We’ve become so accustomed to radio communication that it’s absolutely no surprise to hear a CNN correspondent broadcast live from the foothills of Tora Bora or to hear an astronaut speak from outer space. You even could go so far as to say that radio communication has become as important to our everyday life as water. We can use it to transfer money, direct bombs, spy, talk to our children, watch television, establish where we are in the world, and so on. Without it, where would be? Think of the Pentagon and its war against al-Qaida: Among the Department of Defense’s vast range of wireless assets are those unmanned Predator airplanes, operated by technicians thousands of miles away. Indeed, if anything has helped lift the “fog of war” (Clauswitz’s famous phrase that so aptly describes the chaos of many 19th- and 20th-century battlefields), it’s radio communication between commanders, their troops on the ground, their pilots in the air, and their sailors at sea.
We are all therefore in debt to Guglielmo Marconi an Italian-Irishman who, 100 years ago tomorrow, transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic—from Poldhu on England’s Cornish coast to St. John’s, Newfoundland. When Marconi, then 27, first proposed to broadcast a signal that could be picked up 3,000 miles away, he was greeted with the chorus that has accompanied so many scientific breakthroughs: It can’t be done. In 1899, he had successfully sent a signal across the English Channel, but according to the conventional wisdom the experiment was a success because the distance was short—about 31 miles—and curvature of the Earth no obstacle. When on Dec. 12, 1901, Marconi proved that neither distance nor the shape of the planet were an obstacle to radio transmission, the reaction was astonishment. No longer would hugely expensive cables need to be laid on ocean beds. Ships in distress could broadcast their positions. (The Titanic’s survivors survived because of radio.) The world was in a rather fundamental way changed. So, as we celebrate the remarkable successes of the two-month military campaign in Afghanistan—the overthrow of the Taliban and destruction of al-Qaida—we should also celebrate the achievement of the man whose discovery 100 years ago allows us to wage a war thousands of miles away and, thankfully, with so few casualties.