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In Our Time: The Invention of Radio

Melvyn Bragg

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The Invention of Radio

After the programme John Liffen said that Marconi succeeded because he did not know that what he was trying to do was impossible. Oddly enough it reminded me of Paul McCartney and the first South Bank Show I did, when he said he didn’t learn to read music because when he went to a music teacher the one time they told him what he couldn’t do, and he thought that some of his best songs were breaking the rules that they told him he couldn’t break. Liffen also added that those who succeed commercially often don’t know the science. This may apply across the board, I don’t know.

Simon Schaffer said that he thought the story of the invention of radio was a story of necessity, driving the scientists, one after the other. Elizabeth Bruton, who previously worked on the Marconi Collection in Oxford, said that after the radio came out, crank letters came in from people claiming that the radio was responsible for hurting their legs, or that it might blow up any adjacent gunpowder.

Bob Nettles, the studio manager, who seems to choose the science programmes because of his own background, actually whoopee’d when the phrase ‘thermionic valve’ was mentioned. He thought he would never hear that on In Our Time.

We didn’t have the opportunity to talk of the influence that the capture of the notorious murderer Dr Crippen, and later the sinking of the Titanic, had on the eventual success of radio. In 1910 Crippen and his lover fled across the Atlantic on the SS Montrose, which was equipped with a Marconi wireless. The ship’s captain recognised Crippen and sent a message to London. The police were able to catch a faster ship to Quebec and were there waiting for him. Two years later it was discovered that more people could have been saved from the Titanic if the radio operator on the nearest ship had not been asleep.

Lodge, who was very unlucky in this chain of developments, was also a spiritualist, it turns out. The Victorians thought that mind reading was a form of communication through the ether, rather like radio waves (Dickens also believed in mind reading, as you know). But because of his spirituality his stock in the scientific world fell spectacularly until recently, when his full credit has been given. His patent, being ahead of that of Marconi, was used by Marconi who employed him as a consultant, although I guess Marconi would not pay him very much.

A lot of Marconi’s first fortune went on fighting for his patents globally. This was almost immediately a global business. English lawyers were the worst because they were also scientists. They cost him a fortune, but he was determined to hunt down monopolies wherever he could. Simon Schaffer has the great gift of dropping in a gem, eg: Marconi’s best man was Mussolini, or Marconi’s assistant was his butler.

Otherwise, a pretty busy week. Back from Philadelphia last Friday morning and off to York to give a talk, and then on the Saturday to Leeds with Tom Morris for the final interviews for the Radio 4 programme on the Braggs, father and son, who made the discovery which brought them a joint Nobel Prize a hundred years ago. Then to an event at Leeds University where benefactors were duly thanked. Slowly, British universities are tilting towards the American system and resurrecting the 19th century habit of substantial philanthropy.

Trafalgar Square was full of Canadians for a Canadian festival. Flags, people, hockey being played in the square, football being played in the square, bands, excitement. London is enormously alive. Pavements thronged with people, especially (yes) eager, stylish, young, French students. Walking at the edge of the road is now becoming a common occurrence in London.

So there we are for another season. Many thanks to Ingrid and to you for all your responses.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: Last word about the beer. In the last two newsletters I quoted Benjamin Franklin as saying that “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. But it seems he may never have said it. An American listener has been in touch to let us know that this well-known witticism is actually a misquotation. In a letter in 1779, Franklin wrote: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” After all that, Franklin was talking about wine, not beer. Well, now we know.

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