Marconi nurtured his Irish connection

The Italian entrepreneur Marconi pioneered the development of radio transmission and he spent most of his life commuting between…

The Italian entrepreneur Marconi pioneered the development of radio transmission and he spent most of his life commuting between his twin pivots London and Bologna. Less is known however about the powerful influence Ireland exerted on the young businessman, not least given both his mother and his first wife were Irish.

Marconi's experiences with the Irish are detailed in Marconi, The Irish Connection, written by University College Cork emeritus professor Michael Sexton.

Marconi had a strong interest in Ireland, says Sexton. He set up eight radio transmission stations here and although he never lived in Ireland, he was here during the construction and operation of all the stations.

Born in 1874 in a villa outside Bologna, Marconi could have played for Ireland given his birthright. His mother was Annie Jameson of the famous Irish whiskey Jamesons. "She was born and reared at Enniscorthy where Jameson had a distillery," Sexton says.


It was his mother who nurtured the young Guglielmo Marconi's interest in experiments in electromagnetism, then the coming thing in science. "He was a self taught man. He had no formal training," says Sexton.

"His mother gave him colossal encouragement to do experiments. He experimented in the attic." She lined him up in a job as assistant to a local professor of electromagnetics. "She brought him to London and introduced him to the chief engineer of the British Post Office, Sir William Preece."

His other powerful Irish connection was his first wife. "He married Beatrice O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin's daughter of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. That marriage lasted 19 years and it resulted in Marconi taking a very strong interest in Ireland," explains Sexton. He also saw fit to depend on Irish expertise when it came to setting up companies to exploit his experimental findings. "His directors were all Irish," says Sexton.

Marconi's great skill was in recognising the potential of radio transmission, which was a novelty without a particular outlet.

"People didn't appreciate how important it was, getting rid of wires," Sexton says. "Most of the physics was known but nobody put it together. He was a gifted DIY man."

Wired telegraphy was then the latest communications technology, with transmissions moving over wires in Morse code.

"He was the first one to make a commercial proposition out of wireless telegraphy. Most of what he did was known, but he transformed it. He made wireless transmission a commercial prospect over tens of miles as a quick replacement for wired telegraphy. He kept on refining this and concentrated on wireless telegraphy at sea."

It is likely that no one would have survived the Titanic disaster but that the doomed ship got out a wireless distress call using Marconi's invention, Sexton adds.

He moved to develop wireless telephony and in 1919 he achieved the first trans-Atlantic wireless telephone conversation between Ballybunion, Co Kerry, and Louisburg, Nova Scotia.

He may also be responsible for the first "mobile phone", a car radio telephone developed in the late 1920s.

Some of Marconi's early stations can still be visited, says Sexton. Crookhaven, Co Cork, was one of the earliest. "The ruins are still there on Brow Head."

Marconi The Irish Connection is published by the Four Courts Press

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.