Guglielmo Marconi’s magnetic detector in a cigar box: Biography of a material myth

By Roberta Spada, Politecnico di Milano / Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Italy

This research was supported by a SIS Grant. A longer piece of this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin and in a Fireside Chat on 16 March.

Figure 1: Reproduction of the magnetic detector in a cigar box on display at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. Inventory n. IGB-2139 – Detector magnetico di Marconi in scatola di sigari. Credits © 2024 Staff / Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milano.

Museum objects and their biographies bear remarkable stories of people, practices, and historical contexts, as argued by a dense literature spanning from Anthropology and Material Culture Studies to Museum Studies. This is also true for objects of science and technology, which, when musealised, bear the signs of their two lives: the first one in their historical context of use, and the second one in the museum (Alberti 2005). The object of this research (which I conducted funded by an SIS Grant in 2023 as part of my PhD) may seem quite deceptive: it conceals a story by visibly performing another.
It is one of the many reproductions of Guglielmo Marconi’s (1874-1937) magnetic detector in a cigar box (Fig. 1; IGB-2139). It has been on display at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST) in Milan (Italy) since 1956 when it was donated by the Museum founder, Guido Ucelli di Nemi (1885-1964), who had received it as a gift from Marconi himself. It is a small wooden box with the edges framed by a thin red and black line and attached to a wooden board supporting the bottom. Inside, there are two horseshoe magnets which would not fit if the box was not dug on one side (which explains the supporting board), a copper coil, and a braid of thin iron wires coming out of two little holes on the sides of the box. If we open it, we find a long inscription written on a piece of paper glued to it, explaining that the artefact was devised and built by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901 and experimented in 1902 aboard the Italian Royal Ship Carlo Alberto.
The story performed by the object springs from a question about the object’s appearance: Why a cigar box? The answer lies in Marconi’s biographical account written by his friend and manager of Italian business Luigi Solari, a lieutenant of the Italian Royal Navy. Solari ([1940] 2011, 64–67) tells about the moment in which Marconi devised the magnetic detector starting from makeshift materials in Poldhu in Cornwall, UK, in 1902, before the expedition on the Carlo Alberto. The story, which featured Marconi hopping on his bike to find fine iron wire at a ‘beautiful florist’s’, became particularly iconic in the Italian context, for aficionados of the history of radio and Marconi. Because of this myth—one that fully recalls the garage trope of the inventor’s biography (Ortoleva 2019, 263–82; Godelier 2007; Fuller 2015)—cigar boxes like the one at the MUST are on display in all four Italian museums hosting collections about Marconi and/or the history of radio.

Figure 2: Detail of the exterior of the magnetic detector in a cigar box (IGB-2139) at the MUST. This picture was taken by the author during her analysis of the artefact in the Museum. Here, the position of the lid (which is no longer attached to the box) is inverted by 180° with respect to how it should be.

The story concealed by this artefact is more subtle and emerges from the study of its biography, the analysis of its material features, and the comparison with other similar artefacts and related documents. If we take a closer look at this cigar box, which entered the MUST collections in 1956, we gather that it is dateable to the 1930s (thus well after 1902 and after the rise of Italian fascism), because of some details on the lid, such as the fascio littorio stamped on the ‘Conte di Cavour’ brand (Fig. 2). Moreover, it is extremely similar to three cigar boxes held at the Museo Storico della Comunicazione in Rome and to other exemplars pictured in documents form that period, making it plausible to assume that a series of these boxes was made in the 1930s. I came to the conclusion that Marconi crafted his own entrepreneurial myth by gifting these cigar boxes to important people and institutions (such as Guido Ucelli), while he was holding institutional positions gained by direct appointment of the fascist government. Such an attempt is coherent with the tradition of companies making artefacts for circulation in industrial exhibitions and museums (Canadelli, Beretta, and Ronzon 2019).
In the Fireside Chat taking place on 16 March 2024, I am going to present the evidence that led me to this hypothesis and get into the details of the two narratives at stake. These two sides of the same object are a sign of the cultural significance of the object in time, but also look at the industrial origins of science and technology museums and the meaning of science and technology objects in museum collections.

– Alberti, Samuel J. M. M. 2005. ‘Objects and the Museum’. Isis 96 (4): 559–71.
– Canadelli, Elena, Marco Beretta, and Laura Ronzon, eds. 2019. Behind the Exhibit: Displaying Science and Technology at World’s Fairs and Museums in the Twentieth Century. Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology 12. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
– Fuller, Glen. 2015. ‘In the Garage’. Angelaki 20 (1): 125–36.
– Godelier, Éric. 2007. “Do You Have a Garage?” Discussion of Some Myths about Entrepreneurship. In Business and Economic History Online. Vol. 5.
– Ortoleva, Peppino. 2019. Miti a Bassa Intensità: Racconti, Media, Vita Quotidiana. Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, nuova serie, 712. Torino: Einaudi.
– Solari, Luigi. 2011. Guglielmo Marconi. Bologna: Odoya.

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