Pilgrimage to Mecca (a.k.a. Villa Griffone - birthplace of amateur radio)

by K6FVH Russell Coile

Friday, May 15, 1998 was the great day.  I visited Villa Griffone, Guglielmo Marconi's childhood home where he carried out his amateur experiments and invented "radio" in 1895 when he was 21 years old.  But let me begin by telling you how I got there.

Marconi at 21
Guglielmo Marconi at 23, preparing to show
his equipment to the British Patent Office.

My daughter, Jennifer Coile, is now a Foreign Service Officer and was sent to the American Consulate in Milan for a two year tour about a year ago.  My wife, Ellen, and I decided to visit her in Italy this spring because our five year old granddaughter is growing up so quickly.  We bought plane tickets to come in April, but then Jennifer telephoned us and asked if we could come later because she had been told she was being sent to South Africa to help out at the Embassy when President Clinton arrived.  So we changed our tickets to come in May.  Then, Jennifer telephoned and told us she was being sent to England for a couple weeks when the President will be there.  We decided to come anyhow because we would see her for four days in Milan before she left to go to Birmingham.

Villa Griffone
Villa Griffone

Milan is about 120 miles from Bologna.  My son-in-law John rented a car from Hertz and our expedition set off.  Jennifer had received some information about Marconi from the Fondazione Guglielmo Marconi.  The Foundation has turned Villa Griffone (the mythological griffin) where Marconi lived as a child into a museum.  The Villa is actually about 9 miles from the center of downtown Bologna in a village called Pontecchio Marconi.  The City of Bologna is proud of the famous inventor Marconi.  There are thirteen spots on the Bologna Marconi tour that are suggested for visits.  I am afraid that I only visited the Villa which is a large mansion on route SS64 14km from Bologna.  We actually were on the Autostrada A1 from Bologna to Firenze (Florence) and exited at Sasso Marconi.

Marconi Receiver

The ground floor has a large museum with replicas of a variety of Marconi's transmitting and receiving equipment which used spark gap transmitters and coherer detectors.  The floor above has Marconi's laboratory which has been restored to resemble the original 1895 condition when he sent his brother and a carpenter to carry the antenna and receiver beyond a hill.  Marconi's brother Alfonso fired a rifle after receiving the radio signal so that Marconi, at the window of the lab, could realize that the first radio transmission had been a success.  Hertz, in Germany, had been able to send a signal across a room, but Marconi was the first to demonstrate that he could really transmit at long distances.  Amateur radio had begun.

Marconi Spark-Gap Transmitter

Marconi went to England and improved his equipment.  He filed a patent application on June 2nd, 1896 and Patent No. 12,039 was issued on July 2nd, 1897 by the British Patent Office for "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals and in Apparatus therefor."  He was 23 years old.  Since both the British Post Office and the Royal Navy were interested in Marconi's radio equipment, his Irish cousin Jameson Davis helped him establish his company, called Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company on July 20, 1897.  Marconi had 60,000 shares and cousin 10,000 of the total of 100,000 shares.  The name was changed in 1900 to Marconi's Wireless Co.

Marconi test at sea
Marconi test at sea, 1897

Marconi was a skillful salesman and staged numerous demonstrations in England from the Isle of Wight to ships at sea, and across the English Channel from Dover to France.   On July 21, 1898 he persuaded the Daily Express newspaper in Dublin to charter a steamship, the Flying Huntress, so that he could follow sailboats at sea and send the results of sailing races to his radio station on shore so that the results could be published in the evening editions of the paper.  And of course, he captures the world's attention on December 12, 1901 when he successfully transmitted a transatlantic radio signal from England to Newfoundland.

So -- any hams who get to Italy should consider making a pilgrimage to Bologna where amateur (and commercial) radio began.  You should allow enough time to see the other places I didn't, such as: 3) the Bologna Conservatory where his Irish mother came to study singing (but married Marconi's father instead), 4) the house where Guglielmo was born on April 25, 1874, 5) the Baptistery of St. Pietro where Guglielmo was baptized, 7) the Elementary school at Casaleechio di Reno attended by little Guglielmo, and St. Petronio, the Cathedral of Bologna in Piazza Maggione where the official funeral of Marconi was held in 1937.

The Foundation has an amateur radio station, IY4FGM, at Villa Griffone.  Actually there was no one from the Foundation there when we arrived from Milan.  We were lucky to meet someone from the Research Center for Radio-Communications, Department of Electronics, Information and Systems, University of Bologna at Villa Griffone who opened the museum for us and took us around.

For more information contact:
Fondazione Guglielmo Marconi
Villa Griffone
Via Celestini, 1
40044 Pontecchio Marconi (Bo)
Tel: (+39) 51/846121 - 846222, Fax: 051/846951
Email: fgm@promet8.deis.unibo.it
Internet: www.fgm.it