The world went wireless more than a century ago, when a strangely contemporary figure—more Steve Jobs than Thomas Edison—picked up a transatlantic radio signal at Signal Hill in St. John’s. Guglielmo Marconi, the cosmopolitan son of an Irish Protestant mother and an Italian Catholic father, didn’t know why his radio beams managed to get over the curvature of the Earth, against the scientific orthodoxy of the time. But he had faith they would, and the techno-entrepreneurial vision to found a business empire on them.
McGill media professor Marc Raboy’s Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, a nominee for this year’s $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize, is an absorbing and exhaustive biography of one of the foundational figures of the modern world. Marconi was immersed in all the social and political effects of wireless: the British admiralty was among the very first adopters, and the co-ordination of massive armies in the First World War would have been impossible without radio. Later, in a phase of Marconi’s life Raboy probes with particular care—the relationship between media and political power is one of the biographer’s themes—Marconi became closely tied to Mussolini and Italian fascism. A first-rate cultural history as much as a biography, Marconi demonstrates how successful media revolutions, from the printing press to the Internet, transform entire societies.
An excerpt from Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World
In September 1933, Marconi was invited to attend the Chicago World’s Fair, appropriately themed “A Century of Progress.” He told his daughter Degna, “Mussolini was very anxious I should go.”
The publicity value for Mussolini and fascism was priceless; for many people on Marconi’s itinerary, it was the first connection of fascism to an actual human face. In the United States, there was fascination and hope for the new ideology, and the popular, glamorous Marconi couple were a tremendous promotional instrument. The trip also enhanced Marconi’s political capital. He was now someone who could carry delicate messages from one political leader to another.
When the party arrived in New York on Sept. 28, RCA’s George H. Clark, who had met Marconi before, found that he had “a quiet, almost sad, countenance,” but by the time he left San Francisco a month later that “had changed to a permanent smile.” Clark later prepared an hour-by-hour report of the trip. When the ship docked, Clark wrote, “Whistles blew; cheers from the assembled crowd mingled with the blare of automobile horns; New York’s fireboats threw streams of Hudson River water skyward in honor of the arrivals. The party proceeded to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, past cheering thousands.” It was reminiscent of Marconi’s early triumphant visits to New York.
On Sept. 30, the Marconis left for Chicago by train, with 30 trunks and suitcases checked as baggage and as many more to be distributed throughout the compartments of their private car. They arrived in Chicago early the following morning. A huge crowd had gathered, and as soon as the train was in the station, “the crowd went wild, and the air rang with ‘Viva Marconi’ for 10 minutes or more.” The Drake Hotel, where the party was staying, had to detail two Italian-speaking telephone operators to handle calls.
Monday, Oct. 2, was “Marconi Day” at the World’s Fair. Marconi’s first personal event was a meeting with the American Legion. There was another distinguished visitor to the fair that day: President Franklin D. Roosevelt (inaugurated seven months earlier) had decided to make “a flying visit to Chicago” to address the Legion; FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had left their home in Hyde Park, N.Y., at 5 p.m. the day before, and arrived in Chicago at 11 a.m. By noon they were at the fairgrounds. While Marconi was having lunch, an aide to Roosevelt appeared, informing him that the president would appreciate the opportunity to see him.
The Roosevelts were dining with an assortment of guests in the fair’s administration building and Marconi arrived as dessert was being served. FDR reminded Marconi that they had met at a reception during Marconi’s 1917 visit as part of Italy’s wartime mission to the United States, when FDR was assistant secretary of the navy and responsible for wireless. Marconi didn’t remember the meeting. (“Where did I meet that man?” he asked a colleague when he returned to his own party, “For the life of me I cannot remember the occasion.”) Roosevelt invited Marconi to lunch at the White House the following week, and by 4 p.m. he was back on his train to New York.
One might almost think that Roosevelt had made the trip precisely to meet with Marconi. Certainly, it was one of his priorities; he was in Chicago for all of four hours. FDR at this time had a serious interest in Italy’s domestic politics; he had written to Mussolini a week after outlining his New Deal program in a “fireside chat” radio broadcast on May 7, 1933, and Mussolini had acknowledged the affinities between his own policies and Roosevelt’s in a remark quoted in the New York Times, in June: “Your plan for co-ordination of industry follows precisely our lines of co-operation.” More important, FDR had hopes that Mussolini would provide a strong counterweight to the rising threat of Hitler (he had much less sanguine hopes for the capacity of England and France to do the same) and was taking every opportunity to reach out to prominent Italians who had Mussolini’s ear.
America was fascinated by fascism, and with Marconi. The party left the fair in a procession of cars inching its way through a massive crowd. Again, as reported by Clark, “The air was filled with cheers, and cries of ‘Viva Marconi,’ and every hand was flung up in the fascist salute. Marconi smiled frequently and saluted in return.” Clark had an odd observation: he found Marconi was touched, vindicated somewhat, by the demonstration. Clark thought the reception made up for the pain and disappointment Marconi may have felt on some of his previous visits—but they had been happy ones. It seemed as though Marconi was being reflective about the American display of adulation for fascism and his association with it.