Wireless Technology: Guglielmo Marconi and the Maritime Communication

Guglielmo Marconi was born on the 25th of April 1874 in Bologna, Italy. He was of mixed Irish–Italian parentage: his mother Annie Jameson, from Enniscorthy, belonged to the Jameson family of distillery fame, and his father Giuseppe, was a wealthy landowner.
Archive & Heritage Officer
On 25 April 2024 we will celebrate the International Guglielmo Marconi Day for his huge role played in the invention of the wireless telegraph.

Guglielmo Marconi, c.1902 (Science Museum Collection)

What’s the connection with Irish Lights and the lighthouses in Ireland?

Guglielmo Marconi was born on the 25th of April 1874 in Bologna, Italy. He was of mixed Irish–Italian parentage: his mother Annie Jameson, from Enniscorthy, belonged to the Jameson family of distillery fame, and his father Giuseppe, was a wealthy landowner.

In 1897 Marconi registered his company as The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. The company changed names several time between 1897 and 2006.

MP/1/4/989 (Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd logo, 1900-1963)

In 1898, he came to Ireland to try to get his first radio message across the Atlantic. The first site of his oldest wireless station was in Derrigimlagh, Co Galway; the best place to link an antenna system directly to a signal across the Atlantic.

He began experimenting with electromagnetic waves to send signals. At that time, the telegraph wire was the quickest way to get messages, using Morse code; and he designed a transmitter to send and a receiver to detect radio waves.

Marconi started working in Ireland using the lighthouses to demonstrate how a wireless telegraphy could be useful and efficient. He came to the Mizen Head peninsula to work on his first radio message across the Atlantic, experimenting with the use of Hertz waves (the radio signal frequencies used to transmit and receive data) for communication purposes; and he undertook experiments with telegraphic communication through space by means of electromagnetic waves. By applying improvements to apparatus invented by others he soon achieved remarkable results in his experiments, sending and receiving signals over a distance of two miles.

Mizen Head Lighthouse

Besides Mizen Head, his experiments affected many places in Ireland and UK between 1899 and 1930 such as Fastnet Rock; Brow Head near Crookhaven; Ballycastle and Rathlin Island where he set up a series of commercial ship-to-shore stations and conducted experiments with carrier pigeons; South Foreland Lighthouse in Kent, England; and Inchkeith Lighthouse, in Scotland.  

Marconi also used his new system to report by wireless the results of the annual Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) regatta, on 20th July 1898, to the offices of the Dublin Daily Express. It seems this was the first time in the world that radio was used in journalism to mark the centenary of historic event. A memorial was erected in 1998 on the East Pier, Dun Laoghaire.

Memorial plaque, East Pier (Dun Laoghaire), 20th July 1998

Between 1920-1930s the Marconi’s Company became very popular and their expert staff were interviewed from the Commissioners of Irish Lights focusing on Marconi’s experiments carried out in Ireland and UK. An interesting description on the ‘Revolving Wireless Beam’ was made with the purpose to demonstrate the importance of this technological method as a special application of the principles of directional wireless transmission to the purposes of navigation; and a letter was sent to the Irish Lights Office from the Northern Lighthouse Board regarding their cooperation with the Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company as a proof of success and efficiency of experimental works as aid to navigation in Scotland.

It was decided that the elaborate and complicated spark transmitting apparatus installed at Inchkeith Lighthouse was not a suitable plant for installation at lighthouse station and had devised a continuous wave valve transmitter to take its place. The pair of parabolic reflectors was replaced by a single straight-line reflector on a revolving frame.

MP/1/4/989, 1925
MP/1/4/989 (Navigational Chart, UK,1925)
MP/1/4/989 (South Foreland Lighthouse, UK, 1925)

There were two forms of direction finding, one by means of an installation on board ship, by which bearings were taken from two or more known wireless stations and the vessel’s position arrived at by triangulation; the other by means of two or more direction-finding stations established on shore with suitable facilities for intercommunication. These stations took bearings from vessels while they were transmitting, and after co-ordinating results, transmitted the position to the ship concerned. This method was known as ‘position finding’. Thanks to Marconi a new ‘Beam’ system was created. This method, which was a special application of the principles of directions wireless transmission to the purposes of navigation, was an effort to overcome all the existing difficulties at that time, including the advantage to be not too expensive. One of the chief features being the fact that a simple apparatus was required on board ship, and this didn’t need the attention of a special wireless operator.

In the 1930s, Irish Lights controlled all the lightships and beacons around the coast of Ireland, working on a scheme for the erection of wireless beacons at five points off the dangerous west coast. The purpose was to give assistance in direction-finding to transatlantic vessels during foggy weather. An official of the Irish Department said the following words during an interview -which were reported on an article entitled “Coast Wireless Beacons” (unknown source; presumably written around 1928):

 “We don’t yet know how far this development will proceed. It is a tremendously arduous task to erect the plant. We are making a start at Mizen Head, at the south-west corner of County Cork. Afterwards a similar station will be placed on Tory Island, off Donegal, and if these prove successful, we propose to erect wireless beacons at Kinsale, at Inishtearaght, and at Eagle Island, off County Mayo”.


Radio beacons were used to transmit a characteristic signal and the station identification repeated continuously in Morse Code.

From correspondence in our archive in relation to the erection of wireless direction-finding beacons at various points on coasts of Ireland, it states that Irish Lights have been in contact with The Imperial Merchant Service Guild in Liverpool, and the Commander of SS ‘Baltic’ in New York; and the Submarine Signal Company (the company was founded in Boston, USA, in 1901. Submarine Signal Co. London Limited was a subsidiary company).

MP/1/4/1486 (The Mercantile Marine Service Association - MMSA - and Imperial Merchant Service Guild amalgamated in 1936; now Nautilus International)

For many years Marconi devoted his attention to bringing wireless into general use on sea-going vessels. Advantages of wireless telegraphy for message transmission from shore-to-lighthouse and from shore-to-lightship, for ship-to-ship signalling, have been certainly fundamental over the years to consolidate one of the most important value and key enabler of Irish Lights: safety of life at sea for more than 200 years.

Irish Lights Archive, Minute Papers Collection (1868-1954):

MP/1/4/989 (1922-1925)
MP/1/4/1486 (1927-1929)

Milestones in Lighthouse Engineering, Ebbe Almqvist and Kenneth Sutton-Jones, published by Pharos Marine Ltd/Automatic Power Inc., c. 1990

Websites: Marconi, Guglielmo | Dictionary of Irish Biography (dib.ie)ON THE MAP; A Lighthouse That Was a Beacon for Wireless Communication - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

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