Chelmsford has played an important role in the development of modern communications and was where Guglielmo Marconi opened the first radio factory in the late ninetieth century.
Marconi was Italian by birth and born in April 1874 to an Italian landowner and an Irish/Scottish wife. As a child Marconi was interested in science and electricity. During this time Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that you could produce electromagnetic radiation, now called radio waves. Marconi began to build his own equipment and conduct experiments. His butler helped him and together they were attempting to send messages without the need for wires and cables. It had been tried before but no other system had been technically successful or could be used commercially.
When he was twenty years old Marconi built a storm alarm which included a battery and an electric bell and sounded an alarm whenever there was lightning. He refined this so he could make a bell ring on the other side of a room by pushing a telegraphic button on a bench, without there being any connection. When his parents saw what he had done they gave him money to go and buy more materials and expand his experiments. Marconi moved his experiments outside where he could increase the length of transmitters and antennas and increase the range the radio waves would transmit across. But he could get no funding for his discoveries in Italy and so decided to move to England, where he could also more easily patent the invention. And so he did in 1896 and there followed a number of demonstrations for the British Government and he expanded the transmissions so they travelled several kilometres over open seas and across the country. Soon he was demonstrating his equipment all over the world.
In 1898 Marconi decided to build a factory to produce the equipment and capitalise on his success. He opted for Chelmsford in Essex for the location close to London and with good railway connections. He converted an old silk factory and that building still stands today. However, this building soon becomes too small and he moved the operations to a larger site, still in Chelmsford.
By the start of the next decade he had improved the system so the signals could travel across the Atlantic and a few years later in 1909 was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. In 1910 the factory on Chelmsford broadcasted the first public radio program and this would be the precursor for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) launched in 1922 by Marconi and 5 other companies. A regular entertainment program would be broadcast from the factory from 1922 onwards, giving Chelmsford the title of the birthplace of the radio.
The factory in Chelmsford remained and important research centre and in 1936 a single Marconi Research Laboratory was set up at Great Baddow, which focused on radio and television. Further laboratories were set up to study radars, physics and conductors.
The original factory in Chelmsford is now part of the BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre and has been at the centre of many ground breaking discoveries such as electronic road roll systems and antimissile radar systems and developers advanced satellite antennas for mobile communications.
From humble starts with Marconi’s one factory in Chelmsford, Essex has become a prime location for technology companies and in that Marconi’s legacy lives on.
Now visitors to Chelmsford can visit the former Marconi factory at Sandford Mill, the former water works. It is now a museum for science and education and has a Marconi day in April and a Science Discovery day in September.