Many Canadians tend to think of Guglielmo Marconi primarily as an inventor, best known for discovering the means to harness radio waves, and whose famous long-distance experiment at Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1902, ushered in a new era of global communications.
But Montreal professor Marc Raboy’s major new biography, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, paints a much more detailed picture of a complicated man, driven throughout his life by the idea that radio could be an instrument for world peace. A passionate entrepreneur with the ear of countless politicians and business leaders, Marconi was essential to developing not simply the technology, but also the political and commercial networks that made global wireless communication possible.
Moreover, as a worldwide celebrity who travelled widely and who was involved in many of the significant cultural and political developments of his day, Marconi’s life may be read as an index of early twentieth-century modernity, both the good and the bad.
Marconi is a finalist for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. Montreal Review of Books associate editor Sara Spike invited Raboy to answer a few questions about Guglielmo Marconi’s enduring significance and the experience of writing his biography.
Montreal Review of Books: Throughout the book, you draw many parallels between Marconi and our current networked world. How is Marconi relevant to the twenty-first century?
Marc Raboy: Marconi imagined, and began to develop, the globally connected, wireless, mobile, long-distance communication environment we live in today. He was the first person to figure out how to use the newly discovered “radio waves” to send intelligent signals. And, more importantly, as soon as he did this – in 1895, at the age of twenty-one, across a room in his parents’ attic in Bologna, Italy – he had the intuition that it would be possible to send messages from anywhere to anywhere else on Earth. He spent the rest of his life developing his “system,” as he called it, beginning with wireless Morse code telegraphy, then shortwave radio, and eventually working with microwaves. At various points, he foresaw the cellphone, fax machine, television, radar, and tasers.
Marconi’s relevance today, when we are experiencing an unprecedented storm of technological innovation that would have mystified even him, is to help us understand that technology alone is not a force for change – it depends on how it is harnessed and used, by whom, and to what ends. Marconi, sadly, embraced the authoritarian regime of Benito Mussolini, believing that he would be able to exercise a moderating influence on the fascist dictator and, of course, he was wrong. When I was writing the book, I became fascinated by this aspect of Marconi’s character – his attraction to power and conformity with political authority – and treated it as a historical and psychological anomaly. But now, when I see how some Silicon Valley tech moguls are aligning themselves with the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and elsewhere, I see it much more politically. Marconi may have been a precursor in more ways than one.
mRb: You suggest that science and technology were almost a means to an end for Marconi, that he was primarily interested in the possibilities afforded by the rapid circulation of information and ideas. You argue that his major contribution was the development and promotion of global wireless communication; he was an entrepreneur, a “networker,” even a “brand.” Was this an impression you already had before starting the project, or did it develop as your research progressed?
The Man Who Networked the World
Oxford University Press
When I began researching this project, I had a sense that Marconi would turn out to be a much more conventional person; in fact, I thought at first that I would be writing about his company. But as soon as I dipped into the archival sources I realized that he really was a unique individual, poised on the cusp of two eras and two centuries and driven by an almost monomaniacal goal. A global, cosmopolitan figure, he also suffered for being an outsider wherever he went.
mRb: How did you decide on the structure of the book? What are the challenges of biography when your subject is most famous for something he did so early in his life?
MR: I played with a few different structural approaches, but it quickly became obvious that the only way to write the book would be by following the chronological thread of Marconi’s life. The fact that his fame came so early actually made it easier and more interesting because it allowed me to cover the whole period from 1895 to 1937 coherently, and through the lens of Marconi’s experience. For example, Marconi’s 1909 Nobel Prize became an opportunity to look at the impact and surrounding politics of the Nobel prizes on the popular understanding of science and technology in the early decades of the twentieth century. Marconi was also a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War, arguably the moment that shaped the geopolitical world order that we are still living in. In 1931, he launched the world’s first international broadcasting service, Vatican Radio. Marconi touched on so many major events and social phenomena; he was really a defining figure of the emerging culture of modernity. This was implicitly recognized by his global media celebrity.
mRb: You argue the political access Marconi enjoyed was very important to him because of his sense of himself as a perpetual outsider. You write that “Marconi’s desperate need for acceptance translated into a deep … political conformity … he always, always situated himself on the side of political power, order, and authority.” This informs your discussion of Marconi’s close relationship with Benito Mussolini during the rise of fascism in Italy until his death in 1937. You suggest this is the reason Marconi has not had a substantial biography in English, but you find his relationship to power to be among the most compelling aspects of his character. Can you summarize your thoughts on this?
MR: Partly because of his name, Marconi is thought of as Italian. But he was half British – his mother, Annie Jameson, was a member of the famous Irish whiskey family. He grew up in two worlds and never fit in fully in either. He became famous and successful in England, but he always considered himself primarily Italian. For the last twenty years of his life, his main residence was a two-hundred-foot yacht that he equipped with a state-of-the-art lab for his research (funded by the British Marconi company); when in Rome he lived with his in-laws, in a grand palazzo. But he was always restless and even at the end of his life he was contemplating more travel, perhaps another move. Only his deteriorating health prevented it.
In a sense, his alignment with Mussolini was a logical move for Marconi. Mussolini was also an outsider, an underdog, he promised to “make Italy great again.” Marconi had been profoundly dismayed by the treatment of Italy by the victorious Allies after the First World War. He thought it was hypocritical that England and France continued to rule over half the world while opposing Italy’s quest for African colonies. In England, Marconi had worked with governments of all stripes: Liberal, Conservative, and Labour. Part of the early commercial success of his company came from contracts with the British Post Office and Admiralty and from selling equipment to both sides of various inter-colonial conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
Marconi certainly believed in the Eurocentric colonial system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He even had no qualms about developing communications for the murderous King of the Belgians in the Congo. In fact, he never challenged political power in any way; he accepted with equanimity when governments adopted policies designed to curb his own and his company’s power. So his initial attraction and alignment with Mussolini was not surprising; but what intrigued me was why he persisted in remaining, at least publicly, a committed member of the fascist regime, especially as, privately, he became increasingly disillusioned and even alarmed by the direction in which Mussolini was heading.
Marconi died in 1937, about eight months after Mussolini forged his historic pact with Hitler, but still more than a year before Italy adopted Nazi-like race laws, and two years before the outbreak of the war that would eventually pit his two homelands, Britain and Italy, against each other. Had he lived, what would he have done? We do not know.
mRb: How do you see this book relating to your previous work? Or do you feel it is a complete departure?
MR: A complete departure! As I mentioned, when I started my research I thought I was headed in a more conventional direction. I had done a lot of work on twentieth-century media history and, in particular, the history of media regulation: the relationship between governments and media institutions, and the efforts of state, corporate, and civil society players to influence the direction of media. That’s what led me to Marconi, as I discovered that he and his company were literally on their way to a global monopoly on using the radio spectrum at the turn of the twentieth century when the great powers of the day decided that this was just too important to leave in the hands of a single individual. This led me to start thinking of the role of individual human agency as a force of history. Marconi was able to do what he did because of his class, gender, race, and colonial privilege but millions of other men of his time had the same opportunity and made no difference to anything. He was not a “genius” as some have written, but he was in the right place at the right time and he had the focus, drive, and character that allowed him to mobilize a certain number of skills to achieve his unique goal. He also lived a fascinating life, largely of his own design.
mRb: Will you share a highlight or favourite memory from your archival research?
MR: I describe, at the very end of the book, a moment when I was working in the magnificent seventeenth-century library at the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, and I was approached by a gentleman who, at first glance, appeared to have been sent by central casting. He was a recently retired journalist, quite well known in Italy, and he too was working on a book about Marconi. We went for coffee and had the first of many interesting conversations that have continued over the years as we have become good friends. I actually have a lot of stories like that to share. My meetings with Marconi’s surviving daughter, eighty-six-year-old Elettra, who welcomed me in the house where she was born and where Marconi died. My visits to the Marconi Foundation, housed in the Villa outside Bologna where he grew up and did his first experiments. Not to mention the discovery of the file on Marconi in the remarkably accessible archives of Mussolini’s political police, which no researcher had ever looked at before. And, oh yes, his love letters which turned up in archives from Oxford to California, and points in between.