'History of Science, Medicine, and Technology' Seminar

'Unveiling the invisible belt: the shareholders of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, 1897-1901'

Anna Guagnini (Independent Scholar)

The story of how Marconi’s invention developed into a practical form of communication and the creation of the Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company have been explored in detail, especially its prolonged negotiations and complex relation with British governmental agencies, most notably the General Post Office and the Military. And yet much remains to be examined, especially with regard to the economics of invention. How did such a far-fetched project manage to get through the exceedingly costly initial phase, from an experimental to a commercially viable technology? How could it not only survive that period, but also rise the stake with the launching of a new extraordinarily bold enterprise, namely the attempt to establish a transatlantic connection?

It is widely acknowledged that a fundamental role was played by Marconi’s family network - not so much the Italian side but rather his mother’s Irish relations, especially his cousin Henry Jameson Davis (a milling engineer, closely associated with the corn merchant communities in London and Dublin). Drawing on a detailed survey of the shareholders of the company in 1897 and 1900, I extend my analysis beyond the innermost ring of the original promoters and trace an overall profile of the diverse categories of investors (almost all Irish) who dared to partake in this adventure. My aim is to throw new light on how consensus was shaped and financial backing was obtained in the face of the new challenge and of divergent perspectives and expectations about the commercial future of the company.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Erica Charters (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (University of Oxford), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)