If you’re like me, you learned in elementary school that it was Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi who invented radio.
Yep, Marconi claimed he invented it and as a result even shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics. The media at the time — and thus popular opinion — embraced his claims. But in 1943, only months after his death, the United States Supreme Court finally gave inventor Nikola Tesla recognition as the first to truly conceive of and patent the principles of radio (or what he called ‘World Telegraphy’). They struck down Marconi’s fundamental patent.
But not many people have seemed to notice.
The truth was that Tesla originally filed his own basic radio patent applications in September of 1897 and they were granted on March 20, 1900. Marconi’s first patent application in the US was filed well after that, on November 10, 1900. He was turned down. Marconi’s revised applications over the next three years were repeatedly rejected because of the priority of Tesla and other inventors.
In 1903, the US Patent Office commented:
“Many of the claims are not patentable over Tesla patent numbers 645,576 and 649,621, of record, the amendment to overcome said references as well as Marconi’s pretended ignorance of the nature of a ‘Tesla oscillator’ being little short of absurd… the term ‘Tesla oscillator’ has become a household word on both continents [Europe and North America].”
On December 12, 1901, Marconi signaled the letter ‘S’ over the Atlantic — from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada — becoming the first to make a wireless radio transmission.
But Marconi, ahem, used Tesla’s patented technology to accomplish the task.
Tesla’s first response to this blatant infringement was to comment, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”
He later, however, began to refer to it as “Borgia-Medici methods“, clearly bitter about the situation. Neither did he attend a January 1902 American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) lavish dinner celebrating Marconi’s achievement, with Italian flags decorating the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s Gallery.
Tesla instead sent a letter read by Thomas Commerford Martin. “Cheers when the toastmaster came to a letter from Nikola Tesla who said he ‘could not rise to the occasion’”, reported the New York Times. Martin then waited for the hubbub to die down before continuing to read the rest of Tesla’s classy take on the matter:
“I regret not being able to contribute to the pleasure of the evening, but I wish to join the members in heartily congratulating Mr. Marconi on his brilliant results. He is a splendid worker, full of rare and subtle energies. May he prove to be one of those whose powers increase and whose mind feelers reach out farther with advancing years for the good of the world and honor of his country.”
Many tries later, and now backed by the formidable J. Pierpont Morgan, Marconi got his patent pushed through in 1904.
Ironically, it was the Marconi Company itself which was responsible for the demise of its own radio patents after first filing an infringement suit against the United States in the Court of Claims in 1916. In 1935, the Court of Claims invalidated Marconi’s patents and an appeal finally reached the Supreme Court in 1943. At that time, the Supreme Court characterized Tesla’s 1893 lecture-demonstration and his later patents:
“Tesla, who was then preoccupied with the wireless transmission of power for use in lighting or for the operation of dynamos, proposed, in a lecture . . . the use of . . . wireless transmission of signals.
. . . .
The Tesla patent No. 645,576, applied for September 2, 1897 and allowed March 20, 1900, disclosed a four-circuit system, having two circuits each at transmitter and receiver, and recommended that all four circuits be tuned to the same frequency. Tesla’s apparatus . . . could, without change, be used for wireless communication, which is dependent upon the transmission of electrical energy.”
The Supreme Court acknowledged “Marconi’s reputation as the man who first achieved successful radio transmission”, but added:
“Reputation, however well-deserved, does not entitle him to a patent for every later improvement which he claims in the radio field. Patent cases, like others, must be decided not by weighing the reputations of the litigations, but by careful study of the merits of their respective contentions and proofs.”
Tesla’s lecture, demonstration, and later published patent anticipated several features of the Marconi patent, while other features were developed by Lodge and Stone after the date that Tesla’s patent issued but before the date of Marconi’s patent.
In other words, the first radio patent belonged to Tesla.
And those in the field of radio-engineering have generally agreed. Another pioneer of radio, J.S. Stone, reflected on those who developed the technology including Lodge, Marconi and Thompson. He remarked:
“Among all those, the name of Nikola Tesla stands out most prominently. Tesla with his almost preternatural insight into alternating current phenomena that enabled him … to revolutionize the art of electric-power transmission through the invention of the rotary field motor, knew how to make resonance serve, not merely in the role of a microscope, to make visible the electric oscillations, as Hertz had done, but he made it serve the role of a stereopticon. … It has been difficult to make any but unimportant improvements in the art of radio telegraphy without traveling, part of the way at least, along a trail blazed by this pioneer who, through eminently ingenious, practical and successful in the apparatus he devised and constructed, was so far ahead of his time the best of us then mistook him for a dreamer.”
Eh, but who cares? It’s too hard to reprint all those text books.
Who says cheaters never prosper?
A building on W 27th Street in New York City is still today named the Radio Wave Building because it was formerly Hotel Gerlach, where Tesla lived for several years while first experimenting with radio. But the Smithsonian has never really acknowledged Tesla for his contributions to radio. And though he received many honorary degrees from US and international academic institutions, the Edison Medal, and was one of the most famous men of his time, it wasn’t until 1975 that Nikola Tesla was finally inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Tesla died broke and alone in a New York City hotel room in 1943.