There are three things you should know about Guglielmo Marconi: (1) He was a business visionary more than an inventor, (2) he bet on a technology that ultimately proved a dead end, and (3) Marconi dominated the early market but was forced (by the U.S. government) to sell Marconi America before radio broadcasting took off.
Scientists could observe Hertz’s invisible electromagnetic waves for themselves; his experiments were simple and repeatable. They could also see that Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field correctly predicted the waves. But they still could not envision practical applications for Hertzian waves.
The young Italian Guglielmo Marconi was incredulous. Though a rank amateur with no academic credentials, he was certain there must be practical applications for Hertzian waves. So sure, in fact, he saw wireless communications as his ticket to fame and fortune.
It’s easy to criticize the late 19th century science establishment for its lack of imagination. But the establishment had a point. The telegraph sprouted a worldwide network. For the first time in history, news raced around the globe in minutes. Heinrich Hertz only demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could traverse the length of his cramped laboratory. There was no evidence that wireless could link neighboring towns—let alone bridge the immense distances already spanned by undersea telegraph cables.
The newer telephone also argued for wire: No one had a clue how to send voice over wireless—if it was even possible.
Marconi’s gift was his business acumen. He was the first person to take wireless out of the halls of academia and plant it firmly in the marketplace. He understood instinctively that pitting wireless against existing cable-based services would invite fierce opposition. He wisely pursued applications for which wires were useless or prohibitively expensive, such as communicating at sea or across rugged terrain.
Ironically, Marconi bet on a technology that ultimately proved a dead end. Knowing that everything hinged on communicating over long distances, he took Hertz’s sparks and made them larger. They became so large, in fact, that they resembled lightning bolts—replete with thunder claps. What Marconi didn’t know is that sparks are inefficient, defy tuning (to prevent interference), and are almost impossible to modulate (to carry speech). Marconi the technologist could not keep up with Marconi the business visionary.
-Page 83, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses
Ironically, Marconi succeeded because he could see markets that did not yet exist, but when a better technology (continuous wave radio) emerged he was slow to abandon his trusted spark radio.
Next time: How Reginald Fessenden Put Wireless on the Right Technological Footing