McGill Prof. Marc Raboy on Guglielmo Marconi & Global Communications

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This week on The Learning Curve, McGill University Professor Marc Raboy, author of Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, explores how twentieth-century Italian communications pioneer Guglielmo Marconi made his world-changing discoveries. Prof. Raboy explores the global significance of Marconi’s first transoceanic signal transmission in 1901, and how today’s world of smartphones, Wi-Fi, satellite TV, GPS navigation, and wireless computer networking derives from Marconi’s historic work. Prof. Raboy closes the interview with a reading from his Marconi biography.

Stories of the Week: Charlie noted a Boston Globe story reporting that the Boston Public Schools spend the most per student of any large urban district in the country, even as enrollment continues to decline and academic performance is largely stagnant. Gerard discussed a story from Houston Public Media about the appointment of a new superintendent for the Houston Independent School District and his promise to bring sweeping reforms to more than two dozen of the city’s schools.

Marc Raboy is Emeritus Professor and Chair in Ethics, Media, and Communications in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World; Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel; and Civil Society, Communication and Global Governance: Issues from the World Summit on the Information Society. Professor Raboy has been a visiting scholar at Stockholm University, the University of Oxford, New York University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He lives in Montreal.

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The Learning Curve / Marc Raboy on Guglielmo Marconi

June 6, 2023

[00:00:00] Charlie: Hello everybody and welcome to the Learning Curve. My name is Charlie Chieppo, sitting in today for Cara Candell, who unfortunately has laryngitis. I am here with your regular Learning Curve host Gerard Robinson. Gerard, how you doing today?

GR: Doing well. How are you, Charlie?

[00:00:42] Charlie: I’m doing fine. Glad to be here with everybody. Always enjoy when I get to sit in and I always learn something.

[00:00:45] GR: So, I usually tease cara by saying I’m, you know, coming in from beautiful Charlottesville, where it’s 81. Uh, I assume it’s not 81 degrees in Boston?

[00:00:53] Charlie: Well, it’s not 81 Boston, but we’d happily settle for no rain because it’s getting very uh, ominous and it’s thundering right now. So, we have low standards here. What can I say?

[00:01:07] GR: Got it. Well, Speaking of standards of whether they’re high or lower working what’s your story of the week?

[00:01:14] Charlie: Well, my story of the week this week is about the Boston Public Schools, which some people out there may know probably more in these parts, recently topped New York City as the school district that spends the most per student among the nation’s 100 largest districts. Boston is now at or was at $31,397 per student during the 2020-2021 academic year. And to give you a sense of just how high that is. Boston at $31,397 is first, and if you even go down just to fifth among the top 100, you have Chicago, which is at $18,216.

[00:01:54] Charlie: So, within shouting distance of twice as much as Chicago spends. [00:02:00] So, despite all that of course, am one with bad news here, but Boston still has huge achievement gaps. School buses that routinely get students to school late, if at all.

[00:02:11] Charlie: Low test scores, you know, I saw that. 29% of the students in grades three to eight are at grade level or above on the state testing. And when I saw that, it made me really made me wonder, okay, what would that be like without the three exam schools in Boston? And yet, despite this kind of disturbing news Boston Public Schools BPS is asking for a $70 million increase in the coming for the coming fiscal year.

[00:02:39] Charlie: One city counselor, a former B BP s teacher even asked, well, where’s the money going? Which is sort of the obvious question I think. the other thing about this story that I found interesting was that b bps, according to its data, said that it was spending $21,700 per student during the 2021 [00:03:00] school year.

[00:03:00] Charlie: Which is, you know, a $10,000 per student difference from this latest data that came out. And it’s disturbing because this sort of follows a long list of instances where BPS was well unable, I hope not unwilling to get facts straight. In recent years, they inflated graduation rates, And the number of. English language learners that they claim to serve adequately, and they also more, more recently botched the calculation of grade point averages for entrance to the exam schools. So in reading all these, all, all this information about this, I decided that in this age of social media, why not instead of just tweeting things that everyone will ignore.

[00:03:41] Charlie: I thought I would, I would hear on the learning curve, lay out three ideas that I thought that I’m sure people will ignore, but I’ll do it anyway. one. Is that BPS has been losing students for a very long time. It lost 2,500 students during the 2021 academic year alone and know, granted [00:04:00] that was unusual.

[00:04:00] Charlie: That was the pandemic that happened everywhere, but it’s lost 8,000 students in the last decade. It has the infrastructure of a much larger school district and it spends millions and millions of dollars maintaining nearly empty schools. So I think, number one would be to close or consolidate a lot of these buildings that would dramatically cut costs.

[00:04:22] Charlie: And ideally, of course, in theory anyway, that money could go into the classroom. Now I know that there is certainly some problems and some, you know, short term inconveniences that come along with that. But boy, the long term benefits would, I think far outweigh them. The second thing I that I would look at is that Boston, Boston Public Schools has 800 people working in its central office, which is wildly out of proportion with other similar school districts.

[00:04:54] Charlie: And so I think the time has come to make the very difficult move of actually streamlining that central office and [00:05:00] again, getting the money into the classroom. Now, the third one my views due to my own limitations here will be my, my recommendation will be a little bit vague, but look, during that 2021 school year the average teacher salary at b BPS was about $105,000.

[00:05:18] Charlie: Now, I have no problem with that. teachers are not well paid and they should be paid better. So my thought was, Somehow look, could we actually which would be easier to afford if we did the previous two things? Could we actually provide significant increases, raises in that money if indeed we could then somehow Trade that for some accountability for performance among both teachers and administrators.

[00:05:46] Charlie: Now, there’s long, long series of debates about that and how you do it and what the best way is to do it. And I’ll leave that to the people like Gerard who know better. But I think that if, do those three things, maybe we could make a little progress [00:06:00] on what is a real problem. Which is the, performance of the Boston Public School. So that is my rant for today.

[00:06:09] GR: But Charlie, that was a lot of information, both what was in the article you provided, and then the backstory. it’s just harmful to hear a story like that about Boston Public Schools because Boston first of all is a great city.

[00:06:22] GR: It’s one of America’s smartest cities. And we determine that by people who are age 25 and older who at least hold a bachelor’s degree. It’s a city with a ton of learning systems, both public, private, and otherwise. And when you think about the brain power and the talent, the innovation that city to have so many students in the traditional public Boston school system not doing well, it’s a challenge.

[00:06:48] GR: But when you say that, And you could say it’s not because of money. Then what did we say? I mean, it’s, it’s, they spend more per student than New York City. New York City is over a million [00:07:00] students. That money is, that’s just a lot of money. I would be believer that money matters. When people tell me, no, draw our money, doesn’t matter.

[00:07:07] GR: I say, well, tell you what, give me your. Checkbook or give me your credit card or your, or your date savings account. We’ll see if money matters. We know for research how you invest money where you invested and who in makes a ton of difference. So we can’t say it’s money. We can’t say that it’s a lack of know-how.

[00:07:23] GR: A lot of reformers at the university’s level are there to show what it takes to close a gap for children of poverty. So we know it’s not that. But what I was unaware of is when you said there are 800 people. In central administration now, there is always a debate on whether or not you should have one central office administrator for every 50 students versus 25.

[00:07:47] GR: Maybe it’s 10, but 800 sounds like a lot it’s really interesting to identify Boston has. When you look at the fact that you’ve got a really good Catholic school system that’s surely [00:08:00] not spending 31,000 per student, and in fact, not even what the state of the school of system said, it spent 21,000, which is you normally, it was a $10,000 gap, right?

[00:08:10] GR: Independent of that. The public schools are spending way more than the Catholic schools, and we’ve seen some pretty good results there. Not to mention that you have one of the best charter school systems in the country who aren’t receiving 31,000 a year. So of Boston, you should take a look. And see what’s going on.

[00:08:28] GR: It’s a lot of money. We take that off the table. It’s not because it’s not a place full of smart, innovative people, I surely can’t beat poverty cuz there are also other cities with poverty who are spending less, who are getting better results. So,

[00:08:40] Charlie: and you make a very good point, George, because I don’t , wanna, lead anybody to believe that.

[00:08:44] Charlie: I think that money doesn’t matter. That was, you know. Oh, absolutely. It certainly does. but that’s an important point that you made to bring that up. I think that’s right.

[00:08:52] GR: Well, your story in fact, leads into my story because it’s also about a large public school system, [00:09:00] largest in the state of Texas as Boston is from Massachusetts, and it’s experiencing what Boston experienced.

[00:09:07] GR: In the 1990s, the state legislature approved a law and the governor signed it to take over. The Houston Independent School District. Now, we had a chance to at least give note of this several weeks ago. Well, now we’ve moved from the idea of talking to the idea of accident people in place. So recently a new superintendent.

[00:09:29] GR: Was put in there by the governor slash by the department of Managers. And his name is Mike Miles. Mike is the former superintendent of schools in Dallas, so they have someone who has experienced managing a large urban school system. Dallas, like Houston has a lot of diversity in terms of ethnic makeup, racial makeup, title one schools as well as well off.

[00:09:53] GR: Schools for other students, and it was taken over very, very similar reasons to Boston in the [00:10:00] 1990s. It was because there was at the time they called academic bankruptcy. I’ll say there were academic challenges in some of the schools in Houston. Number two, there were concerns about mismanagement of funds.

[00:10:11] GR: And third, there was a question about the ability of the elected school board to get the job done. Well, fast forward to 2023. You’ve had the same thing take place in Houston. So they had rid of the, the other superintendent put in Mike and they told Mike, you know, your job is to make sure you manage the school well.

[00:10:30] GR: Well, one of the first things he identified were 29 schools in Houston that were gonna become for him priority schools. And why? Well, of those 29 schools, Three of them were high schools that have a theater pattern where they’ve identified a lot of academic challenges. So he said for all 29 schools, and again, he’s highlighting the high schools, he said he’s gonna make sure across the board they have the same academic evaluation standards.

[00:10:57] GR: They have the same monitoring standards [00:11:00] for teacher evaluation accountability. He’s gonna make sure that funding administration and other opportunities take place are really focused on those schools because he said those are the ones that are a big challenge. Now, naturally there are a lot of people who aren’t excited about this, and understandably so.

[00:11:18] GR: Some of them say that the takeover was really a Republican takeover of a democratic. Big city run school system who had only recently elected nine members to the Board of Education, who of course selected superintendent. And now you’ve got a Republican patrolled legislature doing that to the Democrats.

[00:11:36] GR: So it’s a Democrat, Republican thing. There’s also a question about race. The majority of the Republicans and the governor who supported this, Our white majority of the students in Houston public school system are black and Hispanic, and it speaks of racism or white supremacy. Third, there’s some who are saying this is really a backend way of trying to privatize the Houston Independent School [00:12:00] system.

[00:12:00] GR: Why? In part, and article mentioned this, it said that . Mike Miles, who is the superintendent of Dallas Public Schools and who is also a school executive. For a charter school network. And so if you believe that, do you believe he’s gonna come in and just simply make all the schools in that area?

[00:12:20] GR: Charters? He may or he may not. But the idea of privatization, the idea of race, the idea of Republican takeover is a similar theme for over 50 state takeovers have taken place in the United States going back to 1989. With Jersey City Public School System, Newark, in 1995. In fact, I happened to live in Jersey City during the time of the takeover, and when Newark was taken over, the city superintendent at the time appointed me to an advisory school board to provide some advice on what she could do.

[00:12:52] GR: So we’ve heard that before. Here’s the big difference with what Mike. Miles in Dallas has to deal with, it’s the first big takeover of [00:13:00] a southern school system. And one of the reasons you didn’t find a big takeover before was because of laws focusing on the Voting Rights Act and what you could and could not do.

[00:13:09] GR: Well, we’ll save what happened in court cases to make this available. they did replace nine elected board members and they appointed them with nine people. Now, not only did they appoint them, they decided to appoint them. One by one. Doing so made sure that they didn’t violate any open public access laws, and partially because they did it away from the public.

[00:13:31] GR: It was done early in the morning. Each person was sworn in. There was actually a reporter who was there. A member of the uh, Houston Independent School System Police said that they had basically cornered off. A part of the room or part of the parking lot that anyone else in the media would have to go some other place they wanted, they brought ’em in and did it, and one of the community members said, see, this is a type of coke and dagger stuff that the public doesn’t trust.

[00:13:55] GR: About the takeover that rather than making it transparent, letting everyone [00:14:00] see the signing in or the swear in of the new board members, you did it in closing. So we’re gonna see how that works out. If I could just offer two words of advice to the new superintendent and the board based upon my years of research, and in fact my.

[00:14:15] GR: Finished dissertation was on state takeovers of urban school systems. So I know a few things about it, and in fact, I had to go back and look at some of my notes to bring myself up to speed. So number one, do not promise the public or the legislature or the governor that you’re going to turn around achievement massively and quickly.

[00:14:34] GR: It’s not gonna happen in other school systems where you had a takeover. It took at least five years to start to see the first ripple of some type of reform, and it’s been mixed on whether there’s been major changes across the board or not. So don’t promise that. Number two, what you should tell the public is that you’re doing this because you want to bring better managerial.

[00:14:55] GR: Responsibility and accountability to the delivery of [00:15:00] education. The delivery of education is more than test scores. It also has to do with selecting principals and selecting teachers to work at the school. In fact, the new superintendent said that every principal and and teacher in the school system who wants a job will have a job.

[00:15:15] GR: In the school system, but they’re all gonna have to reapply for a position in the school system. That means a teacher at school a may stay at school A, or he or she may go to school B. That means the principal may find him or herself in the same situation, or you may find that person transferred to another position within the system.

[00:15:32] GR: So the superintendent’s clear. There’s no guarantee that this will happen. So, Market it as a different way of delivering education cuz it’s larger than simply grades. And then third is to actually be aware that there may be some partisan racial dynamics at play. Uh, I saw it in Cleveland and DC where I worked in a few other places that were taken over.

[00:15:54] GR: So it’s at play. But as long as we keep the idea of bringing in people to work with the [00:16:00] system to better deliver education and to do it in a way that puts children above politics. There could be some good things coming up. What are your

[00:16:08] Charlie: thoughts? Yeah, you know, the thing I’m really struck by that I think is absolutely right that you said that is also sadly a little contrary to politics is the idea of don’t promise anything that you’re gonna have.

[00:16:22] Charlie: You’re gonna change the world tomorrow. You know, it’s gonna take time, it’s gonna take five years, But the reality there is that I would much rather have. Change that takes five years and is lasting than to have change that is immediate and it fades away. You know, we’ve had a similar thing in, Lawrence here in Massachusetts.

[00:16:39] Charlie: Mm-hmm. Which obviously is much smaller city, but nonetheless, it really did have some positive results. unfortunately, once the people who created those results laughed in it. Return to the district, you’ve seen a lot of backsliding and I think that the key, it seems to me or what you said there, is the idea of really the management as you said, and really [00:17:00] putting in place the infrastructure to have lasting change and lasting improvement.

[00:17:05] Charlie: Absolutely. Alright. Then after the break, we’re gonna come back with Professor Marc Raboy, who’s gonna talk about Guglielmo Marconi about whom he wrote a book.

[00:17:35] Charlie: Marc Raboy is a emeritus Professor and beaver book chair in Ethics, media and communications in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Marconi, the Man Who Networked the World, looking for Alicia, the Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel, and the Civil Society Communication and Global Governance Issues From the World Summit on the Information [00:18:00] Society.

[00:18:00] Charlie: Professor Raboy has been a visiting scholar at Stockholm University, the University of Oxford, New York University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He lives in Montreal. Professor Raboy, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

[00:18:14] Marc: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:18:15] Charlie: I was just saying before my, mom who grew up in Italy would be so thrilled that I’m talking to you about Guglielmo Marconi.

[00:18:22] Charlie: I can’t tell you. Why don’t we just dig right into it. So, You’ve written the definitive biography of Marconi, the Noble Prize winner in physics, who over a century ago was the founder of global communications. He was the first person to systematically use radio waves to communicate over long distances, developed wireless telegraphy and was the father of radio. Would you share with us how you became interested in Marconi and why he matters so much to our wireless networked world?

[00:18:52] Marc: Well, you’ve summed it up pretty well there. Marconi really was and still is, I believe a major world historical figure particularly with regard to our contemporary communication environment. And I’ll get to that hopefully in later during this talk. But. Like many people, in fact I’ve had a very early encounter with Marconi. When I was growing up in Montreal in the 1950s, the view from our kitchen window was a brick factory with a single word on it. In Neon, “Marconi.”

Of course that didn’t, that didn’t mean anything to me except that I made the connection even at a very early age, between that and a small yellow plastic radio set that we had in our dining room that had the same word on it, Marconi and. As I grew up I kept tripping over Marconi in fact because as I became involved in media and communication studies, I mean, the Marconi company was an important private communications undertaking in Canada.

[00:19:58] Marc: And I never thought that I would write [00:20:00] about him until in the 1990s when I was. Doing some research on the origins of radio regulation. Pretty obscure topic for many, but it was something that I was feeling quite passionate about and I was, I had really made it my specialty. I discovered to my surprise, that further one went back into trying to understand why and how.

[00:20:22] Marc: Governments actually regulate the airwaves. The further one went back, the more one encountered the name of Marconi and his company. And in fact the very first international. Radio conference in 1903 was actually called by the German government, which was very serious competition with the British for world domination because they wanted to constrain Marconi’s corporate power and the ma the Marconi company.

[00:20:53] Marc: Was a British company at the beginning of the 20th century. And so this international conference was [00:21:00] convened in Berlin in 1903 with the express purpose of putting some limits to Marconi’s power because at that point he actually had exclusive legal right to use what we now know as the radio spectrum.

[00:21:14] Marc: it’s quite uncanny to imagine that way. then serendipity came into play. I, I happened to be at an academic conference in the UK when I read that an archive had just opened up at the University of Oxford uh, Marconi’s personal papers. Cause as I mentioned, the Marconi company was a British company.

[00:21:34] Marc: And at one point in the early 2000s they gave all of their early archives to the University of Oxford. And it was just mind blowing to see what they had there. I mean, there were some 40 boxes just of his personal papers, you know, ticket stubs uh, human stubs.

[00:21:52] Marc: Yeah. It, yeah. Fragments of love letters, actually. So when you put all of these together, I mean, how could one not write about it?

[00:22:01] Charlie: Fascinating. I’m curious, did the British come to the conference trying to limit the power of the British company? I would think not.

[00:22:09] Marc: Right. In fact, the British resisted the German initiative, but the, Germans had very strong allies, notably the Americans. Interestingly enough, because in the United States, the, the, the, the US Navy was trying to develop and extend its capacity for communication.

[00:22:26] Marc: And now I’ve, gotten a little bit ahead of the story here, but when Marconi Discovered how to use radio waves to communicate, to send signals and what he called at the time, wireless calligraphy. It was basically just, you know, the Morse telegraph, but without wires. I mean, this was a fantastic thing.

[00:22:45] Marc: And very quickly all of the powerful forces in the world at the time realized that this was an important thing and they wanted to get into it. But before anyone realized what was actually going on, Marconi had obtained an [00:23:00] ironclad patent to his system, first in the uk and then in just about every country in the world where one could have a patent at the time, including the United States.

[00:23:11] Marc: So it was very difficult Any other entity to get into communication development without dealing with Marconi. And as I mentioned, the Germans particularly wanted to develop communications and be able to compete globally with the British primarily. The Americans had their own interests there, and they, their interests aligned with the Germans rather than with the British.

[00:23:34] Marc: So they were the, they were the strong ally. And there were the basically uh, Only the British and the Italians opposed the German initiative at first, and eventually even they came on board. this was something that took several years to play out. Basically between 1903 and 1906 and Marconi continued to be the dominant player, and when I say Marconi here, I’m talking about his [00:24:00] company.

[00:24:00] Marc: Of course, he was the key figure in his company, but it’s the, the Marconi company continued to be the key player in wireless communication the first. 20 years of the, of the 20th century even though there were other secondary companies that were able to get into the field as a result of the international convention that the Germans had shepherded.

[00:24:22] Marc: Right, right. Okay.

[00:24:23] Charlie: Well, I’d like to take a step back and, and talk a little bit about Marconi, the person which I don’t know a whole lot about him, just as a human being. I seem to have a special aptitude for mechanics, physics, and chemistry. He, he wrote, which were not taught at the school I regularly attended.

[00:24:41] Charlie: Could you talk about his family background, formative education, including telling us about his tutor,who he credited with teaching him higher level mathematics, physics, and electro magnetic engineering.

[00:24:54] Marc: Well, first of all what’s important to to realize about Marconi is something that not widely known, which is, I [00:25:00] mean, it’s assumed that Marconi was Italian. He was actually Italian on his father’s side.

[00:25:04] Charlie: Yes, half Italian. Yes. Yes. I only recently learned that myself. Yeah, yeah.

[00:25:10] Marc: And, and British on his mother’s side. and actually, although his father, his father’s family was a recently, well to do you, you know, they were the new landed gentry that arose in northern Italy in the latter part of the 19th century on his mother’s side.

[00:25:28] Marc: Marco’s mother was from the Jameson whiskey family. and this was actually crucial to developing the business side of, Marconi’s whole enterprise because it, there was, they realized when young Marconi began , to develop his system for communication.

[00:25:48] Marc: There was nothing to do with that in Italy at the time. , and the family decided that his mother would, bring him to London and he was, she was 21 or 22 years old and she [00:26:00] had a nephew. Henry Jameson Davis, who was active in the city of London, and he put together a consortium of whiskey factors dealer, whiskey dealers and they became the first shareholders in the company that they created to exploit Marco’s patent.

[00:26:17] Marc: So the family basis was, was crucial there. And and Marconi, he, he’s what we might call today a, geek or a nerd. I mean, he liked sitting in his room and tinkering. His, his father was very concerned that he would never amount to anything. And his mother supported everything that he wanted to do as, as a teenager.

[00:26:37] Marc: and that was also to to his personal development. he had a very tenacious, stubborn character. And he didn’t do well in a formal schooling situation from an early age. But he was in Italy and he, and he grew up in Italy, I must say.

[00:26:53] Marc: I mean, the family lived in Italy as his mother had had. Gone there initially to study music and [00:27:00] when, and she met, she met the senior Marco and so on and so forth. So they actually, so Guglielmo grew up in Italy. And coming from the social class that he did, it was relatively common that young.

[00:27:13] Marc: Boys would have private schooling according to something that they had aptitude for. And so, I mean, this is where the private tutor comes in. I mean, Marconi he didn’t even really finish what we would call secondary school. I mean, he, his training, his, his, his training was either self-guided by his own interests and reading and studies and by a series of private tutors and Other figures in the Italian academic world who enabled him and facilitated his work. And everyone who came in contact with him from the time he was 18 years older. So realized that he was a kind of prodigy and, something was going to come of him if they could only you [00:28:00] know, organize it and channel it.

[00:28:01] Marc: So he was able to play off of his natural aptitudes and, and not be constrained by the fact that he really didn’t have the patience for, a lot of the conventional schooling. And he was also. Extremely determined to work on this one idea that he had which. Came to him.

[00:28:30] Marc: He sometimes would say it came to him in a flash, but it really developed over, over a period of a couple of years roughly between the ages of 18 and 20 years old, from his own reading, since he was fluent in English, he was actually reading academic journals and physics and, and so on. at a very early age, and he learned of the discovery by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz of what we now know as radio waves or hertzian waves as they’re known.

[00:28:58] Marc: And [00:29:00] Marconi was interested in communication and he was the first Person actually to have the idea of using or of trying to use these newly discovered radio waves to send intelligible signals. There were other scientists and physicists and so on other possible applications of hertzian waves.

[00:29:24] Marc: But Marconi was the first who actually said, Well, the dominant technology of the time is the wired telegraph. What if we tried to replace the wires with these mysterious waves? And he, they started doing that in, the attic of his parents’ home in the suburbs of Bologna at the age of 18 or 19 years old.

[00:29:48] Marc: And he gradually, I mean, once he was able to send a signal, a morse code signal, Across a room. He said to himself, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be [00:30:00] able to eventually do this from any point to any other point. And this is what he actually spent his life doing, perfecting the system that he was continually developing forever.

[00:30:12] Marc: Longer distance, more power global mobile, wireless communication.

[00:30:19] Charlie: Interesting. Marconi said, reading the biography of Benjamin Franklin and about see the sea voyages of 18th century British Explorer, captain James Cook. Inspired his early intellectual curiosity on his way to success.

[00:30:34] Charlie: Marconi sought the advice of renowned American inventors, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and built on the innovations of Boston Bore. Samuel Morse who as you know, developed the electric telegraph machine and his famous code. And this was in the early to mid 18 hundreds, would you talk about Marconi in relation to the history and the continuity among himself and other communications pioneers?

[00:30:59] Marc: Uh, [00:31:00] Sure. So as I mentioned what Marconi initially was trying to do was basically do the same thing that, that Morris had developed, but without wires by using radio, radio waves instead of wires, which was. really was moving communication to another level because it meant, for example, that ships at sea would be able to communicate with each other and with, as shore, or that you could send signals where it was unfeasible or, or even impossible to lay wires or you could have mobile communication on the battlefield. I mean, all of these, possible uses for wireless telegraphy built on Morse. of course, but they added a new dimension to it. it’s not accurate to say that Marconi sought the advice of people like Edison and Bill.

[00:31:49] Marc: I mean, he, oh, okay. of course, he recognized that their importance and he wanted to be well thought of by, by them, and they did think well of him. But he actually, he was very cagey [00:32:00] about in his relations with other inventors, because I mean, he realized that he was an upstart.

[00:32:05] Marc: He was much younger and he was, you know, he was coming, coming out of nowhere really. , and he was somewhat fearful that more established figures like Edison and Bell might try to take advantage of him. Ah, right. And, and in fact, Edison actually embraced. Marconi for a number of reasons.

[00:32:26] Marc: Edison had actually obtained a patent for a form of wireless telegraphy in 1885 11 years before Marconi. But he wasn’t using Hertzian waves. He was using another. form of technology and he had never decided to pursue it. So he was very happy when News of Marconi reached him.

[00:32:47] Marc: He actually sold his patent to the Marconi company and said, here, you know, see what you can do with this, because I’m not interested in, I’m, you know, I’m into electricity and so on, and. Another reason that Edison wa was happy to embrace [00:33:00] Marconi was because Marconi was a competitor of Tesla.

[00:33:03] Marc: And a Tesla was of course, think was the great rival of Edison. So Edison and Marconi, they, they, they developed, I wouldn’t say a close relationship. They, they met a couple of times. Marconi actually put Edison on the board of the American Marconi Company. that was fine. Now, Alexander Graham Bell is an interesting case.

[00:33:23] Marc: Bill. He was very eager to take Marconi under his wing, and Marconi always avoided all Bell’s overtures. Bell invited Marconi to come and stay at his home in, in Nova Scotia when Marconi actually was operating out of, out of Nova Scotia in Canada. Just maybe about an hour away from where. Bill was living at the time.

[00:33:45] Marc: And Marconi always found some kind of excuse to um, you know, he was too busy, he was out of the country, whatever. he avoided getting too close to Bill. And when I was doing my research, I actually discovered a fascinating [00:34:00] document, which in the Library of Congress, in Washington.

[00:34:03] Marc: A scrapbook, a Marconi scrapbook that was kept by Alexander Graham Bell over, over a period of years between roughly between 1899 and 1901 when Marconi was at the height of his notoriety. And Bell was. Clipping newspaper articles about Marco. So, the onus was, was on Bell and, and Marconi was remaining aloof from him.

[00:34:28] Marc: And this was a kind of, this was a pattern. That, Marconi established for himself. He was always extremely gracious in his relations with the senior figures. in his field. He always, acknowledged the influence and the importance of other figures. But at the same time he kept his cards very close to his chest and he, was certainly leery of getting too involved with them.

[00:34:50] GR: Well, speaking of central figures, let me, ask you this question. In late 1901 McCartney’s team used Morse Cole for the letter [00:35:00] s when sending and receiving the world’s first wireless transatlantic radio signal, which went over 2200 miles between England and St. John’s Newfoundland. Two years later on Cape Cod, he relayed a message from President. Theodore Roosevelt two King Edward II in Great Britain marking the first trans OSHA signal to originate from the us. We take things like that for granted today in 2023. This is late 1901. Would you talk to us about the details and significance of these big achievements in human communications?

[00:35:38] Marc: Yeah, the first transatlantic signal from England to Newfoundland actually was of tremendous symbolic significance. I it was analogous to the moon landing in terms of what it meant in the opening up. Of the imagination towards possibilities.

[00:35:55] Marc: And where was this gonna go? Where was the world headed now, now that you [00:36:00] can communicate across the Atlantic Ocean? Just through the air. So it was a fantastic event and Marconi was already A very well known international figure because he had two years earlier, for example, sent a message across the English Channel from England to France.

[00:36:18] Marc: And that, in those days, that was a, a notable achievement. but when when he actually managed to send that signal across the Atlantic, He was hailed as the man of the new century. And it was just a fanta a fantastic event, and it was simply the Morse. Letter s and it took, as you say, it took, some time for that to develop into the capacity to send, you know, what we would call today, a telegram.

[00:36:47] Marc: Basically the message from president Roosevelt to uh, the King of England was the equivalent of a transatlantic telegram. Using wireless rather than the wired telegraph. So [00:37:00] that again signaled the opening of a new era. Of course, there were transatlantic cables were sending similar messages, but cables.

[00:37:10] Marc: Could be cut cables tended to break down. A cable was very vulnerable in wartime. So the possibility of sending messages wirelessly. Meant a significant change. Now, another thing, and Marconi was very commercially minded. He very quickly set up a commercial transatlantic wireless telegraphy system, and he was able to send telegrams for one 10th the cost of, of the wire telegraph, because there were no wires to lay and maintain.

[00:37:41] Marc: In many respects, it was also a kind of democratizing technology. This was the era of the beginnings of massive European immigration to the Americas. And people suddenly overnight found that they could. Just send, [00:38:00] happy birthday mom or whatever for a reasonable cost as opposed to an excessive cost.

[00:38:07] Marc: So in terms of the impact on human communications, on the one hand you have the symbolic meaning of we’re now at the dawn of a new era. And then you have very practical concerns such as the possibility of Cheaper accessible communications.

[00:38:25] GR: It’s great that you mentioned Marco’s interest in enterprise because, you know, he helped to establish later groundwork for a number of patents and innovations that took place when you fast forward to today we’ve got smartphones and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and satellite tv and my youngest daughter, in fact still laughs when she sees a telephone at a hotel.

[00:38:47] GR: That’s connected to the wall. And she’s like, what is this? Why don’t they just use a cell phone? So there was a world, even in my own lifetime that I’ve seen change. And a lot of this goes back to [00:39:00] Marconi. So as I’m talking about my daughter who’s a school-aged person, could you talk to us about what teachers and students alike need to know about the vital importance of rigorous math and science that Marconi used to actually pioneer the modern technology world?

[00:39:16] Marc: that’s a really important question because there’s an ongoing and long-lasting debate in the field of science about theory versus experimentation. I mean, which is, which comes first, which is, which is more important and so on.

[00:39:31] Marc: And on the one hand it’s said that experimentation, unless it’s guided by a theoretical idea, Can’t really, get anywhere. But on the other hand, and what we see this possibly more so in the field of communication than in other areas, all of the great innovators of the past century in the field of communication.

[00:39:56] Marc: We’re not trained to do what they ended up [00:40:00] doing. You know, if you think of, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, mark Zuckerberg whoever they’d worked intuitively. And , they studied what they had to study in order to develop their vision.

[00:40:11] Marc: And then they surrounded themselves with people who had the technical training and expertise to re refine and develop applications. And that’s really very much the way Marconi operated when Marconi first appeared on the scene at the turn of the 20th century. All of the academic physicists said, this doesn’t make sense.

[00:40:32] Marc: This can’t be done. this is a flash in the pan. This isn’t going to go anywhere. He operated Intuitively on the basis of his belief really, that it should be possible to use the airwaves to communicate from any point on earth to any other point on earth while you’re moving without wires and so on.

[00:40:56] Marc: and that is the basis for everything that we do [00:41:00] today.

[00:41:01] GR: Absolutely. Well would like for you to select a passage from your work to leave us with something good to think about.

[00:41:10] Marc: I don’t know if I can do that because I was, because the passage I selected to read, it’s actually the last paragraph of the book. And it’s more contemplative, I think. And it’s almost a cautionary—’d like to end on a cautionary note. Because that was very much what Marconi himself did when, when he saw some of the ways in which his. Technology was being used. I mean, Marconi died in 1937 and that was a, a very, rough time especially, you know, having gone back to Italy, seeing the degeneration of relations between Italy, between his two motherlands of Italy And Britain and so on. and I think today we’re also dealing with some very serious [00:42:00] questions about the benefits and the shortcomings of communication. So here’s my, paragraph. People believe what they wanna believe, and Marconi is interesting today because we believe we are living in the world.

[00:42:13] Marc: He imagined empowered by mobile, instantaneous wireless communication. But as we saw by the end of his life, Marconi was wondering whether the uses began by his technology were a good or a bad thing for humanity. The true extent of the emancipatory character of modern communication remains to be understood.

[00:42:34] Marc: Marconi, thus personifies the paradox of communication. His ambivalence is ours. How does a technology that promotes and facilitates contact, openness and human potential become an instrument for domination, manipulation, and control? That is the question that Marco’s story asks and maybe begins to answer.

[00:42:58] GR: Cautionary ending [00:43:00] is a great thing and in the very diverse world of ideas we live in, some may actually take that as strong clarification, some strong caution and some happiness. Overall Charlie and I wanna thank you for taking time with us intellectually to talk about someone who, prior to this interview, I knew little about.

[00:43:21] GR: And given the fact that we are now having really strong conversations about AI and about ethics and about the role of invention as we move further into the 21st century, I think it’s good to take time every now and then. To talk to scholars who’ve done a deep dive into the life and times of someone like Marconi who should be better known.

[00:43:42] GR: And hopefully with your work in this show we’ll find that happening not only amongst adults, but teachers and K-12 students as well.

[00:44:09] Marc: Thank you very much.

[00:44:20] GR: So Charlie, my tweet of the week is out of this world pun intended. So this is from Mark Porter McGee, and he says, For now, the plucky helicopter refuses to die, and what plucky he helicopters are discussing is actually ingenuity. It’s a pint size helicopter that’s just completed. Its 49th flight on the red planet.

[00:44:42] GR: And so all of us are glad to see that plucky thing move along to tell us about the red planet and what we can learn from it.

[00:44:49] Charlie: And my son is keeping me up to date. I don’t know where he got this science gene. He didn’t get it from me, but he obsessed with all things having to do with astronomy and, what’s [00:45:00] going on in the larger universe.

[00:45:02] Charlie: So glad to hear I’m not alone with that one.

[00:45:05] GR: And next week we’re gonna be joined by Lance Isumi. Who is a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in California, and also a member of the Hoover Institute. He’s actually one of the people in the 1990s who, through his work, introduced me to the parental choice movement.

[00:45:24] GR: I’ve actually had a chance to never, ever meet him or interview him in person, so I look forward to our conversation with him next week. Well Charlie, thanks so much for tag teaming with me today. It was great to have a conversation with you about our two articles, but also to hear your voice and your ideas on this work.

[00:45:39] GR: So look forward to working with you in the

[00:45:41] Charlie: future. Well, it was my pleasure, jar. Always good to get to connect even if we don’t get to see you live and in person.

[00:45:48] GR: Ah, you’re not missing much or great hair.

[00:45:51] Charlie: I hear you there. Take care. All right, you too.

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