Like a recipe that was never written down, technologies that go unadopted may simply become lost to time — no hardware remaining, and no designs logged. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project seeks to provide access to historic newspapers and digitized newspaper pages, and it is here we begin to piece together the full history of innovation reported in the US in snippets. Here is a look at one such found invention: a telegraph system for cars developed by Marconi Wireless in 1901.
Guglielmo Marconi’s work, particularly on long-distance radio transmission, is well-known and well-regarded today, but not all of his inventions have stood the test of time. The first found mention of this particular telegraph apparatus is in a small, captioned illustration published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser on September 12, 1901.
Described as “a recent invention of the wizard, Marconi,” the illustration depicts a motor car with a large device attached to the roof — a tube containing a jointed funnel designed to receive and dispatch wireless transmissions. Not quite what we think of when we think of car radio, the intention of the design was to allow cars to signal ahead on the road, presumably as a safety measure for drivers. The funnel “may be used in either an erect or prostrate position, but does the best work when perpendicular.” Framed almost as an advertisement, it seems this was a completed invention, ready to be marketed by Marconi Wireless. So what became of it?
What appears to be the same device is mentioned again a year later in the September 2, 1902, Birmingham Age-Herald article, “Marconi Says Germans Stole Wireless System,” this time equipped aboard German naval vessels. An interview with the inventor himself, it first begins as praise for Czar Nicholas before refocusing to the source of his apparent troubles: German electronics pioneer Adolf Slaby. Marconi, according to his recounting, had met Slaby and had “turned [himself] inside out, showing him everything, explaining…everything to him.” Insistent that we never sold so much as a license to the German navy, Marconi says Slaby promptly turned around and took out a patent on the apparatus.
While little of the apparatus is discussed in the article, perhaps because Marconi was from then on determined to remain tight-lipped, it seems at least in a similar vein to the car apparatus: a transmission system which allows vehicles to communicate with one another.
Marconi does go on to say that German naval officers will say the telegraph system they use is a Slaby invention — but get them drunk, and they’ll admit it is a Marconi.
While it does not seem that this unwieldy antenna was ever widely used by consumers in the US or elsewhere, it may well have been an iteration of many among his wireless telegram systems. Despite his insistence that he will speak publicly of his inventions no more, Marconi does tease at the end of the article that good news is coming for America — by simplifying this current system, his inventions would soon be able to send wireless telegrams 2,500 miles.
A search through international patents doesn’t reveal much else. Patents under Marconi’s name are either for “apparatus employed in wireless telegraphy” or for improvements thereupon. While this particular vehicular iteration of the device did not make waves, the basic apparatus design itself was a life’s work for Marconi. And while his particular design isn’t apparent in the development of cars throughout the century, it is one of the first mentions of an attempt to equip personal motor vehicles with a communication device.
Later, of course, cars were commonly outfitted with radios and now with Bluetooth. Vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication isn’t a standard in vehicle development, but it might be on its way to that status. In 2016, the US Department of Transportation proposed draft rules that would gradually make V2V communication capabilities mandatory for new cars. The main dilemma is over the chunk of the radio spectrum that would be used for these communications; other interests propose to use them for high-speed internet service. The US has had a share of the spectrum set aside for V2V since 1999, but it has gone unused.
The thought behind Marconi’s 1901 creation is one we still return to, although it is now embroiled in the complexity of modern communication.
As for Marconi himself, it seems he was never too distraught over the disuse or misuse of his inventions and instead was always thinking about the next thing or about meetings with Russian royalty. He claims the versions of his devices used on German warships in 1902 “must be very antiquated, almost valueless…but, even so, they are better than Slaby’s.” While he goes on to end the interview with thoughts on the future, his final say on the stolen invention is this: “…how they got them is not my funeral; let the American company look out for that.”