Marconi Once Towered in Marion

Deep in the woods along the old railroad easement that runs behind the Town of Marion’s transfer station at Benson Brook, lies the ruins of a Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless radio station.

            Walking through the parcel now owned by the Sippican Lands Trust known as the Radio Tower parcel, one must tread carefully, as the grounds are littered with what was once used to transmit the wireless electronic signals hundreds if not thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Giant concrete foundations, enormous rusting cables and massive shards of porcelain insulators bear lasting witness that once upon a time something believed to be impossible became possible.

            On May 19, the Sippican Historical Society hosted a presentation by Frank McNamee, local antiques expert and longtime member of the society. Using materials sourced from the Cape Cod Radio Club and others, McNamee discussed the significance of the Radio Tower acreage not only to the local economy but also for what ultimately became transcontinental communications.

            The man of the hour, Marconi, was a rather dapper-titled Italian nobleman whose Irish mother launched him into the world where he would find investors willing to gamble on his inventions, primarily including wireless radio.

            But first let’s go back and note how Marconi became known as the inventor of radio.

            He was born on April 25, 1874 in the Marescalchi Palace in Bologna, later becoming the First Marquis of Marconi FRSA (Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.) While his father held a place of considerable prestige within the titled families of Italy, his mother was heir to the Jameson whisky fortune and was in her own right nobility from the Daphne Castle in Ireland. It was her money that would help jumpstart Marconi’s projects.

            It is said that as a lad and through his school years Marconi showed a keen interest in the phenomenon electricity, studying everything that could be found on the subject. He would conduct experiments at his father’s country estate, successfully sending wireless signals over a distance just exceeding one mile.

            Marconi would move his equipment to England and was introduced to the engineer-in-chief of the post office, Sir William Preece. He would demonstrate his systems capabilities transmitting across the Salisbury Plain and Bristol Channel, resulting in the formation of the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company (1897), later to be renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company LTD.

            In 1899, Marconi sent signals over a distance of 12 miles, later establishing wireless communication between France and England across the English Channel. Endlessly endeavoring to improve on earlier success, he transmitted the first wireless signals across the Atlantic between Poldhu, Cornwall, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, some 2,100 miles. Sometime in December 1902, Marconi sent signals from Wellfleet. McNamee said that Marconi most likely selected Cape Cod and Marion due to their location along the Atlantic Ocean, but that it was unlikely the man himself spent any time in Marion.

            Marconi received numerous awards for his service and inventions such as the Italian Military Medal in 1919 for his war service, along with honorary doctorates and international honors. He received the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts, was decorated with the Order of St. Anne by the Tsar of Russia, and the Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus from Italy. However, it was the Nobel Prize for Physics received in 1909 shared with Professor Karl Braun, which was his jewel in the crown.

            Wireless transmissions are known to have aided survivors of the Titanic disaster. During WWII, his yacht the Elettra was retrofitted as a warship by the Germans and later sunk by the RAF. “He had Fascist leanings,” McNamee shared.

            The Supreme Court weighed in on Marconi’s patents in 1943, returning some of the prior patents to Oliver Lodge, John Stone and Nikola Tesla. The court also rendered the decision that it had no impact on Marconi’s claim as the first inventor to successfully transmit wire radio waves.

            The Marion site bears witness to a time when enterprising people were developing thousands of products and services intended to make human life better. No one even Marconi could have imagined what his early inventions would one day become. However, there resting for all time like dinosaur bones are the remains of Marconi’s 14, 400-foot-high transmission towers, the largest in the world for its time.

Sippican Historical Society

By Marilou Newell

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