Catholic scientists didn’t just live and work in the Renaissance. Dozens of contemporary Catholic scientists are doing incredible work in mathematics, biology, physics, astronomy, and other disciplines. These men and women have been responsible for advancement in medical technology, a deeper understanding of the galaxy, and even a human-centered model for determining earthquake strength.
This week’s scientist passed away a few decades ago, but you can credit him with KOIT 96.5 playing Christmas music nonstop (starting soon!) and the invention of distress signalling for maritime vessels. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor and electrical engineer, did such pioneering work in physics and radio transmission that he is widely recognized as the father of the radio.
Born into a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy in 1874 (his mother was Annie Jameson, heiress to the Jameson whiskey fortune), Marconi never attended school nor went on to higher education. He was instead educated by a series of tutors, and largely self-educated following his teenage years. He befriended a professor at the University of Bologna, who allowed him to sit in on lectures and let him use the university library, though he was never enrolled as a student.
At the age of 17, Marconi began exploring ideas of “wireless telegraphy.” Wired telegraph was a common method of communication in the 1890s, and he wondered why there shouldn’t be a wireless alternative. In 1888, another scientist, Heinrich Hertz, had demonstrated the concept of radio waves (the production and detection of electromagnetic energy), an idea which had captured the attention of many in the scientific community. But none of the scientists interested in radio waves were talking about applying their knowledge for a practical purpose. Marconi had found his niche.
Through a series of different experiments with radio waves, Marconi invented a storm predictor and portable transmitting and receiving systems (early walkie-talkies), among other things. He struggled, though, because his systems were limited to communication and detection in a half-mile radius. Without expanding that radius, radio wave communication could never be harnessed into an effective replacement for the wired telegraph.
His breakthrough came in 1895, when he was just 21 years old. He discovered that, by lengthening the receiving antennas on his devices, he could vastly expand the accurate communication radius. Using Morse code, he could send messages wirelessly between locations approximately 10 miles apart. In a series of further experiments, he discovered the optimal conditions for sending messages back and forth thousands of miles, finally making his work a potential competitor for the trans-Atlantic telegraph wires and a feasible communication option for ships and others out of reach of the wired telegraph grid.
Marconi’s was a true lifesaver in disaster — when the R.M.S. Titanic sank, its wireless operators were able to send out the distress signals that told other ships of their plight. Without wireless transmission, it is likely that no one would have survived the disaster. Marconi was a devout Catholic during his young life, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Braun in 1909 for their “contributions in the field of wireless technology.”
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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