HOW GUGLIELMO MARCONI TELEGRAPHS WITHOUT WIRES
A nineteen-year-old boy, just a quiet, unobtrusive young fellow, who talked little but thought much, saw in the discovery of an older scientist the means of producing a revolutionising invention by which nations could talk to nations without the use of wires or tangible connection, no matter how far apart they might be or by what they might be separated. The possibilities of Guglielmo (William) Marconi's invention are just beginning to be realised, and what it has already accomplished would seem too wonderful to be true if the people of these marvellous times were not almost surfeited with wonders.
It is of the boy and man Marconi that this chapter will tell, and through him the story of his invention, for the personality, the talents, and the character of the inventor made wireless telegraphy possible.
It was an article in an electrical journal describing the properties of the “Hertzian waves” that suggested to young Marconi the possibility of sending messages from one place to another without wires. Many men doubtless read the same article, but all except the young Italian lacked the training, the power of thought, and the imagination, first to foresee the great things that could be accomplished through this discovery, and then to study out the mechanical problem, and finally to steadfastly push the work through to practical usefulness.
It would seem that Marconi was not the kind of boy to produce a revolutionising invention, for he was not in the least spectacular, but, on the contrary, almost shy, and lacking in the aggressive enthusiasm that is supposed to mark the successful inventor; quiet determination was a strong characteristic of the young Italian, and a studious habit which had much to do with the great results accomplished by him at so early an age.
He was well equipped to grapple with the mighty problem which he had been the first to conceive, since from early boyhood he had made electricity his chief study, and a comfortable income saved him from the grinding struggle for bare existence that many inventors have had to endure. Although born in Bologna (in 1874) and bearing an Italian name, Marconi is half Irish, his mother being a native of Britain. Having been educated in Bologna, Florence, and Leghorn, Italy's schools may rightly claim to have had great influence in the shaping of his career. Certain it is, in any case, that he was well educated, especially in his chosen branch.
Marconi, like many other inventors, did not discover the means by which the end was accomplished; he used the discovery of other men, and turned their impractical theories and inventions to practical uses, and, in addition, invented many theories of his own. The man who does old things in a new way, or makes new uses of old inventions, is the one who achieves great things. And so it was the reading of the discovery of Hertz that started the boy on the train of thought and the series of experiments that ended with practical, everyday telegraphy without the use of wires. To begin with, it is necessary to give some idea of the medium that carries the wireless messages.
It is known that all matter, even the most compact and solid of substances, is permeated by what is called ether, and that the vibrations that make light, heat, and colour are carried by this mysterious substance as water carries the wave motions on its surface. This strange substance, ether, which pervades everything, surrounds everything, and penetrates all things, is mysterious, since it cannot be seen nor felt, nor made known to the human senses in any way; colourless, odourless, and intangible in every way, its properties are only known through the things that it accomplishes that are beyond the powers of the known elements. Ether has been compared by one writer to jelly which, filling all space, serves as a setting for the planets, moons, and stars, and, in fact, all solid substances; and as a bowl of jelly carries a plum, so all solid things float in it.
Heinrich Hertz discovered that in addition to the light, heat, and colour waves carried by ether, this substance also served to carry electric waves or vibrations, so that electric impulses could be sent from one place to another without the aid of wires. These electric waves have been named “Hertzian waves,” in honour of their discoverer; but it remained for Marconi, who first conceived their value, to put them to practical use. But for a year he did not attempt to work out his plan, thinking that all the world of scientists were studying the problem. The expected did not happen, however. No news of wireless telegraphy reached the young Italian, and so he set to work at his father's farm in Bologna to develop his idea.
And so the boy began to work out his great idea with a dogged determination to succeed, and with the thought constantly in mind spurring him on that it was more than likely that some other scientist was striving with might and main to gain the same end.