Maxwell had proposed, firstly, that currents travelling through a wire create a circular magnetic field around the wire and, secondly, that a current can be induced in a separate wire when placed at the correct proximity to the charged circuit. Hertz provided concrete evidence for Maxwell’s theory. He constructed a circuit with a power source (a battery) and a charged wire with a small gap (the spark gap). Close to the circuit he positioned a curved piece of wire, shaped like a horseshoe, with brass knobs attached to each end. If Maxwell’s theory was correct, electromagnetic waves would oscillate between the spark gap and the brass-knobbed wire, and sparks would pass through both the tiny gap in the powered circuit and the gap between the brass knobs.

Marconi came across Hertz’s work in his early twenties, during which time it was generally believed that electromagnetic waves could only be transmitted and received short distances, that they were stopped short by the curvature of the earth. At his home in Bologna, Marconi began developing Hertz’s machine. He first sent a transmission across a small room in his attic, then along his parents’ hallway, then across a field. In 1895, Marconi managed to transmit a signal over a hill, a distance of just over two kilometres. Success was indicated by the shot of a gun. Marconi approached the Italian government with a patent request; they weren’t interested. He travelled to England early the following year and, on 2 June 1896, was granted British Patent number 12,039, the first patent for a system utilising Hertzian waves.

Marconi’s equipment was on board the Titanic when it sank. Shortly after 11:40 pm on 14 April 1912, the ship’s captain entered the wireless cabin (at the time known as ‘Marconi rooms’) and issued a distress call. Transmissions were sent out across the Atlantic continuously for around three hours and were picked up by wireless operators on nearby ships, including the Carpathia, which responded to the distress calls and managed to save over 700 passengers. During the inquiry into the sinking, the British postmaster-general lauded Marconi: ‘Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi … and his marvellous invention’.

There are plaques dedicated to Marconi’s memory on Three Mile Hill, Salisbury Plain, where, on 2 September 1896, Marconi held a historic demonstration of his machine in front of officials from the General Post Office, the British Army and the Royal Navy. There is a Marconi Road in Chelmsford, where the headquarters for Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company first stood in 1897. There is a granite obelisk on a hill in Cornwall, marking the spot from which the first transatlantic radio signal was sent in 1901.



Marshall McLuhan is unfashionable these days. I will resurrect him briefly here, then lay him to rest again. In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan defines technology as an extension of its creator’s body. The conditions necessary for invention emerge not exclusively from a collective lack, but perhaps from a personal one. During his lifetime, Marconi never managed to build a machine that would immortalise soundwaves. The story, however, reveals more about the man than is disclosed in the documentation he decreed.

This is how Marconi’s story works. According to Nate di Meo, on his podcast The Memory Palace, there was one ship, a Russian steam liner, positioned hundreds of miles away from the Titanic on the night of 14 April 1912. A worker in the control room received the radio signal an hour and thirty-eight minutes after it had ceased broadcasting. By this time, the sound wouldn’t have died – it was never alive – but it would have dissipated, its signals weakened and distorted, making their way to the outer atmosphere.

The Russian steam liner’s receiving of the distress call was an atmospheric anomaly, something in the air at that particular moment. But it was enough for Marconi.



It could be that I am mistaken. It could be that photographs of Marconi reveal not a small-headed man, but a large-eared one. According to a story told to her by her grandmother and repeated in Degna Marconi’s biography of her father, an elderly gardener was the first to notice this particular attribute. Shortly after Marconi was born, late in the evening of 25 April 1874, the family’s servants crowded around to coo and stare, and a joyful, tactless observation slipped from the gardener’s mouth. Annie, Marconi’s mother, responded curtly, ‘He will be able to hear the still, small voice of the air’.

Marconi joined a brother, Alfonso, nine years his senior, and a half brother, Luigi, whose mother had died during childbirth. Alfonso’s ears, as far as I can tell, look normal sized. Luigi’s may have been the same.

Annie was born in Ireland, but ended up in Italy courtesy of her voice. She had been invited to sing at Covent Garden, but her parents – stern and pious and owners of the Jameson & Sons whiskey distillery – had forbidden her. As consolation, they offered her a trip to Bologna, where she could study bel canto. There she met Marconi’s father; he proposed, and Annie’s parents refused. Not because he was a Catholic, not because he was a widower, not because he was seventeen years her senior, but because he was not Irish. They acquiesced eventually.

Sometimes stories work too well. They seem too polished, seamless, as if a lack of ruptures suggests artifice. Marconi’s father was frugal, and stern, and prone to rage. Sometimes he was a villain when there needed to be one. When Marconi’s childhood experiments got out of hand – such as when he built a contraption from dinner plates, lined up like a vertebrae, through which he passed a current and, in doing so, smashed the plates – his father would destroy his equipment. Marconi’s mother, however, acted only to enable him. When Marconi, aged twenty-two, made his first successful radio transmission across the attic of the house in Bologna, he woke his mother to show her. His father slept.

During a lecture in Paris in 1926, Marconi divided his adult life into three stages. The first of which began with the episode in the attic, and ended a decade later, after the transatlantic transmission had proven successful, thus demonstrating the wireless to be a commercially viable method of communication. The second stage was a period of growth, culminating in the sinking of the Titanic. It was also the period during which he married his first wife, Beatrice O’Brien, who gave birth to his eldest child, Degna, in 1908. The third stage was marked by movement between London, Rome and New York. It was marked also by a necessity to continue researching.

In 1912, the same year Marconi was credited with saving 700 lives, he published an article outlining a utopian vision of a socialist future. ‘Within the next two generations,’ he wrote, ‘we shall have not only wireless telegraphy and telephony, but also wireless transmission of all power for individual and corporate use, wireless heating and light, and wireless fertilising of fields. When all that has been accomplished – as it surely will be – mankind will be free from many of the burdens imposed by present economic conditions.’ This power would necessarily have to be controlled and distributed by the state, to alleviate any unfair stockpiling. The radio waves that interested him became shorter and shorter, their potential even greater, and his demeanour more aloof.

Sometimes stories work in circles. In order for Marconi to remarry, his divorce from Beatrice had to be recognised by the Catholic Church. At the time, in 1924, the church recognised three grounds for annulment: if a marriage had been contracted under moral or physical pressure; if lack of consent could be proved; if one of two married non-Catholics was converted and the other partner unwilling to cohabit peacefully. Marconi’s lawyers advised him to try and prove the second of these.

Beatrice was born in Ireland, to a baron, a landlord whose wealth was dependent on the fertility of dwindling farmland, a relic of an old world that was quickly slipping away. The continuity of his family’s title was dependent on his children marrying Irish citizens. After his death in 1900, his wife was left with eight children and a fast disappearing fortune. They travelled to the harbour town of Poole, close to where Marconi was living at the time. Marconi and Beatrice first met on the pier; she was wearing an evening dress she had made herself and silk slippers with torn heels. During their marriage, Marconi would often call the dress horrible.

In a series of letters written during their divorce proceedings, Marconi urged Beatrice to declare to the church her family’s doubts about her marrying an Italian, and to testify her own hesitation nineteen years previous. ‘The most important thing for you to say,’ he writes, ‘is that before we married (and if you can say it, because you were not sure of your feelings towards me) we were quite agreed that in the event of our marriage not turning out to be a happy one, we would have availed ourselves of the possibility of divorce.’



There are the machines we build and the machines we need, and sometimes they are one and the same. In the first decades of the twentieth century, progress – whether it manifested itself as a giant unsinkable ship or a revolutionary means of communicating over long distances – was considered an unimpeachable good. Aaron Toscano, in his study of the rhetorical uses of Marconi’s inventions, aligns the wireless with Richard M Weaver’s ‘god term’ – that is, an ‘expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate’ to the point that it is impossible to argue against them. ‘Any rhetorical construction of a technology,’ Toscano writes, ‘would be aided by being seen as progressive. Technologies that espoused progress could arouse nationalist sentiments because the society could point to an object embodying human advancement.’

The valourisation of Marconi following the Titanic disaster did not occur in isolation. There was Marconi the saviour. There was Marconi the great inventor, whose name, according to an Ocean Wireless News article from August 1912, ‘will always stand foremost in the public mind’. There was Marconi the patriot, who invited Mussolini to be his best man at his second wedding, who publicly defended the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, who introduced Pope Pius XI during his first radio broadcast and who, in 1917, published an editorial in Wireless Age urging all amateur wireless enthusiasts to join the war effort. These Marconis were un-tarnishable. In the public imagination, his name was semantically lodged with thoughts of progress and ingenuity and humanity.

There was also the difficult-to-live-with Marconi. During the divorce proceedings, Beatrice confided in Queen Elena of Italy, to whom she was a lady-in-waiting. ‘A man like Marconi,’ Queen Elena told her, ‘should never marry.’

The final stage of Marconi’s adult life, though he didn’t say so in his lecture, began during his second honeymoon in 1927. It was winter in New York, the wind bitter, and Marconi assumed the pains in his chest were signs of an oncoming cold.



CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, bypasses all of documented history, and all life in the universe, to attempt to recreate the conditions shortly after the big bang. It was built by an international alliance of thousands of scientists and government sponsors, including Carl Haber, a physicist at UC Berkeley. Lining the interior of the collider are thousands of silicon detectors, each about the size of a passport. They track the paths of subatomic particles, recording forty million collisions a second.

These sensors have to be aligned perfectly in order to record the required information. To do this, Haber designed a machine called a SmartScope. The SmartScope photographs the detectors in microscopic detail, then analyses their position over and over again until their placement is just right.

As Alec Wilkinson describes in the New Yorker, at some point in early 2000, Haber was stuck in traffic in Oakland, California. Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead’s drummer, was speaking on the radio, lamenting the loss of some of the earliest ethnographic recordings. Many of the recordings were locked in libraries and archives, extant but inaccessible. Particles of dirt and grease had, over the years, built up on the grooves of the recordings, many of which were made on wax cylinders and aluminium disks. Dragging a stylus along the surface of the objects would risk dislodging the dirt, erasing the recordings as they played.

The first audio recording was made in April of 1860 in Paris by a typographer named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott recorded his voice in soot on paper using a machine he called a phonautograph. A cylinder, about the size of a can of tomatoes, is mounted on its side between two vertical brackets. Blackened paper was attached to the cylinder, and a stylus, made from pig’s bristle, would mark the vibrations made by Scott as he turned the handle and spoke. It wasn’t heard until 2008.

Scott never imagined he would be able to hear his voice. These recordings were made in order to visualise the patterns made by soundwaves representing words – ‘natural stenography’. He believed that the way people spoke was far more demonstrative of character than could be contained in written language. ‘Our manual or printed calligraphy,’ Scott wrote, ‘is nothing but dead speech.’ He wanted to use his patterns as the basis of a new written language, one that would be better able to translate emphasis and volume and subtle hesitations. Scott was unimpressed when, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph; it reproduced sound, he said, rather than offering a written record.

After hearing Hart on the radio, Haber drove to a record store and picked up a copy of ‘Goodnight, Irene’ by the Weavers. Using a version of his SmartScope, he scanned the grooves of the record. Each full rotation took around forty minutes. The images were fed into a computer, which converted the images into sound. Haber, along with the aid of a graduate student, adjusted the machine to make it more efficient for its adopted purpose. They called it IRENE.

IRENE was able to take thousands of photographs of Scott’s documents with minimal damage caused. Each piece of paper is about a foot and a half, and each one represents a full turn of the cylinder. The images were digitised, compiled in software and converted into a ghostly, irregular, low-pitched rendition of ‘Au Clair de la Lune’.

Wax cylinders, such as the one used by Scott and Edison, were light and easily portable. They were manufactured for businessmen to dictate notes onto. The businessmen or their secretaries would transcribe the recording, scratch the surface clean, then record again and again until the wax was too degraded.

There are massive collections of these early wax recordings around the world, objects that before the invention of Haber’s machine existed in a liminal space. They took up room in storage, they gathered more dust, but their practical purpose was voided by their instability. Slowly, ever so slowly, librarians and archivists are working through these collections. There are now two IRENEs at the Library of Congress, and one at the Northeast Document Conservation Centre in Massachusetts. There is also one at the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, India.



Marconi’s theory of immortal sound does not appear in many contemporary biographies about him, most of which were concerned primarily with lionising the man. Degna’s biography, which is affectionate and lyrical and wry, also fails to mention it.

She does, however, mention a short reprieve that took place around the same time as his epiphany is supposed to have come to him. Following Marconi’s second marriage, he ceased contact with his first wife and children. He continued providing them with a small allowance, but this too dissipated. He never saw Beatrice again after 1928. By the mid 1930s, Degna was living in London, and terribly homesick for Rome. In 1937, at some point between Marconi’s fourth and fifth heart attack, Degna visited her father’s bedside. ‘Misunderstandings vanished,’ she writes, ‘and by mutual consent we forgot them. We were even gay. Father, in a mellow mood, took to greeting me as I came into his sitting room with “Hallo, Pretty!” and teasingly asked me when I was going to get married. I spoke of an Italian who had been paying me some attention and he made a face. He didn’t think much of him.’ Marconi died on 20 July 1937, a year before Degna would marry the Italian.



The earth is never quiet. Somewhere, air is always vibrating. Sounds don’t die – they were never alive. Rather, they submerge beneath the inaudible hum of the earth. If a sensitive enough microphone is held towards the ground, according to artist Simon Ingram, it is possible to hear the restless movement beneath the earth’s surfaces. Sometimes it sounds like bodies approaching and passing in quick succession.

In 2012, for Adam Art Gallery’s Dark Sky exhibition, Ingram placed an antenna on the gallery’s roof. The antenna interpreted high-frequency radio waves from the upper atmosphere and then sent the information down to a computer in the front window. The computer would then use the information to instruct a paintbrush to apply paint to a canvas. It could have been, as art historian Susan Ballard suggests, another resurrection of McLuhan. An extension, or proxy, for the body. Or it could have been an attempt to identify a shortcoming in our capacity for interpretation, and for recall. By the end of the exhibition, the artwork was a monochromatic square, every inch covered in black paint. Nothing coherent could be read from the work because the machine painting it had no concern for, or even conception of, mimesis. The conclusion of Ingram’s piece touches on one of the impracticalities of Marconi’s theory, for to hear everything again at once is to render everything indecipherable.

There are machines that declare themselves revolutionary, and there are those that announce themselves quietly. When Haber entered his lab in Berkeley with a copy of ‘Goodnight, Irene’ he was met not so much with derision, but with bewilderment. For scientists concerned with accessing the conditions of the very first few seconds of the universe, the value of taking thousands of high-resolution photographs of the grooves of a record did not seem immediately obvious.

IRENE is by no means faultless. There are gaps in what can be saved, patches of silence where the base material is too degraded to be salvaged. Unless a more advanced machine is built before the objects disintegrate completely, it is likely that the sounds are lost. There are ways around this – there are programs that can analyse the existing sound and make an educated guess as to what is supposed to be there – but this breaks a fundamental rule of conservation. As a discipline, conservation seeks to stabilise objects as effectively as possible, with minimum room for interpretation on the part of the conservator. If, in an attempt to form a coherent sound, the loose ends of what can be accessed are tied up, rearranged in some neat fashion, something new is created in place of what was there.

Everything disclosed contains the story of its loss. There are ruptures in memory, and there are ways around this. There are machines that can record and playback, but they too can fail. Maybe they aren’t there when we need them. There is no better time to contemplate mortality than between heart attacks. If we choose to believe this is how Marconi ended his life, then we can choose to believe, perhaps, that Marconi engaged in something of a disenchantment with his own mythology – a slow and graceful fall from canonised genius to a man with unfinished business. We can consider Marconi’s supposed epiphany an attempt to tie up loose ends, to identify incongruities in the stories we tell ourselves to try and understand the world, and to listen to them again and again and again until they make sense.


To read the rest of Overland #221. To subscribe.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Simon Gennard lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His work has appeared in Potroast and The Pantograph Punch.

More by