By Eddie Bohan
Commercial Irish radio has been a part of our lives, legally, since 1989 but it was 123 years ago this year that the very first commercial use of the airwaves took place, right here in Ireland. It didn’t happen in the metropolis of one of the big cities like Dublin, Cork or Belfast but in the rural setting of Clara in County Offaly.
The name at the heart of this venture is regarded as the ‘Father of Radio’, Guglielmo Marconi. He was born in Bologna, Italy in 1874 but he was as much Irish as he was Italian and without that Irish connection and the finances that connection generated, he would not be seen today as radio’s inventor. His father was Guiseppe Marconi and his mother was Annie Jameson, a member of the famous Whiskey distilling family.
His mother’s Irish home was at Montrose House, perhaps more familiar to you all now as a backdrop to many RTÉ News reports. Montrose House is today part of the RTÉ complex in Donnybrook. So deep were Marconi’s Irish connections that his first wife was also Irish, Beatrice O’Brien, the daughter of the Lord of Inchiquin.
In 1894, Marconi began experiments at his home in Bologna but despite his best efforts to get the Italian authorities to embrace the importance of his wireless telegraphy, he failed. Encouraged by his mother to go to London in 1896, his new technology was embraced by William Preece, an engineer with British Post Office.
Marconi needed commercial backers to continue his experiments and secure all the relevant patents. It was one of his mother’s cousins, Henry Jameson Davis, a pragmatic financier, who stepped in and began to publicise the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy system. Marconi, while brilliant, was a master spoofer, often exaggerating his successes to gain press attention. But it was Jameson Davis who turned that enthusiasim and flamboyance into hard currency.
Jameson Davis was born in 1854 and by 1897 he had become the first Managing Director of the newly incorporated ‘Marconi Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company’ generating almost £100,000 in capital to obtain the patent rights for the Marconi system worldwide. That’s the equivalent of twelve million pounds in today’s financial world. The bulk of those early investors were Irish, attracted by the Jameson connection.
The investors included, James Fitzgerald Bannatyne from Limerick. He would serve as Deputy Lord Mayor of Limerick and was involved in the milling business until his company was bought by the Goodbody Milling Company. Henry Obre, a Cork Merchant who lived at Fort Villa, Queenstown (died 1906), Thomas Wiles, SW Ellerby, Frank Wilson, Cyril Bennet, Robert Patterson and the Goodbody’s who were all involved in the Milling and granary business, many of them supplying the raw materials for the production of both bread and whiskey.
One of those major investors was the Goodbody family, who had been involved in the milling industry for many years. Their main plant was located in Clara, Co. Offaly. The family lived at ‘Inchmore House’ on the outskirts of the village. Inchmore was built in 1826 and the family were renowned merchants of their day and one family member, Robert Goodbody who resided at the house went on to found Goodbody’s Stockbrokers in Dublin and New York in 1874 with his cousin Jonathan. The property featured accommodation in excess of 20,000 square feet including the private church at sat adjacent to the Brosna River which runs through the property for approximately half a mile.
The Goodbody family were originally from Mountmellick, Co. Laois and had begun a milling business in Clara using the flow of the River Brosna to power their flour making business and while it was small in the beginning, by 1865 business stated to expand rapidly and by 1890 there were 800 people directly employed in the Clara businesses and hundreds more indirectly in the Clara and the greater Offaly area.
The company were using imported sacks to pack their flour and transport it, but they discovered, as market prices rose significantly, that they could import Jute directly from India and produce the sacks themselves, which created a flourishing industry of its own in Clara.
Through his friendship with Henry Jameson Davis, Robert Goodbody became one of the first investors in Marconi and was listed as one of the founding directors of the ‘Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company’. He invited Marconi to stay at Clara, which he accepted. Ever eager to impress his guests and display the value of his new technology, he carried out some of his early experiments there, initially broadcasting from the attic of the house where Marconi was working and sleeping to the drawing room on the ground floor. He then transmitted to and from various locations around the estate, increasing the range almost daily.
Robert Goodbody became not just an investor but a friend and someone who immediately saw commercial advantages in the new wireless medium. The Goodbody family then became the first commercial users of radio, anywhere in the world, when they commissioned Marconi to set up a transmitter in their granary offices and a receiver in the Jute factory so that the management there knew exactly how many sacks were required to be produced and when they were needed.
This improved supply and reduced waste on production thus increasing profits. That May 1898, with the assistance of fellow wireless telegraph engineers William Lynd and Edward E. Glanville, the Marconi transmitter was installed at the Flour Mills and a receiver installed in the offices of the Jute Factory over one mile away bypassing the ‘intervening blocks of houses’ as The Meath Chronicle explained to its readers.
The first message was successfully sent on May 11th 1898. It was a tremendous success and the Mill would telegraph their requirements each day for the number of sacks required and this dictated the pace of operations at the sack plant leading to savings in time wasted and over production.
With their manufacturing line streamlined thanks to the radio waves, Goodbody’s of Clara continued to grow and expand, especially during the First World War when demand grew quickly. The commercialisation of radio had begun in earnest in a small village in Offaly. His two assistants on that project in Clara, Lynd and Glanville had arrived at Marconi through different routes.
English born Lynd had been a promoter of Edison’s gramophones, travelling extensively presenting demonstrations and it was this ability to engage with an audience at a lecture or talk that encouraged Marconi to employ him.
Glanville, was a Trinity College graduate, having studied under Marconi’s friend and mentor Professor George Fitzgerald. Unfortunately for Glanville, tragedy would strike later that year as he worked with Marconi and George Kemp to illustrate to the Lloyds Shipping Company the power of wireless communications.
With Kemp and Marconi in Ballycastle transmitting, Glanville was six miles away on Rathlin Island receiving. On an afternoon off and as he explored the island, Glanville fell from a cliff and was killed instantly. Later that year 1898, Marconi would demonstrate the power of wireless broadcasting when at Dun Laoghaire he broadcast the results of the Kingstown Regatta from Dublin Bay to the Dublin Express newspaper offices, the first use of radio for sports journalism.