Clever Marconi Memorial on Telegraph Hill

by Joel Pomerantz

June 4th, 2010

Most famous people were made so by stories, more than by deeds—that’s what fame is. In addition to the popular stories, there’s the law. Guglielmo Marconi, son of an Italian nobleman in Bologna, knew this as well as anyone when he decided to claim invention of wireless communications (1895). His triumph was that he made the claim—and the English patent—stick.

A group called the Marconi Memorial Foundation incorporated in the 1930s for the purpose of enshrining this magical story in stone, on the slopes of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill and in the nation’s capital.

The Foundation collected public subscriptions from the supportive Italian-American community at the base of the hill, and on April 13, 1938, received permission from the U.S. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt to erect memorials designed by sculptor Attilio Piccirilli on public land in the two locations. One was placed in Washington, D.C. at 16th and Lamont Streets, NW, the other on Telegraph Hill Boulevard, here in San Francisco. The foundation spent $65,115 for the two memorials, by artist Attilio Piccirilli.

The official recognition of Marconi as inventor of the wireless was snubbed by the Russians, who credited Russian scientist Aleksandr Stepanovich Popoff with the invention. When invited to attend a 1947 celebration in Marconi’s honor, the Russian Ambassador to Italy, a Mr. Kosilev, wrote, “We have to inform you that the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of wireless by the Russian inventor Popoff was celebrated in the Soviet Union in 1945 and was followed by a series of official functions and lectures at the Academy of Sciences in the U.S.S.R. For this reason it is not becoming that the U.S.S.R. should be represented at the Marconi celebrations.”

Heinrich Hertz created what was probably the first intentional radio signal, detectable up to six yards away. Sir Oliver Lodge is credited as having been first to conceive a radio receiver. In the early 1870s, Mahlon Loomis, a dentist of Washington, D.C., became the first to succeed at rudimentary radio communication. Popoff, while researching atmospheric electricity, gave a May 7, 1895 lecture in which he stated he had transmitted and received signals at a distance of six hundred yards, but he never developed the technology. Both Lodge and Popoff were too busy with fundamental research to pursue practical applications of their ideas.

Marconi, meanwhile, not only developed it, but he brought it to England where he perceived that the possibility existed for cornering the market on navigational radio. A patent was granted him in 1896. In 1897, Marconi sold international rights (except Italian) to a telegraph company. He spent the rest of his life propagandizing and suing (not always successfully) for recognition as “the father of wireless telegraphy.”

The Memorial to him, as it happens, is mostly ignored, by virtue of being opposite a great view (at the corner of Telegraph Hill Boulevard and Lombard Street).

Telegraph hill was named, not for radio telegraphy (wireless), but for the semaphore visual signaling device erected there at the instructions of ship Captain John B. Montgomery and used from 1846 until the turn of the century.

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2 Comments to “Clever Marconi Memorial on Telegraph Hill”

  1. Chris Dichtel says:

    Indeed, Joel, and this was the basis for a famous pun cast from the peanut gallery to the stage in the midst of a local theater production, in which an actor, with the hyperbolic gesture typical of the times, threw out his arms sideways in reaction to some dramatic moment in the plot, yelling “What does this mean?!” –only to be answered from a member of the audience with the laughter-producing retort “Side-wheel steamer!”, the semaphoric sign for such a paddle boat being two wooden arms stretched out horizontally from the edifice.

  2. Chris Dichtel says:

    More locally (to you, Joel), Marconi is said to have conducted the first west coast broadcasts of his wireless invention from the tower of the Westerfield Mansion at 1198 Fulton.

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