Success on an Italian Hill Forecasts Change for West Marin

by Richard Nielsen

Surveyors laying out line of antenna towers for Marconi transmitting station, Bolinas, Spring, 1913. Courtesy Chatham Museum

While Guglielmo Marconi can’t be credited with inventing the transmission of radio waves, he can definitely be credited with making radio a viable technology that would link humans together and lead to the advent of today’s cell phones. Tireless efforts in his lab near Bologna, Italy, would forever etch his name in the annals of radio history.

In the mid-1890s, despite serious misgivings by his father, young Marconi was immersed in experimenting with radio. He dreamed of making radio a wireless means of sending messages across vast distances around the Earth. Initial efforts involved transmitting from short distances within his lab, which progressed to the fields behind his house, and finally reached a distant hill called la Colina dei Celestini. As distance increased, instead of waving a white handkerchief, Marconi’s assistant fired a shotgun. When Marconi’s assistant first disappeared behind the hill, the message wasn’t received. Then, the assistant drove a steel rod into the earth behind the hill to support the antenna, and was successful, dispelling scientific myth and initiating a new mass communication technology.

Previously, experiments had only been made with an antenna’s aerial component which had limited transmission exclusively to line of sight. Marconi demonstrated that, for distant communication, an antenna system required both the underground and above ground components.

Marconi receiving station in Marshall under construction. Courtesy Ron Harris.

On December 12th, 1901, transmission of the letter “S” reached across the Atlantic Ocean from Cornwall in Great Britain and was received by Marconi’s antenna in Newfoundland. This broke a barrier that many scientists had steadfastly asserted was impossible.

By 1912, Marconi had made a decision that would significantly impact the communities of West Marin. After evaluating numerous locations on the California coast close to San Francisco, two sites in West Marin were chosen as a part of what would be a chain of radio stations to provide nearly instantaneous communication around the world.

Hence, in less than twelve years after the first successful transmission spanning the Atlantic Ocean, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America would launch the construction of a transmitting station at Bolinas and a receiving station at Marshall, which became the most powerful radio stations on the shores of the Western Hemisphere.

Marconi home near Bologna. Marconi’s lab was on the 2nd floor; his mausoleum lies below. 2017 . Courtesy Richard Nielsen

While Marconi would be forced to relinquish his U. S. holdings due to political pressures during the WWI era, his West Marin stations under the ownership of RCA would continue to provide an important wireless link between the United States and the Pacific Basin as well as to ships at sea.

Exhibit reconstructing Marconi’s Lab at his home near Bologna, Italy. 2017 . Courtesy Richard Nielsen

Utilizing the call sign KPH, communication with ships at sea is continued by volunteers of the Maritime Radio Historical Society on Saturday afternoons. They still use Morse code to communicate with the ships and the stations provide public demonstrations from noon until 4PM each Saturday.

Acquired in 1997 by Point Reyes National Seashore, the Bolinas and Point Reyes station sites are protected and have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more information go to .

The original Marconi receiving station at Marshall is now a California State Park.

Originally published at



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