Marconi's War on Time and Space
Father of radio battles
Guglielmo Marconi was everything people were supposed to admire in the late 19th Century. A globetrotting son of privilege at time when empires were snatching up the last unclaimed bits of land on earth, he wanted to conquer an invisible country that had only recently been discovered: “electromagnetism.” After years of learning by experiment, Marconi was able to patent the first consumer radio devices in history. While he did not “discover” radio, his achievement was to make it available to the masses for the very first time.
Which is not to say that most people could actually afford his equipment, which was priced beyond the means of most individuals. Rather, his inventions allowed anyone to enter a Marconi office, much as they had used Western Union beforehand, and send a telegram by radio instead of wire. Marconi’s network also distributed news on a subscription model; newspapers received the news via their own radio stations, paying monthly fees to run his stories. This was especially useful for ships at sea. Passengers leaving and going craved news about those places. The only way to know what was happening on land, ahead or behind, was by radio. Most steam liners had on-board newspaper printing operations that republished Marconi’s news.
In the photo of Marconi above, the paper tape in his hand goes with the Morse inker machine below it. As long as signal strength is good, the machine can print out the dots and dashes of an incoming message, allowing the radio operator to leave his post without relief. Like Morse code, it is a technology for the telegraph that has been adapted for wireless uses. The “spark gap” transmitter by his left elbow, on the right side of the image, is quite primitive by our standards. As suggested by the name, it creates a signal by passing an electric spark through the air gap between the anode and diode tips of the two adjustable arms, which are how the operator sets the wavelength. Early radio tech looks quite “steampunk” to modern eyes. Although film versions of Mary Shelley’s famous monster-maker were still decades in the future, Marconi’s equipment would have seemed right at home in most cinematic depictions of Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Radio was instantly associated with modernity. Whereas wired communication at light speed had obvious advantages in business, finance, or any realm where time is money, “wireless” light speed communication added the freedom of movement, as no one had to be fixed to any single spot in order to communicate with any other station anywhere, at least in theory. We take these freedoms for granted now, but they were revolutionary at the time, and they did not go unnoticed by the powerful.
Among the first to appreciate the possibilities of radio was Admiral Sir Henry Jackson of the Royal Navy. Engineering his own transmission equipment in cooperation with Marconi, Jackson was the first to send a radio signal from a ship in 1897. In 1901, after Marconi had publicly demonstrated his ability to send a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean, Jackson conducted the very first experiments in radio signal jamming. Marconi was not even finished bringing his products to market before they were being weaponized.
When European war broke out in 1914, Marconi put his offices across Britain at the service of the War Department, providing them with radio direction-finding equipment. Civilian wireless operators were enlisted to observe German radio traffic and communicate it to the Whitehall operation that would become known as Room 40. Marconi the inventor was intimately involved in the foundation and creation of military radio and radio intelligence, two of the three electromagnetic activities this author considers to be hallmarks of “modern” conflict.
Of course, other armies and navies were the first to actually use radio in war. In 1905, after a six-month trip around the world, the Russian Baltic Fleet produced so much radio traffic that the Imperial Japanese Navy had good warning of their approach. Sailing out at the right time to intercept them in the Tsushima Strait, the IJN was able to inflict an embarrassing total defeat on the Russian Navy.
Then, in 1911, Marconi’s paternal country invaded Libya. Italy was a new nation looking to restore a part of their ancient past by conquering a piece of the Ottoman Empire. Presaging his cooperation in the Great War to follow, Marconi’s offices provided signal support, although this time their main use was to declare the glorious victories of the Italian Army. Armed with aircraft and machine guns, they chased mounted tribesmen from the coastal regions to the deserts, where resistance would continue for twenty years.
One war correspondent in this second conflict, Fillipo Tomasso Marinetti, was already a great admirer of Marconi. Writing his “Futurist Manifesto” in 1908, the young Marinetti referred to this new age of instant communication when he announced that “time and space died yesterday.” The old order of Europe, represented by leading articles and proud museums, was to be destroyed through the “eternal, omnipresent speed” of machines rolling from factories. Airplanes, motorcars, trains, even bicycles would smash the stultified continent to smithereens. Coming six years before Albert Einstein published his field equations, Marinetti’s words are a prescient recognition that the universe had been altered in some fundamental way now that the fastest thing in it was being mastered by human hands. Now, everything only moved in relation to everything else.
As the reader may already know, Marinetti’s Futurist School formed the artistic-intellectual foundation of Italian fascism. Marconi did not shy away from the association. On the contrary, he embraced it. Referring to radio waves as “fasces,” he had even anticipated the symbol of Mussolini’s party. During the formative “Free State of Fiume” between 1920 and 1924, Marconi visited the city with militaristic pomp, shook hands with Gabriele D’Annunzio, and rode through the streets alongside the dapper proto-fascist in his open-topped sportscar. Although Marconi and D’Annunzio would die before the Second World War, they were essential figures in its origin story.
Marinetti lived to see it all. He was wounded at Isonzo and “served” on Hitler’s Eastern Front. He lived long enough to see Italy and its fascist leader defeated, in no small part due to their complete lack of radar technology. He had called war “hygiene” and “the only cure for the world” in 1908, by which he meant the world of nostalgia and tradition. Inspired and propagated by radio, this artistic-intellectual fever had burned the old world away, to be sure.
Radio had also made fundamental changes to human conflict. Marconi had developed the basic elements of an electronics revolution that followed. Vacuum tubes were invented very late in the First World War, and then the development of radar for the Second World War required the invention of computers. Using radar, American bombers targeted Japanese cities, while US Navy antiaircraft guns aimed at where the kamikaze planes would be rather than where they were as the cannons fired. Weaponized electromagnetism was so important to the Cold War that Nixon’s JCS chair famously observed that the “winner” of any nuclear conflict would be the side that best commanded and controlled “the electromagnetic spectrum.” Ice Station Zebra — the classic film with Rock Hudson, Patrick Macgoohan, and Ernest Borgnine — opens with credits over a series of radar installations watching the sky. The plot of the film revolves around a satellite-dropped film canister. Less than a decade after the film was made, this method of receiving surveillance images from space was rendered obsolete by the digital camera, an invention which allows transmission to earth over radio waves.
Even in the 21st Century, radio energy is the force multiplier and communications glue that makes global and tactical mobilization possible, while electromagnetic threats are almost completely democratized. Marconi’s war against time and space has been evolved by continuous engineering into the smart phone you are probably holding, or have in your pocket, or near at hand, while you read this. Every cell tower is an approach trench to the conflicts of our age. Marconi fathered a new world that is infinitely small, transforming everyone into connected points on the globe, no matter where they go, or how fast, or how violently.