October 2003

Christian Walters


Signor Marconi's Magic Box by Gavin Weightman

It's strange that Guglielmo Marconi is mostly forgotten these days when you consider the impact his experiments and inventions have on modern life. Maybe it's being named Guglielmo, which has no workable nickname. The first time I heard his name was in the line:

Marconi played the mambo
Listen to the radio
Don't you remember, we built this city
Built this city on rock and roll.

Teaching history to a bunch of kids in the 80s is probably a nobler destiny than anything Starship could have picked for themselves.

By the way, Marconi invented the radio. Of course, knowing that doesn't make that Starship line any less stupid.

Marconi was born near Bologna, Italy, in 1874 to a reasonably wealthy Italian father and a fabulously wealthy English mother. Bologna was sporting a hefty scientific resume (both Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta lived in the area) which captured young Guglielmo's mind in ways that his dad's silkworm business never could. One day, in his attic, Marconi was working with some theories from Heinrich Hertz, when he realized there could be a way to send telegraph messages without laying miles of cable.

From there, it was a series of patents, experiments, press releases, and even a big chunk of fame. In the span of Marconi's life, he went from crackly Morse code in his attic to radio signals across the Atlantic, to the first television signals.

The next time you catch Dr. Laura on the radio, remember that it's ultimately Marconi's fault. He died in 1937, so there's not not much we can do, payback-wise.

In Signor Marconi's Magic Box, Gavin Weightman details the high points of Marconi's life compiled from newspaper clippings, diaries, and visits to the museum in his boyhood home. But Weightman mixes in more texture than you would expect from a normal biography. He spends time describing the nights in Victorian London or the spring in Wales. Marconi traveled all over Western Europe and North America testing and promoting his invention, and Weightman is adept at taking us with him to each location. It was an enjoyable trip, moreso because it was unexpected.

However, after learning the details of Marconi's life, I'm even happier that Weightman has such a gift for description. Marconi's life was mostly scandal-free. If there was an E! True Hollywood Stories about important inventors, Marconi would be a brief footnote between Ben Franklin and Ron Popeil. He had a supportive and wealthy family, he had no physical problems to overcome, he spoke English perfectly, and the closest he had to bitter enemies were skeptical scientists and the occasional snarky editorial.

(He did get divorced from his first wife, which is sort of scandalous for a Catholic in Italy at the beginning of the 20th Century. But the worst you can say about the man is that he opened the door for Sean Hannity and the "Can you hear me now?" guy to enter our lives.)

I don't mean to diminish Marconi's life, and Weightman wrote a good book filled with effective imagery. If you're curious about the origins of radio, and what went into its development, you'd likely enjoy Signor Marconi's Magic Box. But the real genius of Guglielmo Marconi is best described in physics principles and mathematics formulas, neither of which fit well in a book for the mass market.

Signor Marconi's Magic Box by Gavin Weightman
DaCapo Press
ISBN: 0306812754
320 Pages