The Gadget Playboy

There are those, like PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who use their inherited wealth to bibble inconsequentially about in a happy haze of tea rooms and dance halls.

And then there are the Bruce Waynes of this world.

Bruce Wayne – or Batman to the likes of you and me – has no superpowers: just crates and crates of cash.

Which allows him to invest in a very large Batcave beneath his mansion and a plethora of boy’s toys, the like of which Gotham City’s naughtiest have never before beheld.

The playboy lifestyle is forgiven him by millions because he’s a haunted soul with a batty side. And ever-faithful, ever beside him, is Alfred Pennyworth: the butler, Wayne’s ‘Q’.

Now there is one secretly very useful member of society; with his secret lab and his secret butler.

And here’s another. Although eventually, he came out.

This one is Italian. He was drawn, like a moth to a flame , to the work of Heinrich Hertz.

Hertz had just, in 1888, begun to to show that with the right conditions you could produce electromagnetic radiation: to you and I, radio waves.

Look: no wires. What if – just conceivably – one could send messages through the air ? If one could telegraph someone using nothing more substantial than invisible waves?

Our hero – let us call him Guglielmo – was a lucky young man. His father was an Italian landowner of substance, and his mother the Irish granddaughter of the founders of a notable Ireland whisky distillers. And  just down the road from his parents’ Italian palatial mansion was another such palatial mansion, and in this lived one of the foremost proponents of Hertz’s work: Augusto Righi .

Guglielmo pulled a few strings, and found himself studying Hertz’s ideas under Righi at the University of Bologna. The moment he had a grasp of the physics, he came home and set up a secret laboratory to test his ideas.

Sound familiar?

It will ring even more so when you hear that his only helper in those upper rooms of the Villa Griffone in Pontecchio,  Italy, was his faithful butler, Mignani.

Not even his parents knew what was going on up there at the top of their own house.

This was not new technology. Others had discovered it all before our hero, but he could see with x-ray eyes into the future, how lucrative messages could be, sent undetected by human eye.

He started small, with a storm alarm which rang when lightning set it off; and before long he could press a button on one side of a room and a bell would ring on the other.

No wires.

One night, he was ready. How does a millionaire playboy superhero announce his intentions to the world?

Well, if she’s still around, he tells his mother.

One night in December, 1894, Guglielmo woke his mum up in the middle of the night. He ushered her into the attic rooms, and he showed her how messages could fly through the air unaided.

The next day, he had gained enough family kudos to show his father.

And, moneyed families being what they were, his Dad emptied out his wallet to fund more materials for the experiments.

And there began a tale of superhuman persistence. One which wormed itself irresistibly into the history of England: for he travelled to London and captivated William Preece, Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post office.

And many of his finest experiments happened here: signalling across Salisbury Plain, across the English Channel and, ultimately, carrying messages from Presidents to Kings across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bertie was a dead loss in the whole getting-things -done business, but Batman had much more promise.

Guglielmo Marconi has this on both of them: that he possessed real live, flesh and blood, gadget playboy genius.

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44 thoughts on “The Gadget Playboy

    1. What an amazing demonstration of Marconi’s special powers…thanks, Lameadventures – I had no idea about this story. Marconi was such a flamboyant figure. I got interested after I heard that he worked at the Kent lighthouse we visited on the White Cliffs: he chose Christmas Eve as the perfect time to put his assistant in a boat near treacherous sands to receive shore-to-ship test messages. I bet there are many extraordinary stories where these came from.

  1. It can be most useful to have someone bankroll experiments, can’t it?

    By the way, Batman’s family. What were they doing in a dark alley to be killed, if that were THAT wealthy? I love the silly gaps the comics produced.

  2. I certainly hope this is the first page of the book proposal you are putting together for GUGLIERMO MARCONI: SUPERGENIUS. Put it together as a dark graphic novel and sell it to physics classrooms across the nation. I’d buy it!

  3. On the other hand, I think I would opt for a spiffing time at the Drones Club rather than lonely nights studying electromagnetics in the dusty attic of my palace. I bet Bertie was pleased with Guglielmo’s work as he could be warned, by telephone, of the unwelcome, and otherwise unheralded, approach of Aunt Agatha:)

  4. I knew little of Marconi’s background other than his achievement. It does make me sad somehow that to be successful you need money and influence. And a butler. Funny how Wodehouse cracked that. Beautifully and compellingly written. 🙂

  5. I knew nothing of the background of the man. I marvel at today’s genius minds who conceive of the most amazing and impressive things, but to my mind, most of them are building on the shoulders of others. How did Marconi’s original hypotheses begin to take flight? That’s what amazes me. Marconi is ultimately responsible for the way I can sit in one room manipulating my iTunes playlist on the computer and send the message to a wireless router, and eventually realize the music streamed through wireless Airports throughout my house. Now that to me is useful! 🙂 Debra

  6. Gug: Well, that was fun, but I think I should get back to the Club.
    Mig: May I suggest, sir, that first you go and see someone in England about it? I believe a William Preece is highly spoken of.
    Gug: D’you really think so Mignani? Oh, well, right-ho. I suppose the chaps will have to do without me for a bit longer.

  7. Marconi was fascinating – he turned up on one of our “Who Do You Think You Are?” programmes here a while back. He had a very strong connection with Ireland and the UK and was definitely a very persistant man from all the stories I have heard.

  8. Radio Amateurs celebrate International Marconi Day in April each year so you’re either early or late with this Kate 😉 He received his first signal from St.John’s in Newfoundland at Poldhu in Cornwall in December 1901. There is a special centre at Poldhu celebrating Marconi with the callsign GB2GM.

  9. One of my proudest possessions as a kid was the crystal radio set my Dad made for me. Thanks for the back story on how all this came to be. I am a real radio fan, loved it for the music, the news, the stories. Wonderful.

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