Review

Marconi’s life and times laid bare in landmark biography

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A massive new account of the man whose vision of the potential of wireless communications foresaw much of the world we live in today is concerned just as much with his complicated personal life.

Antenore Beltrame played a fleeting but important part in the complex life of Guglielmo Marconi. Almost as significant as the events he was involved in on 25 September 1912, however, was his reaction to them.

Shortly after midday on a sunny day, Marconi was en route to Genoa behind the wheel of his new 50-horsepower, built-for-speed Fiat, just one of the accoutrements he had come to enjoy as a successful inventor and businessman. On a sharp bend on the notoriously narrow mountain roads of the Bracco ascent his car slammed into an oncoming vehicle driven by Beltrame, an expatriate businessman who had returned to Italy after 30 years in Argentina for a holiday with his family.

Marconi’s passengers, including his wife Beatrice, were mostly uninjured, but Marconi’s right eyeball had been pierced by a shard of glass. Fortunately a Royal Navy ambulance was on the scene almost immediately and he was taken in great pain to a military hospital where a specialist surgeon was summoned to remove the damaged eye.

It was characteristic of the man whose story is told in ‘Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World’ that when the bandages were removed ten days later and he could still see nothing, his first reaction was to start planning how he could continue his scientific work with the help of assistants. Fortunately his optic nerve recovered and by the end of November he was back at work equipped with an expertly made glass eye that he wore for the rest of his life.

The reaction of Beltrame, himself injured and his car a write-off, illustrates the esteem that Marconi enjoyed not just in his native land but all over the world. He told reporters: “I would have preferred to die or to have both my legs cut off, rather than to be even the unblameable cause of the accident whereof the victim is Signor Marconi, whom we all fervently admire.”

How the son of an Italian father and Irish mother exploited his stateless roots and, through a mixture of skill, tenacity, luck, vision, and timing, acquired the sort of status few engineers before or since have achieved, is told in this comprehensive account. Weighing in at almost 900 pages, and based on original research and previously unpublished archival materials, it connects significant parts of Marconi’s story from his early days in Italy to his groundbreaking experiments and beyond.

At his death in 1937, Marconi could claim to have been at the centre of just about every major innovation in electronic communication that had taken place during his professional lifetime.

Although known as the inventor of radio, his skill was really that of exploiting it. Arguably the first truly global figure in modern communications, he wasn’t just a pioneer in the technology, but among the first to think about the implications. “He was one of the pioneers of the connection between technical innovation and the corporate business model of contemporary capitalism,” Raboy claims. “Today’s communication explosion would have been inconceivable without him.”

Away from engineering, an uneasy relationship with fascism was just one of the complications in a colourful private life. There was also his relationship with the Catholic Church, the British Government, the US telecoms industry, German science and European colonialism. Not to mention the embryonic international news media.

It’s the last, which is often overlooked, that informs much of this book. A century before the internet Marconi wasn’t just creating a wireless ‘global village’, but envisioning a world without communication borders. Raboy’s evidence for Marconi’s credentials as creator of a world with Facebook, Google and YouTube is convincing. As he puts it, “Marconi’s vision leapfrogged from his time to our own.”

‘Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World’ by Marc Raboy is published by Oxford University Press (£25.00, ISBN 9780199313587)

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