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How Truly Great Inventions are made

Submitter: Tom Oosterloo
Description: It almost seems to be the case in modern science that the only way to progress is through an increasing level of scale, planning and organisation. Although times change, and it is wrong to be sentimental about the past, it is good to realise that most Truly Great Inventions were not made this way.

A case in point is the invention of wireless communication (the Radio), generally attributed to Guglielmo Marconi (although the full story involves many people). Arguably it is one of the most important inventions ever. And very important for us: without radio, there would be no radio astronomy.

The story of Marconi is very interesting. One learns that the real keys to success are vision and persistence. Already at an early age, Marconi saw the enormous potential of the "Hertzian waves", which physicists all over the world were studying: if they could be used for long-range communication, it would completely change the world. However, at the time, most scientists believed these waves could not be used for long-range transmissions: waves propagate in straight lines, which would be a problem with the Earth being a sphere. Marconi, who had average grades at school and never completed university training, did not believe this would make the waves useless. And in 1895 he proved he was right. By using radio waves, he managed to remotely ring a bell which was placed a few kilometers away on the other side of a hill. After this, things moved very fast: in 1901 Marconi achieved the first trans-atlantic radio transmission (which indirectly, 32 years later, led to the discovery of radio astronomy, by Karl Jansky) and not long after, most large ships (including the Titanic) carried radio communication devices. Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun (co-founder of Telefunken) "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy".

The family house where Marconi conducted his experiments, Villa Griffone near Bologna, is now a museum and is a must-see for everybody involved in radio astronomy. The picture above shows the room, in the state it was in during 1895, where Guglielmo Marconi did his experiments and where he demonstrated wireless communication. It is reassuring to see that apart from having vision and persistence, being messy is also good...

Copyright: Tom Oosterloo
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