Season 3 / Episode 43
Guglielmo Marconi--the beloved, hated, disputed inventor of radio--gets trolled by a mustached magician in the world’s first ever, wireless, grey hat hack.
- Episode 22
- Episode 23
- Episode 24
- Episode 25
- Episode 26
- Episode 27
- Episode 28
- Episode 29
- Episode 30
- Episode 31
- Episode 32
- Episode 33
- Episode 34
- Episode 35
- Episode 36
- Episode 37
- Episode 38
- Episode 40
- Episode 42
- Episode 43
- Episode 44
- Episode 45
- Episode 46
- Episode 47
- Episode 48
- Episode 49
- Episode 50
- Episode 51
- Episode 52
- Episode 53
- Episode 54
- Episode 55
- Episode 56
- Episode 57
- Episode 58
- Episode 59
- Episode 60
- Episode 62
- Episode 63
- Episode 64
- Episode 65
- Episode 66
- Episode 67
- Episode 68
- Episode 70
- Episode 71
- Episode 72
- Episode 73
- Episode 74
- Episode 75
- Episode 77
- Episode 78
- Episode 79
- Episode 80
- Episode 81
- Episode 82
- Episode 83
- Episode 84
- Episode 85
- Episode 86
- Episode 87
- Episode 88
Born in Israel in 1975, Ran studied Electrical Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology, and worked as an electronics engineer and programmer for several High Tech companies in Israel.
In 2007, created the popular Israeli podcast, Making History, with over 12 million downloads as of Oct. 2018.
Author of 3 books (all in Hebrew): Perpetuum Mobile: About the history of Perpetual Motion Machines; The Little University of Science: A book about all of Science (well, the important bits, anyway) in bite-sized chunks; Battle of Minds: About the history of computer malware.
Marconi & The Maskelyne Affair
In 1903 Guglielmo Marconi, an electrical engineer and the man often credited with having invented radio, set out to demonstrate a new theory of his to the world: that, tuned to the same frequency, he could send a signal from one radio transmitter to another, over any distance. Not only that, but the signal would be completely private–no interference, fully secure. A celebrity in the field, Marconi was confident in his discovery. So he arranged for a show to be held in an historic London theater, before the British aristocracy, and the national press.
And everything would’ve gone to plan, too, if not for one of Marconi’s longtime rivals. A man whose actions that day, you might say, made him the first grey hat hacker ever.
Hi, I’m Ran Levi, welcome back to Malicious Life in collaboration with Cybereason. In today’s episode, Guglielmo Marconi–the beloved, hated, disputed inventor of radio–gets trolled by a moustached magician in the world’s first ever, wireless, man-in-the-middle attack.
Nearly a decade before his 1903 London showcase, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his first proof of concept, before an audience of…his mother. In his late teenage years he’d become interested in, reading about, and tinkering with radio transmission in the attic of his home in Veneto, Italy. It didn’t take him long to evolve from an enthusiast, to a bona fide inventor. Late at night in December of 1894, he placed a button–a transmitter–on a bench in his home, and a bell–a receiver–on the other side of the room. Using radio waves, he was able to make the bell ring simply by pressing the button.
What would now seem mundane was anything but at the time, and within a year, Marconi’s radio signals could travel half a mile. In 1896, two miles. The rapid improvement convinced him that he was only just scratching the surface of what was possible. Still, the opportunities for funding were limited in his home country. Being born to a family of wealth and high class, he used a powerful family friend to make introduction with the Italian ambassador to the U.K.. The Italian ambassador agreed that England offered more opportunity for funding than Italy could, but added one condition: that the young inventor should take care not to reveal his discoveries, before receiving a patent for them. It would appear that the young Macroni took this advice to heart. Patents will become an important part of his story to come.
In 1896 Guglielmo Marconi traveled to London, to make a name for himself as an inventor. What he didn’t know, at the time, was that his future success would be inextricably linked with an event that had already passed, across the Atlantic Ocean.
In the 1890s, Nikola Tesla was at the forefront of wireless energy transmission technology. As early as 1891, he’d been demonstrating a radical new mechanism commonly referred to as the “Tesla coil”–a mechanism capable of transmitting and receiving radio signals when two coils are tuned to accommodate the same frequency. At his pace, and with his genius, Tesla was right on the verge of inventing a workable technology able to transmit information across great distances. He, in short, was in the midst of inventing radio.
In 1895, Tesla was preparing to a public demonstration. He was going to send a signal all the way from Manhattan to West Point, New York–a distance of over 50 miles. And then, in the lead-up to the event, all of his work came to a screeching halt.
Today, 33-35 West Broadway can be found in a neighborhood populated by the tall office buildings of Manhattan’s Financial District. 33-35, if you look at it, is rather nondescript–just as boring and colorless as the office building you’re picturing in your head now. Almost a century and a half ago, however, it housed a laboratory owned by Nikola Tesla. The lab took up its entire fourth floor, and acted as a hub for some of the most forward scientific breakthroughs of the late 19th century.
That was, until March 13th, 1895, when a fire that started in the building’s basement spread and, ultimately, engulfed the entire building in flames. The product of years of hard work, from the world’s foremost inventor of his time, was now gone. Advancements in the fields of energy and communications were thrown off course. “I am in too much grief to talk,” Tesla told the New York Times. “What can I say?” Perhaps for the first time ever, Nikola Tesla had nothing to say.
Tesla would move his operation northeast, to Greenwich Village, in the months following the fire. But the time and effort it would take to reconstruct his previous progress in the field of radio transmission would put him back a year–just enough of a window to allow another young inventor in the field to step in and take his place.
Across The Atlantic Ocean
It’s not possible to claim, definitively, that Marconi wouldn’t have made it if not for Tesla’s unfortunate accident. Marconi was, either way, a remarkable inventor. However, the fact is by 1896, a whole year after Tesla was ready to send a signal over 50 miles, Marconi’s best effort could barely traverse a fraction of that distance. His early mechanism was mocked, with some claiming it wouldn’t transmit a signal “across a pond”. Still, he filed patent for the technology that same year.
Marconi did have the excuse of still being, you know, 21 years old at the time. It wouldn’t take him more than a year later to improve his work, and on May 13th, 1897–the two year, two month anniversary of Tesla’s lab fire–Marconi successfully sent a signal across the English channel. His trick? Implementing an oscillator, invented four years prior, by Nikola Tesla.
Leveraging his breakthrough technology, in 1897 the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company was established. And its owner? He was not yet content by simply hopping ponds. In 1899, two years after traversing the Bristol Channel, Marconi set his sights on a new goal: sending a signal across the entire Atlantic Ocean. A signal so great, you might say, that it could reach Nikola Tesla at his doorstep.
In order to build such a device, Marconi knew he’d have to step up his game–ditching the 200-400 watt transmitters he’d been using thus far, in favor of a more powerful contraption. No transmitter so powerful existed at the time, so he enlisted help from another inventor: John Ambrose Fleming. Fleming was an already established physicist and electrical engineer, and consultant for Marconi Wireless, who’d spend the following two years developing a large, complex radio transmitter up to the task.
Marconi Co. wasn’t so much to scoff at in 1899, but it became a lot to scoff at within only a year. You’d think it had something to do with his demonstration at the Bristol Channel but, more likely, his company was buoyed by Marconi’s personal connections with England’s aristocracy–the kind of connections that allowed him to come from England in the first place, and later landed him fancy contracts within the highest orders of English business and government. He was now lecturing–for example, at the Royal Institution in London. In December 1898, the British lightship service authorized wireless communication between two Southeast England lighthouses separated by twelve miles, using Marconi Co. tech. Three months later, one of the lighthouses sent out a signal to the other, in response to a merchant ship crashing along their shared shoreline. A lifeboat was promptly deployed, all thanks to Marconi’s radio signaling.
In all, Marconi stock in England jumped in 1900 from $3 to $22 per share (keep in mind, this was $22 in 1900–a lot more than $22 today). Guglielmo Marconi was now an internationally famous inventor and businessman, still only in his mid-20s. The Scottish-American tycoon Andrew Carnegie invested in the company. Thomas Edison invested, and signed onto the effort as a consulting engineer. All this, while the company was in development for its most ambitious, ocean-crossing project.
Fleming’s work for Marconi came to a tee the following year, and on December 12th, 1901, Marconi Co. announced a successful radio transmission from England to Newfoundland, 2,200 miles in total, across the Ocean. The claim was heavily disputed by experts of the time. It’s possible that Marconi exaggerated his results. It would take him one more year and five more days to publicly, demonstrably, prove that he could transmit a signal from Canada to Great Britain.
However he ultimately got there, though, Marconi had all along won the battle for international publicity. He became highly, widely acclaimed. On January 18th, 1903, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt successfully sent a message of greetings to King Edward VII in the U.K. from a Marconi Co. Station in Massachusetts.
Where the public was concerned, justified or not, he had now fully eclipsed Nikola Tesla as the world’s heralded leader in radio communication.
An Un-hackable Communication Channel
Between their rapid rise in the market, and their new technology supporting intercontinental communication, Marconi Wireless posed a severe threat to existing, wired telegraph companies of the Western hemisphere. So, naturally, leaders in the industry sought any way to stop the rapid change that threatened to upend the market. It was 1903 when a manager of the Atlantic Telegraph Company came up with a perfectly mischievous plan, capitalizing on Marconi’s insatiable ambitiousness.
As demonstrated by his questionable 1901 announcement of a successful trans-Atlantic signal transmission, Guglielmo Marconi was the kind of person who made claims even before fully substantiating them. In a February 1903 interview with the St. James Gazette, a London-based newspaper, Marconi made yet another grand claim. He said, “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages.”
In other words, Marconi claimed that by keeping the specific tuning of his instrument secret – he could create an un-hackable communications system. It was the kind of invention that could attract the attention of governments, militaries, high-end business, and the thing to launch Marconi Co. even further ahead of the competition.
How could Marconi voice such an audacious claim? To answer this question, we need to dive a bit deeper into the basics of Radio Technology.
The way radio transmission systems worked, in Marconi’s days, was by emitting radio waves in a very broad range of frequencies. Take, as an example, a radio station such as WNYC, broadcasting from New York City. If I wish to listen to WNYC today, I would tune my car’s radio receiver to a specific frequency: 93.9 MHz in WNYC’s case. Had WNYC existed in Marconi’s time, it would have transmitted it’s radio signal in a much – much, much – broader range of frequency, perhaps all the way from 1 KHz up to 300 MHz.
This broad transmission range was initially useful for Marconi, since it enabled him to use simple receivers on the other side of the communication channel. Yet as Marconi strived to bridge longer and longer distances with his radio systems – it also created a problem. You see, sending a radio broadcast across the English Channel, a distance of a few tens of miles, requires relatively little energy – but crossing the Atlantic Ocean is a completely different thing: with his existing broad-frequency radio systems, Marconi needed to increase the energy output of his transmitters a hundred fold at the very least. This meant larger batteries, larger antennas, larger coils – larger everything, basically. It might be feasible to build such transmitters on land – but not so feasible on ships, which were the main focus of Marconi’s business efforts.
A natural solution to this problem is to focus all the energy emitted by the transmitter into a narrow band of frequencies, thereby enabling the radio waves to travel longer distances before losing their strength. A good analogy would be replacing a short-range shotgun which spreads many bullets over a wide area, with a sniper rifle which fires a single bullet to a much larger distance.
The novel technology that enabled this narrow-band transmission was called ‘Syntonic transmission’, and it was being developed in parallel by several physicists and inventors in Europe and the US. In its core, syntonic transmission meant that both the transmitter and receiver in a given channel were both ‘tuned’ to the same frequency: that is, the transmitter would send radio waves in a specific frequency, and the receiver would be ‘blind’ to all radio frequencies except that specific frequency. This both focused all the transmission energy and made the receiver much more sensitive, felling two birds with one stone.
‘Security By Obscurity’
Initially, Marconi ignored syntonic transmission – but when he understood its usefulness, he explored it in depth and patented his own version of it. It then occurred to him that in addition to increasing range, syntonic transmission can also make eavesdropping on a communication much more difficult! If I’m transmitting on a specific frequency and you’re listening on that specific frequency – someone listening on some other frequency would get nothing but static.
Think about it for just a moment and you’ll notice a glaring problem with that logic: that any other receiver, also tuned to that same frequency, will be able to tap into the same line of communication. This means that for the conversation to be truly private, the signal frequency would have to be kept secret. In modern terms, we would refer to this as ‘Security By Obscurity’: a legitimate policy when used in tandem with other, more robust cyber security techniques – but not one you’d want to bet all your company’s sensitive assets on.
This glaring problem was almost immediately spotted by several of Marconi’s critics, one of whom was Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne was a 39 year-old with the kind of moustache that made him look 59. His persona is a kind of marriage: part intellectual and part troll. “Innovative” and “funny” don’t often go together, but Nevil’s father did it even before him, as the inventor of the strange and hilarious coin-activated “spend-a-penny” lock for public toilets. Maskelyne was a manager of a telecommunications company, but also an accomplished magician. So Maskelyne had a deep technical background in exactly the field Marconi was operating in, but even more importantly, he knew how to snuff out a trick.
Maskelyne wasn’t only well-prepared, however: he was also a longstanding rival of Marconi. As a manager at Atlantic telegraph, he’d been mired in battles with the inventor over multiple patent applications in the U.K.. He himself was an experimenter in the arts of wireless communication, having successfully sent a signal over a ten mile distance in 1900. He was only a step or two behind Marconi as Marconi’s career skyrocketed. But being that step or two behind would become increasingly frustrating, as his rival snatched up patents just before he could. Based on what we know today, you probably wouldn’t categorize Nevil Maskelyne as an outwardly vengeful person. On the contrary, he was quite playful for a man of his intellect. Still, he had plenty motivation to challenge Marconi, when the opportunity presented itself.
As Guglielmo Marconi and John Fleming traversed England, touting their perfectly secure communications technology, Maskelyne took a skeptic’s view. On March 25th, 1903, he commented on those claims to London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, with what can only be described as dripping sarcasm. “If Professor Fleming’s statements can be justified in practice, it is clear that no other worker in ‘wireless’ can ever compete with Mr. Marconi,” he said. “We others must all write off our time, labour and money as dead loss. But before allowing ourselves to be snuffed out, we, whose modest achievements are obscured by the glamour of Mr. Marconi’s greatness, have a right to demand the absolute justification of his claims.”
However noble he claimed to be, Nevil Maskelyne was not operating alone, spontaneously, nor entirely out of a sense of justice. The Eastern Telegraph company operated the British Empire’s primary, international communications network out of Cornwall–the very county where Marconi had set up his trans-Atlantic power station. According to New Scientist magazine, Eastern Telegraph hired Nevil Maskelyne to spy on Marconi Wireless, after their December 1901 announcement of a trans-Atlantic comms system. On November 7th, 1902, he bragged to a reporter that, quote:
“I received Marconi messages with a 25 ft. collecting circuit raised on a scaffoldpole. No wonder I was interested. When, eventually, the mast was erected and a full-sized collecting circuit installed, the problem presented was, not how to intercept the […] messages, but how to deal with their enormous excess of energy. That, of course, involved no difficulty, and by relaying my receiving instrument through landlines to the station in the valley below, I had all the Poldhu signals brought home to me at any hour of the night or day.”
As proof, Maskelyne published the messages he had received, thus refuting Marconi’s claims of having a fully secure wireless transmission channel. At first, Marconi claimed that these messages were forged, but later admitted that syntonic transmission can be tapped. Still, said Marconi – it would take an expert to design a system that could be tuned to a specific frequency, and the same expert could reasnobly design a system to eavesdrop on telegraphy communication, so at the very least both systems are similarly secure. Marconi was right: back then, designing synotic transmission did require significant expertise, and only a handful of people in the whole world had that knowledge.
After backing up on his security claims, Marconi started emphasizing another advantage that syntonic transmission had over the existing wireless technology: it’s immunity to interference.
Interference was – and still is – a big problem for wireless communication. If two radio stations are broadcasting on the same frequency, the two broadcasts would interfere with one another – like two speakers emitting two different songs at the same time. Interference was even a bigger problem with the existing, wide frequency range, radio technology, since each transmitter was essentially blocking a huge part of the available frequency spectrum. With syntonic transmission, both sides were tuned to the same specific narrow-band frequency, and so would not interfere with other conversations taking place on other frequencies. This would be like having one speaker playing a song in a frequency range suitable for humans, and the other speaker playing a different song in a higher frequency range that only dogs can hear. Marconi claimed that his new radio technology was interference-proof: that is, it would not interfere with other transmissions, nor – and this is the crucial part for our story – would it be susceptible to interference from other transmitters working on some other frequency range.
Again, this claim was met with skepticism by critics who doubted that Marconi’s systems were so finely tuned as to block any interference what so ever. But to the general public, Marconi was a wizard inventor who was, probably, able to build any kind of possible communications device imaginable. Few would’ve been brash enough to question the claims of the man who brought long-distance radio to the world, especially during the prime of his career.
A Public Demonstration
Guglielmo Marconi and John Fleming arranged for a public demonstration of their communications mechanism to be held at the Royal Institute in London, on June 4th, 1903. In an account published two weeks following the event in “The Electrician” magazine, Nevil Maskelyne explained what he was thinking about in the days leading up to the showcase:
Personally, I met with no opportunity of instituting practical tests until the announcement of Professor Fleming’s lectures at the Royal Institution upon the subject of “Electric resonance and Wireless Telegraphy.” Even then I did not realize the inwardness of the situation. My only idea was that I should like to hear the lectures. When, however, it was pointed out to me that the practical demonstrations accompanying the lectures rendered independent tests possible, I at once grasped the fact that the opportunity was too good to be missed. Accordingly, arrangements were made for carrying out a simple experimental test.
Surely enough, as Marconi and Fleming were making arrangements to demonstrate the capabilities of their new technology, Maskelyne was secretly making arrangements to demonstrate its limitations. “To do this was something more than a right,” he wrote, “it was a duty. Those who might and should have produced tangible proofs, either could not or would not do so. Therefore, it must be done by others.” Maskelyne was, in this regard, a true gray hat hacker.
On the day of the event, Marconi was at his company’s Cornwall, England power station. It was 5:00 p.m. when John Fleming began his lecture, on stage at the Royal Institute theater, in front of a crowd filled with many of London’s highest intellectuals and aristocrats.
Nevil Maskelyne was just nearby, at his father’s West End music hall, with a radio transmitter.
An Electronic Patter
Marconi’s transmitter and Fleming’s receiver were pre-tuned to the same frequency, as Fleming delivered his lecture about their company’s patented, interference-proof communications system to the crowd. Maskelyne’s transmitter was tuned to a different, lower frequency. Just before 6:00 p.m., as Fleming was winding down his speech…
It could have been a rickety overhead fan, or maybe someone with the jitters, so few paid attention. John Fleming was partially deaf, so he didn’t hear it. Fleming’s assistant was the only one in the theater who knew what was going on with this quiet…little…patter.
In magic, “patter” is a term used to describe a magician’s script–the oral component of their demonstration. Because magic is part trickery, part showmanship, the performer’s patter is crucial to engaging audiences. In his book on magic, Nevil Maskelyne writes that “artistic presentation demands the employment of patter, as an inevitable necessity.”
At the Royal Institute that day, the “patter” of Nevil Maskelyne’s grand trick was, literally a patter. Morse code being transmitted, without warning, to Fleming’s receiver. Here’s the thing, though: for this trick, the audience wasn’t necessarily the crowd at the Royal Institute–it was Fleming himself.
When Maskelyne was plotting his scheme, he realized something:
The difficulty which struck me, however, was this,” he wrote. “While observers at the lecture would easily discover that the interferences were not successful, on the other hand successful interference might be readily concealed by those in charge of the receiving instruments. The only hope, then, was to interpolate messages calculated to anger and “draw” somebody at the receiving end.
Remember in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi announced he’d sent a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean? Nevil Maskelyne remembered the event well. He knew his rival’s history of telling the public one thing, while keeping the actual results of his experiments confined to his eyes alone. He knew well enough that, should he hack their signal, John Fleming may well obscure the sound, write it off as nothing, or label it all part of the show, to an audience without the tools to know better.
It’s necessary to understand all these moving parts of the story, to explain why when Maskelyne’s signal did begin to go through, it simply read “rats, rats, rats, rats, rats” over and over again. He was trying to get a rise out of John Fleming, so he had some fun. Taking aim at Marconi, he patched through a limerick he made up. It read: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.”
Here’s an account of the event, as told by one of Fleming assistants at the lecture.
“…I plainly heard the astounding word “rats” spelt out in Morse […] And when this irrelevant word was repeated, suspicion gave place to fear. Evidently something had gone wrong. Was it practical joke […] Or was it even scientific sabotage? And the hands of the clock, with equal detachment, also moved on, while I, with a furiously divided attention, glanced around the audience to see if anybody else had noticed these astonishing messages. All seemed well—a testimony to the spell of Fleming’s lecture—until my harassed eye encountered a face of supernatural innocence and then the mystery was solved. The face was that of a man [Dr. Horace Manders] whom I knew to be associated with Mr. Nevil Maskelyne in some of his scientific work. With such sang froid as I could muster I tore off the tape with this preposterous dots and dashes, rolled it up, and with a pretence of throwing it away, I put it in my pocket. “
Fleming, it turns out – didn’t notice anything: he was partially deaf, and so calmly lectured on.
Maskelyne stopped what he was doing just moments before Marconi’s signals came in, and the scheduled demonstration began. Of course, by then, the real demonstration of the night was already over.
Word got out and, the day after the show, a PR battle began. Marconi and Fleming claimed that the attack was snuffed out once the receiver was correctly tuned, that the interference was actually caused not by radio transmission but by currents running through the ground, and even that there was no interference at all, since Marconi’s signal did ultimately come through. Fleming, in more than one contribution to The Times of London, labeled the act “scientific hooliganism”–which, presumably at the time, was a sick burn.
Maskelyne admitted to being the hacker only a few days later, beginning a claim-for-claim war with Fleming in the Times of London. It ended when he wrote the following passage:
Thus, within less than a week, we have been led to the following harmonious conclusions:
- The interference was successful, because my signals were read and objected to.
- It was not successful, because my signals were “cut out” by tuning.
- It was partially successful, because the installation was but temporary.
- It was only successful while the receiver was being tuned.
- It must have been entirely successful, because the receiver was not tuned at all.
And then, some people pretend to wonder at our wanting to make independent investigations. Well, Qui vult decipi, decipiatur.
Those four final words translate to “Let he be deceived, who wishes to be deceived.”
The 1903 Marconi hack feels, in more ways than one, still relevant today. The evil corporation, the mischievous hacker. And, just like today, no proper news outlet better captured the essence of the story than “Punch”, a satirical magazine, who ridiculed Marconi’s claims of having an interference-proof technology.
In an “editorial note” to the Daily Wireless, a paper “giving the latest news [on Transatlantic travel] by means of Marconigrams”, the author writes that:
Owing to the large number of messages transmitted simultaneously today, the publication of this journal has been a task of some difficulty. Apparently many of the messages are private greetings to passengers from their friends on shore. Since we cannot disentangle them from the news items intended for the Daily Wireless, we are compelled to print the Marconigrams as received.
London, April 1 –
The share market is quiet as a whole, but there is a slight depression in your new woolen vests which are in the black portmanteau, and do be careful to see that there is no truth in the reported Armenian massacre. [. . .] Lords urge that you are such a duck, and must be vaccinated on Tuesday. Scaramouch. Oh, my darling popsy-wopsy, your own teeny wants you because second-grade goods are in brisk demand…
Nevil Maskelyne wouldn’t achieve anything so great as his wireless hack again in life, but his actions did have a major impact on the future of wireless technology. The Maskelyne affair showed that radio communication is, in fact, vulnerable to eavesdropping and accidental or purposeful interference – even if the transmitter and receiver are tuned to a specific frequency. This fact encouraged researchers to take wireless communication security more seriously, with many encryption and electronic warfare techniques emerging in the following decades. And it drove governments to enforce better monitoring and control of the radio spectrum by allocation of broadcast licences for specific radio frequencies.
John Fleming, when signing on to build that tower which sent a signal across the Atlantic Ocean, was promised 500 shares of the company stock upon successful completion of the project, but was forced to agree that, quote: “If we get across the Atlantic, the main credit will be and must forever be Mr. Marconi’s.” Once the tower was completed, the price of Marconi stock had risen from $3 to $22. Marconi reneged on the agreement to hand over 500 company shares to Fleming, and claimed his partner’s work was limited to some help with the power plant.
Nikola Tesla spent years brewed in a battle with Marconi over American patents. Tesla’s claim as the inventor of fundamental radio technology was approved in 1897, and Marconi’s attempt in 1900 at the same patent failed. However, once his company skyrocketed in value, and received the backing of prominent figures in business and government, the U.S. Patent Office reversed their earlier decision, granting Marconi Tesla’s patent in 1904. When Marconi won a Nobel Prize for his work in radio, Tesla realized the man who copied his work had now stolen his glory. He filed suit against Marconi Wireless on the basis of infringement, but lacked the money to go to court with a major multinational corporation. Only in 1943, following Tesla’s death, did the U.S. Supreme Court reinstate his original patent, and claim as the inventor of radio. If this sounds poetic, well, according to an account published by PBS, there were ulterior motives. Marconi’s company was suing the U.S. government for use of its patent technology in building their military weaponry. So the reversal was committed, mostly out of convenience.
Guglielmo Marconi’s reputation today is, generally, mixed. The hit he took in 1903 didn’t last long, as evidenced by his Nobel Prize. His reputation grew even larger in 1912, when employees of his Marine Communication Company aboard the Titanic used their radios to tirelessly phone nearby ships that helped save some of the sinking passengers. The U.K.’s postmaster general said later that “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi…and his marvelous invention.” In his later years, Marconi would go on to become a prominent member of Italy’s fascist party during World War II, appointed in 1930 to the Fascist Grand Council by none other than Benito Mussolini himself.
In his book, Nevil Maskelyne writes that “To produce a magical effect, of original conception, is a work of high art.” What he’d achieved on that summer evening in London, 1903, must have appeared like magic to anyone looking on. But it wasn’t. It was a hack.