The name of the Marconi Company and that of its founder Guglielmo Marconi are indelibly linked to innovation and invention in the world of electrical and electronic equipment.
Most recognise the contribution and development of what we now call radio, although when Marconi constructed his ‘Wireless and Telegraphy’ sets at his home in Bologna (Italy) he could not have envisaged a world now dominated by the transfer of information and data via satellites, radio signals and ever-increasingly by fibre-optic cables serving the high-speed internet.
Whilst the history of Marconi and the commercial empire which grew up in the late 1890s and the first half of the 20th century is worthy of many, many volumes and pages, it is unfortunate that the company is now disseminated into many entities and business areas.
Within BAE Systems and our group of core technologies, we can lay claim to only a small part of the Marconi family history. It would be both unfair and inappropriate for us not to note the enormous achievements made under the Marconi banner over the past 125 years.
This is not an attempt to lay claim to the unique heritage and history of Marconi, rather than acknowledging its importance in the wider field of radio, electronics, radar and all the associated industries that find their roots in the activities of a unique man… Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi.
For our part, the merger between British Aerospace and Marconi Electronics Systems, announced on 19th January 1999, brought together two giants of industry into what was quoted at the time as being a ‘fully-rounded company’.
Within the following web pages, we chart the long history of Marconi, incorporating many famous predecessor companies, most with a right to their own stories, which are charted on separate pages of this website or in their own historical records.
We also invite you to consider digging deeper into the Marconi story by visiting some of the excellent websites and resources quoted at the end of this page.
Where it all started - the first 50 years
When Guglielmo Marconi came to London in 1896, he sought official support for his experiments to prove that his wireless equipment was a viable tool for communications over long distances.
When he arrived at Dover, the Duty Customs Officer opened his luggage and found various ‘suspicious’ pieces of apparatus and scientific instruments. Marconi explained the principle behind his invention, supported by a letter of introduction to the Ambassador of Italy in London, Annibale Ferrero.
The Customs Officer was still sceptical and ordered him to report to the Admiralty in London where he met William Preece, Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office. Preece expressed true interest and confidently pledged his support to the Italian inventor which was to prove vital in the months to come.
Marconi gave the first demonstration of his invention to the British government in July 1896 and later, in March 1897, he had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of just over 3.5 miles between locations on military locations on Salisbury Plain.
Marconi formed The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897, having been granted British Patent number 12039 entitled ‘Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor’, this being the first patent for a radio-wave based communication system.
In May 1897, Marconi sent the first ever wireless communication over open sea when a signal was transmitted from Flat Holm Island (in the Bristol Channel) to Lavernock Point in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. The message, which had travelled 3.7 miles, simply read ‘Are you ready?’
Following this success, the equipment was relocated to Brean Down Fort on the Somerset coast, thus increasing the range further to just under 10-miles.
Thankfully, and due to his early work with the GPO (General Post Office), Marconi was given access to representatives of both the Admiralty and latterly the War Office, who had been following his recent experiments with interest. The Royal Navy funded a Research Project and soon realised that Marconi had both the expertise and vision to make wireless a practical solution for communications at sea. This was further accelerated when it was realised that the Italian, French and German Navies were all seriously looking at the Marconi system for their own use.
In fact, it was the Italian Navy who first tested and eventually purchased Marconi equipment in 1897, with the French and Russian Fleets opting for equipment supplied by the Ducretet Company of Paris.
Marconi concentrated on the Royal Navy installations and in the summer of 1899, he conducted successful trials communicating between warships and land-based receiving stations. This success was a watershed moment and confirmed that wireless communications would prove both vital and essential for the effective operation of naval fleets around the world – we had entered a new and exciting world.
Using these demonstrations as an opportunity to raise further financial support and publicity, Marconi managed to increase the reliability and range of his equipment at a rapid pace.
In July 1898, a test for Lloyds Insurance between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland was conducted followed by a landmark transmission across the English Channel on 27th March 1899, with the signal travelling between Wimereux (North Boulogne, France) to the South Foreland Lighthouse at Dover. This was the first true transmission between two nations separated by water.
Marconi selected The Haven Hotel at Sandbanks, Poole Harbour as a full-time testing station at which a 100-foot high mast was erected. From there he carried out a series of trials, transmitting to his floating laboratory on board his yacht Elettra.
During his time at the Haven Hotel, Marconi became good friends with wealthy stockbroker Charles van Raaltes, owner of Brownsea Island. Marconi’s sailing boat was often moored on Brownsea when he was not conducting experiments at sea. It was a friendship that was cemented further when Marconi married Beatrice O’Brien, the best friend of van Raaltes daughter Margherita.
During 1898, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company established the first ever ‘Radio Factory’ in the former Hall Street Mill, Chelmsford and where it produced equipment until 1912.
The British Lightship Service contracted Marconi in December 1898 to establish wireless communications between the South Foreland Lighthouse and the East Goodwin Lightship, moored on the hazardous Goodwin Sands some twelve miles away. It was on 17th March 1899, that the Lightship transmitted what was said to be the very first SOS message, sent on behalf of the merchant vessel ‘Elbe’ which had run aground on the Sands. Once received, the operator immediately summoned the aid of the Ramsgate lifeboat, who set about launching a rescue effort.
The first demonstrations of this new technology in the United States took place in the autumn of 1899 when Marconi sailed across the Atlantic to cover the Americas Cup Yacht Races off New Jersey. Having provided successful coverage aboard the passenger ship SS Ponce. Marconi returned to the UK on American Lines SS Saint Paul, on which he had temporarily installed wireless equipment. On 15th November, the Saint Paul became the first ocean liner to report her imminent arrival to port via a wireless signal, received at The Royal Needles Hotel radio station who she had contacted whilst still 66-nautical miles off the English coast.
Marconi had always believed that his inventions would be applied for peaceful and humanitarian use but on 11th October 1899, a second Boer War broke out after Britain rejected the Transvaal Ultimatum calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops.
The British Army looked towards the new wireless technology to give them an advantage whilst amassing huge ranks of infantry and firepower on the shores of the African Republic. The War Office hired five sets of equipment together with specialist operators on a 6-month contract. Their job was to help control the shipping in and around the ports, many of which were carrying thousands of additional troops. Once redeployed inland however, the Marconi engineers were immediately conscripted into the Army, thus beginning a story of military and civilian co-operation that continues with BAE Systems today.
The dawn of a new century
On 24th March 1900, the company name was changed to Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company during the same year that also saw the founding of a subsidiary company.
The Marconi International Marine Communication Company Limited (MIMCO) was formed to administer the maritime wireless interests and for the provision of Radio Officers and equipment supplied by the Company. MIMCO was to become very prominent in the supply of trained Radio Officers for merchant shipping lines such as White Star Lines and Cunard.
The company had also started to investigate the transmission of signals across the Atlantic and it established a Wireless Transmitting Station at Marconi House on Rosslare Strand, Co. Wexford (Ireland) in 1901. This effectively acted as a ‘link’ between the company’s new High-Powered Transmitting Station, at Poldhu (see below), Cornwall and Clifden on the extreme west coast of County Galway.
They soon made an announcement that a message had been received at Signal Hill in St John's, Newfoundland on 12th December 1901.
They had utilised a 500-foot kite-supported antenna for reception with signals transmitted by the company's new high-power station in Cornwall.
At 2,200 miles, it was heralded as one of the greatest scientific advances of the decade although there was (and still is) a degree of scepticism about the claim.
Dismayed by the detractors, Marconi set about a series of documented tests and in February 1902 he sailed west on the SS Philadelphia, recording a series of signals transmitted from the Poldhu station. The tests recorded the reception of coherent (printer) signals for up to 1,550 miles with audio (headphone) transmissions received for up to 2,100 miles. Night-time was revealed as the best time for results and the tests were also the first to show that medium-wave and long-wave signals travel much further at night.
During the daytime the range was much reduced to about 700 miles, less than half of the distance that had been claimed by the earlier transmissions from Newfoundland. Marconi himself had never fully validated the Newfoundland claims although he had now proven that signals could be transmitted over thousands of miles and disproved the widely claimed scientific view that radio waves were restricted to line-of-sight distances only.
In September 1901, Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company opened the world’s first Wireless School in Frinton (Essex) in order to supplement students' knowledge of engineering with the principles and practice of Marconi wireless equipment and systems. A second ‘school’ was later established at Marconi House in Chelmsford to train men in the advanced use of wireless equipment.
On 17th December 1902, the Marconi Transmission Station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia sent the world's first ever radio message to cross the Atlantic from North America. On the back of this achievement, Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada was incorporated in 1903 to serve the emerging business interests of the Company on the North American continent.
By 1904, the Marconi Company had created a commercial service transmitting nightly news summaries to subscribing passenger ships and ocean liners who would integrate them into their on-board newspapers, such was the demand of the well-heeled 1st class passengers.
By 1905, Cuthbert Hall, Managing Director of Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, decided that another factory was needed, and equipment was moved from Chelmsford to a large four storey building at Dalston, North London. The site was not only intended for the manufacture of wireless equipment but also for the manufacture of ignition coils for cars.
However, it soon began losing money and it was shut down in 1908 whilst the original wireless factory at Hall Street, Chelmsford was subsequently re-opened.
A regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was instigated on 17th October 1907, linking Clifden with Glace Bay although it failed to see success as did similar ventures set up between other key locations.
Marconi wireless systems played important roles in maritime rescues in the first decade of the 20th century and the value of radio brought the company both success and fame, with Guglielmo Marconi being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909, an accolade he shared with Professor Karl Braun, inventor of the cathode-ray tube.
However, a tragedy with far-reaching consequences was on the horizon so-to-speak with the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15th April 1912.
The disaster that befell the RMS Titanic has been detailed in many thousands of accounts and reports and remains one of the most famous maritime disasters of the era. The accounts of what happened on that fateful night vary according to the story-teller although one thing is certain - the part played by Marconi Communications is that of record and it is without doubt that the loss of life would have been much higher just a few years earlier.
The Radio operators on the Titanic Jack Phillips (on left) and Harold Bride were employed by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company and their part in the disaster has always come under scrutiny.
Survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia and David Sarnoff (below) was also employed by the Marconi Company and is said to have maintained communications for 72 hours at the Receiving Station on the top of New York’s Wanamaker Store (on Broadway and 8th Street).
Sarnoff's claim has since been questioned but on 18th June 1912, Mr Marconi gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry regarding the marine telegraphy's functions and the radio procedures for emergencies at sea and in which he validated the actions of his team.
After giving his evidence the Postmaster General stated, ‘Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi and his marvellous invention’.
Ironically, Marconi had been offered a free passage on the Titanic but he had opted to travel three days earlier on the Lusitania because he had work to do and said that he simply preferred to use its public stenographer who he knew well.
Marconi had a further lucky escape in September 1912 when the 50-hp Fiat car he was driving on mountain roads near Bracco (Italy) was involved in a head-on collision with another car. Marconi was rushed to hospital nearby where they removed a glass shard from his right eye. The optic nerve was so severely damaged that a specialist surgeon had to remove the eyeball.
When the bandages were removed 10-days later, he could see nothing with his remaining eye. Such was the measure of the man however, his first reaction was to start planning how he could continue his research with the help of assistants. Thankfully, within a few weeks his sight returned to his remaining eye and by November he was back at work, equipped expertly with a glass eye which he wore for the rest of his life.
As War approached
A School of Wireless Communications was re-established as a separate department, this time at the Broomfield Research Station (also known as Pottery Lane). It had previously operated as receiving station since 1903 but by October 1911, it had become a Research Station and part of the Marconi Apprentice Training Centres.
During 1912, the main company relocated to a purpose-built factory in New Street, Chelmsford.
The new factory was on the former site of the Essex Cricket Club with all the new buildings being designed by the architects W Dunn and R Watson. From conception to completion, the project took only seventeen weeks. The Works were ready for inspection in June by the suitably impressed International Radiotelegraphic Conference delegates on 22nd June 1912.
At the same time, a London Headquarters was established at Marconi House on The Strand in a building formerly occupied by The Gaiety Theatre. It was a lavish building with many notable architectural features; sadly it has subsequently been demolished to make way for a hotel.
World War 1
The Marconi contribution to World War 1 was probably the most significant in the Company’s history with thousands of pieces of equipment being manufactured and used during the conflict.
Effective and reliable communications became a vital part of the Great War with Marconi equipment being used in all areas from the base camps to those troops amassed on the Western Front.
Despite the Marconi main works all now being under the control of the Admiralty during World War 1, the company still managed to carry out significant work.
At New Street, the research continued on the development of continuous-wave equipment during 1915, accelerated by the recent invention of the oscillating valve (vacuum tube).
By June 1915, the world's first air-to-ground voice transmission took place at Brooklands, England over about 20 miles. Ground-to-air was initially by Morse code, but it is believed two-way voice communications were available and installed around this time. Marconi had established a presence at Brooklands, the home of the Royal Flying Corps Training School. However, the War Department took control of the operation in the spring of 1915 and the Marconi staff were seconded to the Royal Flying Corps.
Three key areas were established at Brooklands; A Wireless School (later Wireless & Observers School), an Equipment Testing workshop and a Design and Improvement section. The ex-Marconi staff included J.M. Furnival, R. Orme and C. E. Prince, the latter being later credited by the government with the development of effective airborne wireless, using valves rather than spark transmission or crystals.
Mr Marconi himself had returned to Italy at the outbreak of war and was commissioned into the Italian Army as a Lieutenant, later being promoted to Captain. He transferred to the Navy in 1916 at the rank of Commander and was a member of the Italian Government mission to the United States in 1917.
At the end of the conflict, in 1919 he was appointed Italian Plenipotentiary Delegate to the Paris Peace Conference and was awarded the Italian Military Medal in recognition of his war service.
As peace returns
In the UK, the Admiralty had handed back control of the factories which at the time were heavily invested in plant and components for the war effort.
The Marconi Company was a leading member of a consortium of electrical equipment manufacturers that formed the British Broadcasting Company, whilst in the US the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was a parent of National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) that had been created by the forced takeover of Marconi’s US assets in 1919.
In what was said to be a prelude to the introduction of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1923, in 1920 the first of five live broadcasts was made from the Marconi factory at New Street, Chelmsford featuring the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba. These broadcasts caught the people's imagination and marked a turning point in the British public's attitude to radio and they continued until it was decided to relocate to purpose-built 'studios' in London.
This was however, a very difficult period for the Marconi organisation who, whilst they had seen technical success, did not enjoy this being reflected in their finances and with War Subsidies still owed to the cash-strapped post war government, things were very tight indeed.
During 1922, Irish rebels had blown up the Clifden Trans-Atlantic Station reducing revenues even further and delays in the issuing of broadcasting licences caused the closure of the newly created Marconiphone Company.
By 1924 however, Marconi had succeeded in transmitting the human voice between England and Australia for the very first time and Mr Marconi spoke of the need for the close association of aviation and wireless telephony with a view to the further development within the civil and military aircraft industry. Ever the visionary, he even spoke of the possibility of interplanetary wireless communications. It was obvious that he had no intention of becoming simply a businessman.
The financial crisis within the company deepened in 1925 with over £1 million pounds of debt being written off. It also saw Managing Director Godfrey Isaac retire (through ill-health) from a position he had held since 1910.
However, and despite the shortage of funds, an intensive series of trials were conducted between the company experimental installation at Poldhu and Marconi’s yacht ‘Elettra’, cruising around the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
The Hon. F.G. Kellaway had succeeded Isaac as Managing Director and as a former Postmaster General, he brought extensive knowledge of finance and the workings of government committees. He ordered an immediate reduction in research on new technology and a full concentration on the key manufacturing, sale and installation of sound broadcast equipment.
Nevertheless, he did also devote full funding for the further development of the beam system. This led to the use of the technology for long-distance communication and proposals to use this system as a means of Imperial Communications were accepted by the British Government. The first Beam Station opened in 1926 linking England with Canada, as well as connections between other stations being added on almost a monthly basis.
The company’s financial recovery was not immediate however although the remedial action did start to work and the 1925 end-of-year accounts showed a modest £150,000 profit, quite a turnaround after the losses of £3 million recorded over the previous 36 months.
The new Board of Directors overseeing affairs was very much a financial group and one with which Guglielmo Marconi found it difficult to deal.
He did not care for balance sheets or financial projections and he resigned his position as Chairman in July 1927, leaving him free to devote his time to the scientific and technical side of the business. In further changes his marriage to Beatrice was annulled and he returned to Italy where he subsequently married the Countess Bezzi-Scali of Rome.
The first amalgamation
In a dramatic move in 1929, Associated Cable Companies and The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company were forced by government intervention into a complex amalgamation which resulted in Marconi being owned by Cables and Wireless (Holdings) Ltd.
A new second company, Imperial and International Communications Ltd (later renamed Cable and Wireless) was also created and it was granted the rights to traffic undertakings, assets and licences.
This meant that the Marconi business lost the important revenue from its message handling division, a severe blow to their stability and any further technical developments in that area.
Guglielmo Marconi meanwhile, had been ennobled in 1929 as a Marchese (Marquis) by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and also named President of the National Research Council.
By 1931, he had started research into the ‘propagation characteristics’ of still shorter radio waves.
During 1932, the Marconi Company opened the world’s first microwave radio-telephone link between the Vatican City and the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
Two years later at Sestri Levante on the Mediterranean coast, he demonstrated his microwave radio beacon for ship navigation and gave one of the first practical demonstrations of the principles of radar in 1935.
Although never claimed or credited with the invention of radar, amongst others Marconi had foretold of this capability at a lecture to the American Institute of Radio Engineers in New York as early as 1922.
He had noticed the reflection of radio waves in the Salisbury Plain experiments in March 1889 and had commented on the need for further experiments in this area. In the UK, these were eventually taken seriously during 1935 by British physicist R.A.W. Watt, and by 1939 England had established a chain of radar stations along its south and east coasts to detect aggressors in the air.
While Marconi himself was not greatly interested in television, the company in England was also deeply involved in advancing the new medium and in 1934 they merged their television interests with those of EMI Ltd and formed The Marconi-EMI Television Co. Ltd. The BBC adopted the Marconi-EMI system in 1936, using it for the first public television service in the world.
Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company and E. K. Cole Limited agreed to form Marconi-Ekco in July 1936 to combine the activities of both companies in the fields of measuring instruments, diathermy, and electro-medical apparatus.
The expansion and re-organisation continued, when The Marconi Group bought property at Hackbridge, near Mitcham, due to its proximity with Croydon Airport. Croydon was then the main terminus for flights to and from London and Marconi operations provided support services to the Control Tower and to the airlines, operating out of a shed on the airport apron, albeit with a small office in the main building.
The whole Aircraft Department was relocated to Hackbridge in 1937, along with their 50-man workforce. This did create a social crisis after a female secretary was appointed - this was solved however, when a local cottage owner agreed to allow her to use their toilet! The Hackbridge factory was later used to produce quartz crystals before finally becoming the Headquarters of Specialised Components Division.
Meanwhile in Rome, news emerged of the death of the founder Guglielmo Marconi on 20th July 1937, aged 63-years.
Apparently, he was deep into the development of microwave technology, the stress of which had caused him to suffer eight heart attacks over a three-year period, with the ninth proving fatal. He was awarded a State Funeral in Italy and at 6pm, the time designated for his funeral, all BBC transmitters and wireless Post Office stations in the British Isles fell silent as they observed what was one of the first two-minute silences in his honour.
The Marconi Group had continued to expand after Marconi’s death and the success of the first five Marconi Chain Home Stations (covering air approaches to London from the Thames Estuary) resulted in the addition of twenty more during 1937. These were all equipped with Marconi Transmission ‘curtain’ arrays which were also used for subsequent West Coast Stations and several other locations around the UK coastline.
Second World War
By the outbreak of World War Two, Britain was ringed with a chain of CH stations and despite the beginning of hostilities with Germany, the company still proceeded with the opening of The Marconi Research Laboratories at Great Baddow.
The site was chosen because it was deemed sufficiently far enough from potential sources of electrical interference. Eventually however, the Laboratories were taken over in 1941 by the Air Ministry and the Admiralty becoming an operational RAF station.
A factory in Fulham at Parsons Green, London opened during WW2, manufacturing wiring sets called ‘connector sets’ for aircraft. Parsons Green also manufactured radio suitcases to be used by secret agents after they had been dropped behind enemy lines. Established in an old bakery, it replaced a factory in Vauxhall which had been partially destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940 – it was attacked again later that year although this time it was destroyed.
In 1944, the Parsons Green factory also took a direct hit from incendiary bombs causing the work to be transferred yet again, this time to Romford.
In addition to the supply of ground-to-air communications equipment, between 1940 and 1941, the Company became involved in the fitting of Range and Direction-Finding systems (RDF) for early warning against air attack on larger surface ships.
Modified air-to-surface metric equipment was also developed and subsequently fitted to smaller vessels. A ‘crash programme’ was also introduced to develop even smaller sets with the extra capability of detecting surfaced submarines.
Meanwhile, two Marconi Senior Engineers (N.E. Davis and O.E. Keall) were seconded to the Admiralty to devise countermeasures against the German radar installations sited along the coast of Northern France.
By 1942, and following earlier work and improvements to the newly-designed magnetron, the Chelmsford factory produced amplifier units for a new naval radar, as well as a new centimetric air-to-surface vessel (ASV) radar for the RAF. Magnetron production later moved to a new building at Waterhouse Lane thus increasing the delivery rate to several hundred per month.
For D-Day, Marconi designed, developed and manufactured an airborne system (code named Bagful) to intercept and record the frequency and approximate positions of enemy radar stations. This provided a dossier which proved vital for the planning of the whole Operation, prior to the invasion. On 6th June, Marconi technology provided a multiplicity of jamming stations in an operation code named ‘Carpet Paralyses’, disabling the German radar networks. Marconi Marine also provided servicing and support for the radio communications, echo sounding and radar equipment.
Throughout the war, Marconi and its associated companies were committed to the war effort and they were involved in literally hundreds of projects and product developments, sadly far too many to record individually on these pages. The Marconi Research Laboratory at Great Baddow was often cloaked in secrecy due to their enormous contribution to the war effort.
By the end of the war on 2nd September 1945, the contribution that had been made by all of the Marconi Divisions and staff was immense with many key personnel lost on all fronts. From Naval Radio Operators and technicians aboard War Ships to those that were killed in bombing raids at the factories, the Marconi Company paid a heavy price.
After the dust settled and English Electric
In 1946, the English Electric Company acquired Cable and Wireless Company holdings in Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company which reflected its intention to diversify their business from heavy electrical engineering to the new and exciting field of electronics.
As well as the whole of the share capital, this also gave them a 42% share in the Marconi International Marine Company and 100% of Marconi Instruments Ltd.
As part of the takeover, the English Electric Valve Company was established to control the holdings of the now ex-Marconi valve business.
Mr F.N. Sutherland was appointed General Manager of Marconi in 1947, the same year as the formation of the Marconi Radar Development Group at Broomfield.
A year later saw the creation of six new divisions, one of which (Services Equipment Division under the management of Col. E.N. Elford) was to be the supplier of both civil and military radar equipment, adding a new capability to the traditional business of the Marconi group of companies. Each division had its own engineering and sales departments who, whilst they had their own business autonomy, were able to draw upon the resources of the predecessor Marconi companies.
This heralded a new era for the Marconi name and further information on this era can be found on the webpage created under the Heading ‘Marconi in the English Electric era’.
A full genealogy of the evolution of Marconi Electronic Systems appears at the end of the web page 'Marconi and BAE Systems' (Under construction)