Bologna, Italy is the birthplace of the inventor of radio, Gugliermo Marconi.
Steve Ahern visited the villa where it all began.
While in Bologna after the recent RadioDays conference, I made the trip out of town to Villa Griffoni, the house where Marconi conducted his first experiments with radio. It is now the home of the Marconi Museum.
Villa Griffoni was built at the end of the 17th century by the Griffoni family and bought by the Marconi family in the mid 19th century. Marconi, the child of an Italian father and Irish mother, grew up between this villa and the family house in town. When he began his experiments he asked if he could move to the villa full time to conduct his experiments.
He set up a workshop in the top room of the house overlooking the family’s farm land behind the villa.
At the back of the house is a small hill, part of the rolling hills of the Emilia-Romagna province. After he established that his spark technology worked, this hill was the first obstacle for Marconi and the place where he would prove that his invention was able to carry radio waves beyond the line of sight.
Marconi had already proved that radio waves can carry over short line-of-sight distances, but he was not sure whether they would carry over hills, over water, or around the curvature of the earth. After perfecting his invention, Marconi sent his colleagues over the Celestini Hill (pictured below) with receiving equipment and, setting up the transmitter next to a strangely shaped transmission aerial out the back of the house, he sent a signal over the hill that activated a sound and light on the receiver. When the signal was received, his assistants fired a shot to let him know his experiment was a success and that his radio signals would carry beyond the line of sight.
That day in 1895 was a crucial step in the development of radio, and by 1901 Marconi had succeeded in transmitting a signal from Europe to Australia, demonstrating that radio waves could travel around the world.
His device was originally used to transmit Morse Code, but by the end of the first world war, the technology was able to transmit sound, enabling radio broadcasting as we know it today.
In the mansion, replicas of Marconi’s original, hand-made vacuum tubes sit on his work bench and visitors can experience the original spark technology equipment that was used to send that first signal.
The museum and research centre were incredibly welcoming to a radio enthusiast from Australia and demonstrated the workings of the Marconi-gram to me during my visit to the villa and the mausoleum which now sits below it (pictured below)
Marconi’s invention was not originally called radio (a variation of an Latin/Italian word meaning to radiate), it was named after the telegram, because Marconi initially envisaged that his invention would convey point-to-point signals from one transmitting station to another. He did not initially intend the Marconi-gram to be a point-to-multipoint communications technology, as we know it today. His aim was to simplify telegram communications.
Operators of the Marconi system were originally trained and employed by the Marconi company, and assigned to locations which had bought the Marconi transmitting equipment, including ships at sea.
Marconi’s original experiments were funded by his family, but then the British government, a big player in sea power with a world wide empire, saw the benefit of Marconi’s system and backed the invention, purchasing Marconi devices for its ships and setting the Marconi company on its course for international success.
Commercial ships soon also installed Marconi wireless transmitting devices for ship to shore communications and for emergencies. It was because the Titanic had a Marconi radio transmitter on board (pictured) that nearby ships heard its distress signal and 700 people were rescued when the ship sank.
There were many other inventors who contributed to the science behind radio, but it was Marconi’s genius and persistence that brought together the transmitting and receiving ends of the technology and marketed them in a way that quickly caught the imagination of a generation. He was the one who put the idea of a transmission antenna (pictured below) together with an earthed receiver to complete the loop and achieve the passage of a spark-induced electrical impulse from the transmitter to the receiver.
In his initial invention, the iron filings inside his home-made vacuum tube could only be used once without being reset, so Marconi also invented a gentle tapping device which would tap the tube and reset the filings so subsequent signals could be received. He created all the original devices with his own hands at his workbench on the top floor of Villa Griffoni.
Less than 20 years after the experiment that sent a signal over a hill in his back paddock, radio was an international technology that spawned wireless telegraphy, then the radio broadcast industry, then television, then mobile phones and wifi technology.
Villa Griffoni was bombed and plundered during World War 2 and it has taken many years to restore it to the treasure house it is today, celebrating the work and legacy of Marconi. If you can get to Bologna it is well worth a visit (ring for an appointment, a small entry fee is payable).
About the Author
Steve is the founding editor of this website.
He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd. He is a regular writer and speaker about future trends in media.