Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General
Centenary Celebrations of Guglielmo Marconi

11 December 2009, Rome, Italy

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here in Rome today – and to celebrate with you the centenary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun for their outstanding contribution to the development of wireless telegraphy.

A hundred years ago, very few people indeed – perhaps just a handful of wireless experimentalists, such as Marconi – would have had the faintest vision of the ‘wireless life’ we lead today.

And none, I am sure – including the great Marconi himself – could have imagined that life in the 21st century would be inconceivable without ubiquitous wireless technology.

Marconi – like most distinguished scientists – was able to build on the work of other pioneers in the field of radiocommunications during the second half of the 19th century.

As a result, he was able to join the list of famous giants in the field, whose numbers include James Maxwell, Nicola Tesla, Heinrich Hertz, Oliver Lodge, Temistocle Calzecchi-Onesti, Edouard Branly and Alexander Popov – among others.

Indeed, just as the radiofrequency spectrum is itself a continuum, so too has been the work in the field which has brought us to where we are today.

To show just how long and eventful that journey has been, I would like to take a brief trip down memory lane.

Distinguished colleagues,

In 1906, just three years before Marconi won the Nobel prize, the first voice radio transmission was made, with the Canadian inventor Reginald Fessendon making a shipping announcement, and saying “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are?”.

Much more tragically, in April 1912, less than three years after Marconi’s Nobel prize, the Titanic famously hit an iceberg and swiftly sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic, with the loss of 1,517 lives.

Over seven hundred passengers were rescued, however, thanks to the newly-fitted radio onboard and the newly-adopted SOS distress signal – which became the worldwide standard at the ITU’s International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906.

After the sinking of the Titanic, the British Postmaster General, Lord Samuel, went on record as saying “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi.”

The next decade saw the rapid spread of radiocommunications, with the first news programme being broadcast in August 1920 by the 8MK station in Detroit, Michigan.

Moving forward to 1932, the organization I lead, the ITU, changed its name that year from the International Telegraph Union to the International Telecommunication Union – reflecting our important and growing role in radiocommunications.

In the same year, here in Rome, Marconi installed the first microwave telephone link between the Vatican and the official residence of Pope Pius the Eleventh. A year earlier, Marconi had also set up Radio Vaticano, which continues to broadcast influentially around the world today.

And so we come to 20 July 1937, when Marconi passed away, here in Rome. As a remarkable tribute, every radio station around the world observed two minutes of radio silence in his honour.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The late 1940s saw major advances in radiocommunications – with Arthur C Clarke proposing geostationary satellites for global communication in 1945; AT&T launching the first public mobile telephone service in 1946; and ITU becoming a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1947.

A decade later, the first satellite, Sputnik I, was sent into orbit, and five years after that, in 1962, the Telstar satellite made the first live transatlantic television transmissions possible.
But the most important radiocommunications revolutions were yet to come. Revolutions which would bring the possibility of fully-interactive communications within reach of all humanity.

It started with the standardization of cellular phone standards in the early 1980s, and the introduction of GSM in 1990.

By the mid-nineties, mobile was booming – with 276 million people signing up for a mobile phone subscription in the three years to 1998. Compare that to the 243 million main telephone lines that were installed in the first one hundred years of telephone history.

In 2002, mobile subscriptions reached their first billion, and overtook fixed-line subscribers. In 2005 we reached the second billion; in 2007 the third billion; and in 2008, the fourth billion.

Mobile cellular is the fastest-growing and most widespread technology in history, with 4.6 billion subscriptions worldwide by the end of this month.

Next year, the number of mobile subscriptions will surpass the number of people worldwide with access to television.

And by 2013 – at the very latest – the number of mobile subscriptions will surpass the number of people on the planet.

If further proof were needed that radiocommunications now rule the world, we have also seen the number of mobile broadband subscriptions overtake the number of fixed broadband subscribers.

Distinguished colleagues,

This is tremendous news for us at ITU, which – as I am sure you know – is committed to connecting the world.

We are well on the way towards meeting our goal – and more specifically of achieving the target of connecting the unconnected by 2015.

ITU has been at the heart of information and communication technologies since they first began, almost 145 years ago, with the launch of the world’s first international telegraph services.

And we take pride in our stewardship of the radiofrequency spectrum – and in the phenomenal achievements which have been made by radio scientists over the past century and a half.

Let us therefore celebrate the centenary of Marconi’s Nobel prize, and honour one of the most influential men of the twentieth century.

Let us thank one of the men most directly responsible for the increasingly interconnected lives we lead.

Thank you, Guglielmo Marconi.

And our thanks too, to the Fondazione Ugo Bordoni, for organizing these fine celebrations in Rome today.

Thank you.