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Mystifying Marconi

A portrait of a man in suit and tie
Guglielmo Marconi in 1909

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Provincetown Independent entitled The Marconi Mythology. This makes the claim that “His ideas were derived from spiritualism, a pseudo-religious movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries by which people sought to commune with the spirit world.” It also claims that Marconi believed that “sound never disappears from Earth” and that one could potentially construct a device to recover the sound of the angels singing in Bethlehem!

This last claim is the more extrordinary. But I can find no evidence that it is true. Not only can I find nothing to connect Marconi with these ideas, I can find nothing online to suggest that the possiblility of recovering “lost sounds” is even a known belief.

The idea that he might have been interested in spiritualism is at least plausible. A number of well-known figures of the day were receptive to the idea of communicating with the dead including Sir Arthur Conan Doyl, biologist Alfred Russell Wallace, and English physicist and radio pioneer Oliver Lodge. But Marconi does not seem to have been one of them.

The writer of the article in the Independent, apparently seeking confirmation of what he was told, makes repeated attempts to read the paranormal into Marconi’s statements on the science of radio. For example:

In correspondence provided to the Independent by the Huntington Library in California, Marconi discussed the day-to-day operations of his stations with his lead engineer and friend Richard Vyvyan, who supervised construction of the South Wellfleet station and managed station operations in Nova Scotia. In a letter dated Aug. 5, 1903, Marconi wrote: “I have been working very hard to try and find out what are the somewhat occult causes which make sounds good one night and unobtainable the next.”

This was written barely six months after Marconi’s first successful trans-Atlantic message. They are discussing why contact with Europe is intermittent. The causes of this variability are “occult” in the sense that they are obscure. And they will remain obscure until 1924 when Edward V. Appleton demonstrates that there is an unstable layer in the upper atmosphere which reflects radio waves back down to earth. This is how Marconi was able to communicate with stations beyond the curve of the earth. Changes in this layer from night to night are now known to be the cause of the inconsistent results. For finally explaining Marconi’s observations Appleton received the 1947 Nobel Prize in physics. The author of this article seems to be unfamiliar with both the history of radio and 19th-century uses of the word “occult“.

And there are more strange assertions:

And Marconi’s own confusion about the science behind his success didn’t help his case. When in 1897 the journalist H.J.W. Dam asked him about differences between types of electromagnetic waves, Marconi professed ignorance.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I am not a scientist, but I doubt if any scientist can yet tell. I have a vague idea that the difference lies in the form of the wave.” Dam concluded that the “mystery of the ether” underlay Marconi’s work with the wireless; Marconi, a devout Catholic, chalked it up to God.

This interpretation of Marconi’s statement is mistaken. The interview is online where we can read it: THE NEW TELEGRAPHY – An Interview with Signor Marconi (March 1897). Marconi shows no signs of confusion about how radio works. In fact he explains it at some length. They are talking about his recent observation that he is able to communicate with a station 3/4 of a mile away even though there is a hill in the way. The interviewer asks him how his apparatus is able to do this when the apparatus demonstrated by Heinrich Hertz ten years earlier could not. Marconi says he is unable to speak freely while his patent is pending, but that it seems to be due to the “form of the wave” (likely what we today would call antenna polarization). The interviewer asks about the radio frequency used. Both conjectures are reasonable.

Marconi is not a scientist in the sense that he is not a physicist like Maxwell, Hertz, or Lodge. He is an inventor who seeks to develop their work into a pratical method of communication across long distances without wires. His tinkering is producing unexpected observations which physicists are better qualified to address theoretically. For his achievements in wireless communication this non-scientist will receive the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics.

H.J.W. Dam concludes his article in which he presented the interview by saying that Marconi’s experiments are opening a field with nearly endless possibilities. That is when he refers to the “mystery of the ether”, not as something which “underlies Marconi’s work”, but as the ultimate question. Radio waves are called radio waves because they travel outward (radiate) from their point of origin like the undulations which result from casting a stone into a pond. The “ether” is a theoretical substance through which these waves were thought to move. The “mystery of the ether” is the question of what exactly it is, or if it is a real thing at all.

Contrary to what the article in the Independent implies, they did not discuss God in the interview. Nor can I find that Marconi invoke God to explain his work other than identifying radio waves as an awe-inspiring aspect of God’s creation which man studies with his blessing. Years later in 1931 he set up Vatican Radio. His words spoken at the start of the first broadcast were typical of his views on God:

“With the help of God, who places so many mysterious forces of nature at man’s disposal, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will give to the faithful of the entire world the joy of listening to the voice of the Holy Father.”

While it is true that a number of 19th-century scientists were interested in spiritualism, the only connection I can find between Marconi and spiritualism is an article from the Los Angeles Herald of January 8, 1907 entitled Convert Marconi to Spiritualism. It claims that the Princess d’Antuni del Drago has converted Marconi to spiritualism. The principle source for the article is the princess herself. The article begins by noting that:

Marconi has always been regarded as intensely practical. He was not known to take an interest in anything outside of the material and scientific except art and history.

The princess says that when Marconi remarked at an entertainment they both attended that “he did not believe in spiritualism” she invited him to a seance at her house and believes he left fully convinced and “determined to study the subject scientifically”.

Even if we were to accept the Princess del Drago’s impression that Marconi left her house converted to spiritualism in 1907, this refutes rather than supports the claim of the Independent that spiritualism was the basis of his radio work since he began that work starting around 1890.

Then we have this very interesting statement:

Roboy chronicles a 1919 interview in which Marconi claimed to have received “vibrations” from extraterrestrials on other stars and planets.

This is partially true, but again tweaked to sound paranormal. I have not found an interview in which Marconi uses the word “vibrations”, but in this context they would be “vibrations of the ether”, i.e., radio waves. I did find an article entitled Hello, Earth! Hello! from the Tomahawk, White Earth, Minn. of March 18, 1920 which quotes him as follows:

I have encountered during my experiments with wireless telegraphy most amazing phenomena. Most striking of all is the receipt by me personally of signals which I believe originated in the space beyond our planet. I believe it is entirely possible that these signals may have been sent by the inhabitants of other planets to the inhabitants of earth.

The article quotes Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison commenting favorably on Marconi’s views on the possible intelligent origins of extraterrestrial radio signals. (Tesla had reported signals from space 18 years earlier in an article entitled Talking with the Planets in Collier’s Weekly.) Albert Einstein and the late Professor Lowell (of the canals of Mars) are both quoted as favorable to the idea of intelligent life on Mars. Dr. C.G. Abbot, director of the Smithsonian astrophysical observatory suggests that the extraterrestrial radio signals are coming from Venus instead since Mars is too cold for life.

As quoted in the 1920 article Tesla calls for financing of radio astronomy:

Marconi’s idea of communicating with the other planets is the greatest and most fascinating problem confronting the human imagination today. To insure success a body of competent scientists should be organized to study all possible plans and put into execution the best. The matter should be directed probably by astronomers with sufficient backing from men with money and imagination. Supposing that there are intelligent human beings on Mars, success is easily within the range of possibility. In March, 1907, I stated in the Harvard Illustrated Magazine that experiments looking to communicate with other planets should be undertaken.

The idea of life on Mars may seem silly today, but belief in it was mainstream into the 1960’s. And the search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations continues. The Breakthrough Listen project which started in 2020 has $100 million dollars in funding over 10 years.

So I think the thesis that Marconi’s experiments in radio were driven by mystical belief or an interest in the paranormal fails.

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