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Marconi and the Welsh connection

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:10 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

Most people are familiar with the name Marconi and the position it holds in the history of radio transmission and communication.

How many people know however that Wales played a crucial role in revolutionizing the way in which we communicate over large distances? And in particular, relaying messages across our vast oceans.

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy on 25 April 1874. His parents were well-off, his father Giuseppe being a wealthy landowner and his mother, Annie, related to the whiskey producing Jameson family of Ireland.

His father wanted the young Marconi to join the navy as a cadet but Guglielmo was more interested in science than the sea.

Flat Holm (image from Gale's Photos)

With the support of his mother Guglielmo attended the Leghorn Institute and attended lectures at Bologna University (even though he wasn't enrolled). By the age of 20 he was already conducting experiments in electro-magnetic waves.

In 1895 Marconi sent a message in Morse Code over a distance of two miles on his father's vast country estate in Bologna and Marconi duly decided he should try to interest the Italian government in his findings. After several months the government replied - they could not see how Italy could possibly benefit from Marconi's experiments and findings.

Putting aside his disappointment, Marconi visited London, using the influential contacts of his mother's family. He knew that the best use of his experiments and inventions would be in creating a messaging system between ships and England, with her vast merchant and naval fleets, seemed to be the ideal customer.

Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer to the Post Office, saw the value of Marconi's work and made sure that the weight of this important government department was firmly behind him.

Marconi needed little encouragement and was soon successfully transmitting messages between the roof of the post office in London to other government buildings and demonstrated his invention to the military on Salisbury Plain.

George Kemp, a post office employee, became his assistant. With Marconi still firmly believing that the most effective use of his invention was to send messages over water, they came to south Wales. They needed an island, a mile or so off shore, with no obstructions in between.

Kemp, being a Cardiff man, knew that Flat Holm Island lay just three miles off Lavernock Point in the Vale of Glamorgan and would provide an ideal location.

Two 100-foot masts, one at Lavernock Point, the other on Flat Holm, were erected, each with an aerial at the end. On 7 May 1897 Kemp and his nephew, Herbert, sailed out to Flat Holm while Marconi set up his equipment in a field at Lavernock Point, overlooking the Bristol Channel.

11 May was a day of near gale force winds. Watched by Sir William Preece, several spectators and a German professor by the name of Adolphus Slaby, Marconi settled over his transmitter.

"How are you?" he typed. Within minutes the printer was working, recording the return message from George Kemp. History had been made and the first radio telegraph message across water had been successfully made and recorded.

A few days later Marconi repeated the performance. This time messages were sent, not to Flat Holm Island but right across the Bristol Channel to Brean Down on the English coast, a distance of nearly nine miles.

The young Italian inventor then went on to found the Marconi Company and, in due course, become a very wealthy man in his own right.

In 1898, the Italians finally recognized that they had earlier rejected the work of a genius and the Italian Navy became the first armed service in the world to install and use Marconi's invention.

In 1901 he achieved the first radio link to America on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and when, in 1909, Guglielmo Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun, it was official recognition for a far-sighted and brilliant inventor.

Marconi spent most of his later life in Italy, becoming friendly with Mussolini and even joining the Italian Fascist Party. His politics may have been reprehensible but there is no denying the value of his invention. And to think it all started in a field, overlooking the Bristol Channel.


  • Comment number 1.

    I note your comment about Marconi's politica and I probably do agree with them. But I just wonder how many of us would have done the same (I mean join the Fascist Party) if we had been in his position. I suppose we'd all like to think we wouldn't, that our humanity would have prevented us. But I do wonder.

  • Comment number 2.

    I met Mr George Kemp on many occasions during the 1930/40s when as a young boy I attended New Trinity Congregational Church and he regularly came to the Monthly Communion Service even though he was well into his Nineties. He lived in Theobald Rd in the house on the corner of Brunswick St and over the door was painted "Lavernock 1892 Flat Holm" to commemorate his part in this feat. This was removed after his death.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great story, Ivor. He must have been a fascinating man. But why on earth did they remove the inscription from over his door after he died? I would have thought people would be happy to feel part of history. As the man said, there's nowt as queer as folks.


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