Guglielmo Marconi: Making history in Ireland
By Lydia O’Kane
Malin Head is the most northerly point on the island of Ireland, located on the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal. It’s known for its distinct shorelines and beautiful beaches and has had a long history of communication with ships. In fact, weather reports were first recorded at Malin Head in 1884.
This northern beauty spot can also claim strong links to the famed Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, considered the father of modern radio, who helped set up Vatican Radio in 1931.
As the world marks International Marconi day this 23rd of April, the occasion offers an opportunity to delve deeper into the work of Marconi and his historic connection to Ireland.
Guglielmo Marconi was no stranger to Ireland and its people. His mother was an Irish woman, Annie Jameson, granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of the Dublin-based whiskey distillers Jameson & Son, and although he was born in Bologna, he is believed to have made frequent visits to Ireland in his youth.
History in the making
In 1805, Lloyds of London built a signal tower in an area now known as Banba's Crown. Nearly one hundred years later, Malin Head Radio Station was established in January 1902. It was a simple enough technical operation. The station’s radio was a battery-powered spark transmitter connected to a 120-foot aerial provided by the Marconi Radio Company.
But the chance to make history was only months away when on 3rd April 1902, the Marconi Company succeeded in sending the first commercial message by wireless from Malin Head to the ship S.S. Lake Ontario with the words “Malin Head calling.”
This groundbreaking event was to put Malin Head firmly on the map as an important hub for trans-Atlantic communication.
Brendan Whelan is a tour guide for the Irish tourism board, (Bord Failte) and as a mountaineering instructor, he knows the area of Malin Head like the back of his hand. Speaking to Vatican Radio, he said Marconi had been building up to this historic moment for a number of years.
“In 1899 he had sent his signal across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland, but he kept pushing that because that was land to land, and the big commercial element he could realise profit from, was making land-to-ship connections.”
The Malin Head period
It was at that time that Marconi moved to Northern Ireland, travelling to Ballycastle and then on to Malin Head in 1902, remaining there until 1913.
What Gugliemo Marconi was able to do, explained Mr. Whelan, was to take work done by other people such as Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, and refine it in order to create radio communications on a grand scale.
“You’re looking at the work of Morse but you’re looking at it in a way that didn’t involve the wires, but it was wireless…and that work was really finalized at this time at Malin Head.”
During that period at Malin Head, the Italian inventor won the Nobel Prize for Physics, while his wireless station was witness to one of the worst shipping disasters in maritime history.
His communication devices were aboard the Titanic which had been built in Belfast, and its first ship to shore communication was relayed back to Malin Head and to Marconi’s equipment.
It was also Marconi’s equipment that was used during the Titanic’s sinking, and according to Whelan, it was this equipment that was used “to try and get distress signals out.”
On 18 June 1912, Marconi gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, and he spoke about the marine telegraphy's functions and the procedures for emergencies at sea. Britain's Postmaster General discussing the Titanic disaster said, "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvelous invention."
This period for Malin Head signified a golden era for the area, with Mr. Whelan describing Ireland’s most northerly point, especially after the arrival of Marconi, as a “hub for communication.”
Marconi’s Irish legacy
So what is Guglielmo Marconi’s legacy in Ireland as the world observes International Marconi Day?
Brendan Whelan underlined that the father of modern radio “is well remembered at Ireland’s most northerly point.”
He also cited the many buildings named after the inventor around Ireland, adding that if visitors come to Malin Head today they can see for themselves Marconi’s great achievements.