Here’s to you, Mr. Marconi

Radio is a medium that brings with it fond memories of days gone by

My father would arrive home just about 1:30  Saturday afternoons, being one of the lucky ones who only worked half a day on Saturdays.

After a quick lunch, he would settle himself in his easy chair before the Westinghouse radio to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast from New York City.

Like a magnet attracting iron filings, I was attracted to sit near him and play with my currently favourite toy, absorbing the opera without really noticing it.

Sometimes, if I appeared bored, he would pretend to translate the Italian, French or German libretto and make up ridiculous passages. A tenor singing his heart out might be yelling at his wife that he was tired of her mother living with them, or the kids were beyond control. That sort of thing. It brought opera alive for me.

If you have never been attracted to opera but are tempted to listen to one,  let me suggest you start with an opera in a language unknown to you. I made the mistake of asking Mr. Google to give me the translation of several Italian arias that I think are just beautiful.

I found the lyrics to be either childish, ridiculous or confusing and sometime all three at once. For example, O Mio Bambino Caro, soaring melody, nutty words. By the way, you can find opera every Saturday afternoon at CBC FM 105.7.

This column originated in a rather unusual way. I had just finished reading an informal history of some events that took place in England in the first decade of the 20th century, a time when all sorts of changes were underway or becoming practical. Stuff like electric lighting, telephones, automobiles, airplanes and so on.

I was particularly caught up in the story of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian genius who advanced  the marvel of wireless communication.

In those days, communication by wire was possible by sending an electric impulse through copper wire activating a telegrapher’s key  making words in Morse code, a series of dots and dashes that were the wonder of their age. The obvious drawback was there had to be a wire connection between sender and receiver.

On land this was comparatively easy to accomplish over long distance by building repeater stations at intervals, much like the cell phone towers of today.

There were even wires laid under the oceans between continents but these were frequently damaged by storms, fishing nets, earthquakes and whatever else nature could conjure up.

The dreamers struggled to find a way to send the electric signal without wires, that is to say, a wireless connection.

Marconi was one of the most persistent and daring of the breed,  sending a signal ever increasing distances until the ultimate challenge, communication by wireless between England and North America.

Years of failure and frustration followed until one memorable day, December 1, 1901, he succeeded in sending the three dots of Morse code representing the letter “S” from Poldhu, Cornwall to Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a distance of 3,500 kilometres. Our lives changed from that day forward.

With today’s cell phones we carry a whole universe of communication and knowledge in the palm of our hand but it all started with a faint three dot message sent by a stubborn Italian visionary little more that a century ago. Even this long time Luddite is impressed.

And, oh yes, opera.

One of Marconi’s best friends was an Italian tenor named Enrico Caruso.

And that’s the connection between my dad, opera, radio and me.

Thank you, Guglielmo.


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