Marconi’s Birthday – The Story of the “Elettra”

The story of the brilliant wireless inventor Guglielmo Marconi is very well known. He was born on April 25, 1874 at the family villa near Bologna in northern Italy, and just last Friday was the 128th anniversary of his birth.

Marconi began his first wireless experiments on the top floor of the family home just 20 years later using very primitive homemade equipment. During the early part of the following year, he transferred his experiments outdoors and he succeeded in sending wireless signals over a distance of more than a mile, with an intervening hill in between.

He moved to England soon afterwards, and made many public demonstrations of his equipment. He then set up a factory at Chelmsford to make his wireless equipment.

Soon after the end of World War I, Marconi bought a luxury steam-powered yacht, the “Rovenska”. This ship was built in Scotland in 1904 for Maria Theresa, of royal blood in Austria. This ship was never delivered to Austria, but instead it was confiscated by the British navy and used as a minesweeper during World War I.

Marconi had the “Rovenska” converted in England for use as a floating wireless laboratory which he renamed “Elettra“, the Italian word for “Electricity”. In June 1920 the “Elettra” made a shakedown cruise in European waters. At this stage, test broadcasts on shortwave were made under the callsign ICCM using gramophone records while the ship was in the Bay of Biscay off the coast of Portugal.

In fact, on many notable occasions, radio broadcasts on shortwave were made from the “Elettra”, including for example, the following:

  • 1921 Boxing match from Brownsea England
  • 1923 Test broadcasts to USA and Australia
  • 1930 Broadcast to Sydney Exhibition from Genoa
  • 1931 Round the world voice broadcast under the callsign IBDX
  • 1931 Broadcast to Brazil for dedication of Christ statue
  • 1935 Birthday broadcasts with other ships, the Graf Zeppelin and Admiral Byrd in Antarctica

The grand Marchessa Marconi died on July 20, 1937, and soon afterwards his ship the “Elettra” was sold. In 1943, while at port in Trieste, it was requisitioned by the German armed forces, and it was torpedoed and sunk the next year by a British submarine off the Yugoslavian coast of Dalmatia.

However, this historic old radio vessel was raised from its rest at the bottom of the ocean in 1962 and donated to the Italian government. Unfortunately, through lack of interest and lack of funds, the “Rovenska Elettra” fell into disrepair and it was eventually scrapped.

And that is the end of the story of Marconi’s birthday boat, the “Elettra”. I wonder if there is somewhere out there in the world an old QSL card issued from the “Elettra” and signed by Marconi himself?

From: Wavescan 434, April 27, 2003

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“Wavescan” is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave).