Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Delanceyplace.com 05/22/07-Marconi

In today's excerpt--Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) invents wireless communication:

"The idea arrived in the most prosaic of ways. In the summer of 1894, when [Marconi] was twenty years old, ... he happened to acquire a copy of a journal called Il Nuovo Cimento in which he read an obituary of Heinrich Hertz (the discoverer of the electromagnetic wave). ... Something in the article produced the intellectual equivalent of a spark ... 'My chief trouble was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic that it seemed difficult to believe that no one else had thought of putting it into practice,' he said later. ...

"As a child, Marconi was possessive about electricity. He called it 'my electricity.' His experiments became more and more involved and consumed increasing amounts of time. The talent he exhibited toward tinkering did not extend to academics, however, though one reason may have been his mother's attitude toward education. 'One of the enduring mysteries surrounding Marconi is his almost complete lack of formal schooling,' wrote his grandson. ... [His mother] tutored Marconi or hired tutors for him and allowed him to concentrate on physics and electricity, at the expense of grammar, literature, history, and mathematics. ...

"In his attic laboratory Marconi found himself at war with the physical world. ... He knew that if his telegraphy without wires was ever to become a viable means of communication, he would need to be able to send signals hundreds of miles. ... The true scholar-physicist had concluded that waves must travel in the same manner as light, meaning that even if signals could be propelled for hundreds of miles, they would continue in a straight line at the speed of light and abandon the curving surface of the earth. Another man might have decided the physicists were right--that long-range communication was impossible. But Marconi saw no limits. He fell back on trial and error, at a level of intensity that verged on obsession. ... Theoreticians devised equations to explain phenomena; Marconi cut wire, coiled it, snaked it, built apparatus, and flushed it with power to see what would happen, a seemingly mindless process but one governed by the certainty that he was correct. ...

"[Years later, in 1909, after he successfully began transmitting wirelessly across the Atlantic Ocean] the overseers of the eight-year-old Nobel prizes awarded the prize for physics to Marconi, ... an immense honor and utterly unexpected, for he had never considered himself a physicist. ... And he frankly admitted that he still did not fully understand why he was able to transmit across the Atlantic, only that he could. As he put it, 'Many facts connected with the transmission of electric waves over great distances still await a satisfactory explanation.' "

suggested by a delanceyplace reader

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, Crown, 2006, pp. 15-25, 312.


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