Canadian Journal of Communication
Vol 42 (2017)
©2017 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation
Simon Fraser University
Marc Raboy’s Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World is an admirable and prodigious work. In a time when publishers routinely prevail upon authors to cut to “essentials,” Raboy’s 863-page work, complete with 136 pages of notes and a 35-page index, is robust to say the least and a stupendous deployment of information and analysis. It is also a pleasure to read for the information it presents about Guglielmo Marconi, the thorough understanding of Canadian broadcasting and policy, and the general Canadian academic perspective that Raboy brings to the subject.
The page count translates into a commendable thoroughness that, at times, is a little unforgiving. It allows Raboy to claim, perhaps egged on by the endorsements of others on the back cover, that his is a definitive biography. Vint Cerf characterizes the book as “by far the most comprehensive rendering;” Monroe E. Price calls it “comprehensive, rounded, readable, and deeply researched;” and Susan J. Douglas describes it as “An obvious labour of love, this is the definitive biography.” The term “definitive” is rooted in marketing: the substance of Raboy’s claim lies in his extensive research and his sourcing of virtually all but his few, flagged, personal comments.
Against the background Marconi’s paternal family history in Italy and maternal family history in Britain, and mention of the many scientists, engineers, and hobbyists who were all working to understand electromagnetism and electromagnetic waves at the time, Raboy presents Marconi centre stage with his not entirely original “thought” in 1895 that electromagnetic waves might be used to communicate wirelessly over considerable distances. This “thought” was based on Heinrich Hertz’s 1886 and 1887 demonstration of electromagnetic waves (a characteristic of electromagnetism)—which itself came about against a background of early nineteenth-century explorations of electricity and electromagnetism—and James Clerk Maxwell’s 1860s definitive, formulaic, linking of electricity, magnetism, and light. Marconi’s contribution was one of application and more precisely, organized the exploitation of electromagnetism for communication. It appears that in his early work he was unsure if he was using electromagnetic or Hertzian waves or something else entirely.
As Raboy tells it, borrowing the term from technology historian Sungook Hong, Marconi’s practical approach was “homological,” it amounted to attempts to communicate as one would by wire, minus the wire. It is an easy point to read and set aside. However, the matter is critical to understanding Marconi’s “genius.” Throughout the book, as it details Marconi’s indefatigable search for reliable, long-distance, wireless communication, one has the Raboy-encouraged feeling that Marconi may not have fully understood why certain of his experiments worked while others did not. Like many others, he was a tinkerer or, to give his approach greater gravitas, he was a bricoleur. He had no theory. Only on page 673, when the story is effectively over, does Raboy cite Marconi’s early and close collaborator, Charles S. Franklin, who elaborates on the homological point. Years after Marconi had announced the beam system, largely based on Franklin’s work, to the world, Franklin noted:
You can’t call him a scientist but perhaps because he was not a scientist he had intuitions he gambled on and which in many cases confounded the scientists. … His scientific knowledge was weak, his engineering knowledge was weak, but he had a damned lot of intuition and common sense. He may have initiated the beam system but he didn’t know a thing about it. (p. 673)
As an aid to understanding I would have greatly appreciated reading Franklin’s assessment far earlier, even in Raboy’s prologue. The beam system, by the way, used short waves and both cut out static and, because the signals sent bounced off any metal object in their path, was an early demonstration of radar. Incidentally, this non-scientist, non-engineer won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909.
As one might expect, the opening sections of the narrative are composed of the early and many trials of wireless transmission, at first in the form of sparks received as event signals at ever-increasing distances, especially across salt water. These trials led up to the December 12 and 13, 1901, transmissions of signals sent from England and received in Newfoundland. Marconi and his chief assistant, George Kemp, recorded these “sigs” in ink rather than pencil in their notebooks with no comment. (No Eureka here.) So low-key were these notations that, as Raboy notes, there was some suggestion the “sigs” may not have actually been received. Whether that is the case, a few months later Marconi contacted a ship that was a further distance from the sending station than Newfoundland.
Throughout the book, amid reports of these and other wireless-related events, Raboy scatters Marconi’s personal affairs, his relationship to his mother and father, his Italianness in Britain, his Britishness in Italy, and his relations with his various paramours and wives. Here are some highlights. Throughout his life, Marconi “fell for” a number of attractive young women, who were often adventuresome loners. Often the allure was not long lasting. Many times he would travel with his latest flame and open doors for their ambitions. Raboy goes into little depth on the degree of intimacy, partly, one assumes, because the sources are curiously lacking. His first marriage was characterized by long separations: wherever his wife was, it seemed he was elsewhere. He loved rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous, including royalty and the pope. And while one might argue that such relationships with power were entirely appropriate given that radio communication was so fundamentally transforming societies, Raboy portrays his attraction to position and power as a personality-based phenomenon, as well as a calculated strategic alliance. Certainly his cozying up to power is interesting: while his company was aggressive in patenting and protecting its patents (think of Silicon Valley), he often took on an unassuming pose, perhaps not falsely, and gave in graciously once he realized he had little choice (forget Silicon Valley).
Marconi’s personage and business dynamics combined to create an amoral character. He appeared to be as excited by the opportunities presented by war as he was enamoured by beautiful, ambitious, young women. And even though he talked of radio communication as an instrument of peace, at the first sign of war he would keenly offer his services and equipment, sometimes to both sides. His brush with diplomacy—he was a plenipotentiary representative at the Treaty of Versailles where, according to Raboy, his ideas were given little heed—together with his experience with the frustrating political and social dynamics of Italy and his attraction to power, may have encouraged him to align himself early with the reformist Mussolini (prior to Mussolini being Nazified). Setting aside his love of the business opportunities of war and the glories of Italy and nationhood—he supported Mussolini’s colonial invasion of Ethiopia—given his epoch, position, and interests, and his keen desire to be effective, he comes across fairly impressively as a person of social principle unafraid to be frank with Mussolini and to keep his distance from at least some egregious policies. His independence of mind faded as he lost power and influence toward the end of his life. The brain, and thus the person, changes in old age.
Raboy resists until very late in his book in using the term “rock star.” Yet, clearly, beginning early in his career and his life—when he was in his 20s—the man was a, perhaps even the, global celebrity who attracted surprisingly large adoring crowds, including many young American women. Equally, he was pandered to by presidents, potentates, and CEOs, and bestowed with the highest honours by Japan’s emperor and Russia’s emperor czar. Maintaining a sense of human decency in the face of such behaviour can be challenging both for women and men.
For me, these dynamics reflect Marconi’s existential status: as a scientist and an engineer Marconi would have had an identity as an outstanding member of a professional community with not just a knowledge base but a set of prevailing perspectives and methodologies. Without either professional foundation, Marconi was freer to explore without preconceptions. This position bespeaks an identity closer to that of an artist such as van Gogh, where personal vision generates insight or expression without peer. Press accounts of the day, the most pertinent being those labelling him a magician in the best sense of that word, suggest that Marconi reflected that self-vision. Objective distance was not a feature of Marconi’s relations with the press. Indeed, one can trace the ascendency of the New York Times to its preferential arrangements with Marconi.
Although neither scientist nor engineer, against a background of magnificent bricoleurship, it was Marconi and Marconi alone who could persuade both rulers and governments of the power of wireless communication. While we learn of the impact of some of his official testimony, it is insufficient to understand the nature of Marconi’s persuasive powers. Like Marshall McLuhan, Marconi was clearly a visionary and, as Raboy reminds us, it was McLuhan who perceived what Marconi sensed and we all now know: radio communication in the broadest sense has been and continues to be as powerful in human affairs as the development of movable type and printing. Even scientists and engineers recognized his public appeal, as did the senior executives of the Marconi Company.
The company history that Raboy provides is a little underdeveloped in that it leaves certain elements unexplained. From the beginning, Marconi and his company strove for a monopoly. Why a monopoly in the context of so many involved in the exploration of electromagnetic phenomena? And how does a patent on “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals and in Apparatus There-for” become a monopoly on all electromagnetic communication, which the Germans, and then the whole world would not accept? The answer(s) appears to lie in a) business-wise members of Marconi’s mother’s family, the Jamesons of Irish whisky fame; b) the history of the development of intellectual property laws, particularly patent laws, heavily used in applications of electricity; c) British imperialism and its use of monopolies (e.g., the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay); and d) the monopoly over the mail by the British General Post Office. It is lucky in modern times that Tim Berners-Lee did not pursue patents for the World Wide Web. Or, given the dark forces of the internet, maybe not.
Whatever background might be useful to understand Marconi and his company’s pursuit of monopoly, the refusal of the Marconi Company to send and receive messages from other equipment, the leasing of equipment rather than selling it, and the insistence that only trained Marconi operators could use Marconi equipment were all overplays of the company’s monopoly card. Most intriguing is how Marconi handled such matters: in the face of excessive backlash, Marconi stepped in as an individual to make a decorous retreat, thereby reinforcing his dual identity as a trustworthy friend of power as distinct from an aggressive capitalist enterprise. It was a ruse. As Marconi once said, nothing in the company happened without his approval.
Marconi deployed this duality on the world stage at least twice. The first time was when the Germans led a refusal to approve Marconi’s patent filings, starting with the Berlin Conference on Wireless Telegraphy in 1903 out of which, eventually, grew telecommunications and broadcast regulation. The second was in response to American reluctance to allow a foreign company to control radio communication within the U.S. It is fascinating to read how the masters of rhetoric on free flows of information, free trade, and in general, freedom of enterprise—all advanced under individual freedom of consumers—enforced domestic ownership on American Marconi. No law was put in place, there was just a refusal on the part of the US government to act.
Still other major issues receive Raboy’s attention although understanding their significance requires additional reading. Insider trading is one. How unusual it was for the time is beyond the purview of Raboy’s book. The role of Vatican Radio in the development of radio-based propaganda is another. But for me the management issues surrounding the personalization of intellectual property developed within the Marconi Company is the most intriguing. While companies usually claim control of the intellectual properties of their employees, employees often receive internal recognition by means of bonuses and even royalties. With Marconi so often receiving credit for new breakthroughs, undercurrents of discontent among some Marconi employees—perhaps discernable in Franklin’s comments about Marconi’s common sense and intuition—and transitioning to a normal corporate structure were bound to have been management issues. As a reader, I had the impression that Marconi was not a grasping egoist so much as he loved being exploited as a celebrity. I was also, for whatever reason, pleased to learn that Marconi died with less than $300,000 in assets of which $10,000 was cash. He was neither poor nor rich.
In all, if you missed my muted admiration, this is a magnificent book about the life and times of Guglielmo Marconi and how radio communication writ large has changed the nature of human society. Thanks, Marc.