# Dame Nellie Melba giving the world's first public broadcast from Chelmsford in June 1920 – courtesy of radio technology developed by Marconi in the Great War

# Frontline radio operator, with Marconi equipment, transmitting messages during the Battle of the Somme

# The world's oldest radio factory, in Hall Street, Chelmsford, built by Marconi in 1899. Its research staff played a crucial role in the Great War.

THE world's public broadcast took place in Chelmsford, on June 1920, when Dame Nellie Melba sung down a microphone. By the time of her second broadcast a few days later, the great diva's warbles were being listened to across Britain, and as far away as New York. Eighteen months later came another milestone in broadcasting, with the formation of the BBC.

The key role of Essex in the birth of broadcasting was down to the Marconi company, which had its base in Chelmsford. The technology that gave Britain the edge over the rest of the world was largely thanks to Marconi and his boffins.

Radio science was still in its infancy in 1914, but it developed almost exponentially between 1914 and 1918, thanks to the pressures of war.

The man forever associated with the birth of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, was the son of an aristocratic Italian father and a Scottish mother. From an early age, he displayed dual skills – as a practical inventor, and a natural entrepreneur.

He channelled the experiments and theories of other scientists to make radio systems that – unlike those of his rivals – actually worked in the field.

In 1890, the British Post Office started to fund Marconi's experiments, resulting in a collaboration that was to prove fruitful for both sides.

The first successful radio transmissions from England to France took place in 1899, and across the Atlantic in 1901.

After these triumphs, Marconi ship-to shore and ship-to-ship radio spread rapidly as a feature of ocean-going vessels.

The Marconi company was one of the few beneficiaries of the Titanic disaster. Without the contribution of radio, all aboard would have perished, and the fate of the ship would have remained a mystery.

In 1899, Marconi also pioneered the idea of consumer electronics, founding the world's first radio factory. The site chosen lay in the Essex town that had become Marconi's base, Chelmsford. There he built up an unrivalled research and development team.

At the outbreak of war, all Marconi' efforts were rediverted to the war effort. German technology was, in many fields, superior to that of the Allies. When it came to radio, however, Britain led the way, thanks to Marconi.

Marconi technology proved particularly crucial when it came to the largest and most critical naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Jutland.

The vast battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy had the potential to wreak havoc on British maritime lifelines. But the Royal Navy patrolled the mouth of the Skagerrak strait, bottling the Germans into the Baltic.

On May 30 1916, the German fleet attempted a break-out. However, thanks to radio intercepts, the British admiral, Lord Jellicoe, had advance warning of the move, giving him time to order his ships to battle stations.

The resulting battle proved inconclusive, but under cover of night, the German fleet slipped back to the security of the Baltic ports. There it remained until the end of the war, when the entire Imperial battle fleet was escorted to Scarpa Flow. A year later, it was scuttled (the wrecks are today a major attraction for scuba divers).

The narrative, and even the result of the war itself, might have been very different, but for the sophistication of the Marconi technology. It never even occurred to the Germans that their messages and movements (the British fleet also operated a crude but effective form of Marconi radar) could be intercepted.

The same technology gap, and the same tendency of the Germans to underestimate British technology, also applied on land.

By 1918, British wireless operators had learned how to intercept German radio signals sent from the trenches. Credit once again went to Marconi for its advanced listening devices. Many German soldiers paid the price in the shape of an unexpected ambush.

The war ended with the Armistice, but Marconi had only just begun. Following the cessation of hostilities, Marconi and his boys found a new use for the radio technology they had developed for military use. They switched it to a vast new peacetime enterprise, the enterprise of the airwaves.