Clara’s contribution to the birth of radio. By Michael Goodbody

#DecadeofCentenaries @DeptCultureIRL @DepartmentofCultureIRL Tourism-Culture-Gaeltacht @offalyheritage @offalylibraries

The B.B.C.’s centenary celebrations and John Bowman’s recent feature on RTÉ’s Sunday morning broadcast which included a recording of my late father, Llewellyn Marcus Goodbody, bring to mind the important part that Clara played in the development of radio, the scientific discovery which transformed communications and is now part of everyday life. Without the backing of Irish capital it is possible that Guglielmo Marconi’s invention would never have got off the ground.

            The story begins with the twenty year-old Marconi, who studied Hertzian electro-magnetic waves in the physics laboratory at Bologna University and then started to experiment at home on his father’s Italian estate. His father thought that he was wasting his time but, encouraged by his Irish mother, Annie – one of the Jameson whiskey family from Wexford – he persevered with his experiments and succeeded in transmitting signals over increasing distances, which also included intervening hills.

         A report from the Midland Tribune of 19 May 1898.  

Failing to interest the Italian government, Annie took him to London to meet her cousin, Henry Jameson Davis, a Wexford-born milling engineer who was also a member of the Baltic Exchange, then the principal trading centre for shipping cargos of grain. Jameson Davis, who was also a financier, then arranged for Marconi to give a demonstration to a group of Baltic Exchange members, including Manliffe Goodbody from Clara and James Fitzgerald Bannatyne who had sold his mills in Limerick to the Goodbody family a few years before. He also registered a patent for wireless telegraphy and started to interest the General Post Office which initially gave him practical help but eventually, like the Italians, turned him down.

            Jameson Davis, however, was determined to proceed and launched the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, with James Bannatyne appointed chairman. Manliffe Goodbody, who was related to the Davis family, was one of the promoters of the company, also involving his brother William Woodcock (‘Willie’) Goodbody, then a stockbroker in Dublin who later became a director. Willie was a valuable addition to the board as he encouraged his family in Clara, as well as other Irish Quakers, to become the principal investors when the company was launched on the London Stock Exchange.

            Over the next two years Marconi carried out experiments along the south coast of England, including one on Salisbury Plain, which was attended by directors and shareholders, including Robert Goodbody of Charlestown, the self-taught engineer who was then managing the jute factory at Clashawaun. According to Marconi’s young assistant, Edwin Glanville, whose family came from Moate, Robert was the only one who did not ask ‘idiotic questions’ at the gathering, which was also attended by Sir William Preece of the G.P.O.

     Charlestown house and mill – site of transmitter      

Recognising that most of the capital backing would come from his relatives and Irish milling contacts, Jameson Davis arranged for Marconi to come to Ireland to meet potential investors and to conduct further experiments. The first of these took place in Clara in May 1898, when a transmitter was placed in the mill office at Charlestown and the receiver in the jute works at Clashawaun. The operation was conducted by William Lynd, assisted by Edwin Glanville, who recorded in the visitor’s book for Charlestown House, where he stayed for three days, that he was ‘in charge of the Wireless Telegraph Company’s instruments’. William Lynd, who also stayed at the house as a guest of Robert Goodbody, wrote that he lectured on Marconi’s invention at Clara and Tullamore and then carried out experiments between the flour mill and the jute works. He added that the demonstration was a ‘perfect success, first in Ireland’. Robert was very much involved in the proceedings and sometime afterwards was presented with a silver replica of the transmitter by Marconi. It is not thought that Marconi himself was present on this occasion. William Lynd was a London scientist, who had visited Clara the preceding January to give a lecture at the Institute on x-rays, ‘with practical demonstration’. He came again in 1901 to lecture on ‘Bacteria’.[1]

       Clashawaun factory – site of receiver    

There was a further demonstration by Marconi at the Kingstown regatta in July and in the north of Ireland at Rathlin Island, where Edwin Glanville fell to his death while bird watching on the cliffs, tragically ending a most promising career.

 Charlestown House visitor’s book entries for William Lynd and Edwin Glanville (courtesy of Patricia Murray)

           Visitor’s book comments by William Lynd and Edwin Glanville

Impressed by the success of Marconi’s experiments the Goodbody family decided to give him financial backing, taking a substantial stake in the company which was renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1899. It has not been possible to quantify the extent of their interest as shareholder records for the period have not been found, however in 1901 when further capital was raised, they took up nearly one third of the issue of new shares. Their support continued for some years and they were still making loans to the company in 1908, when Willie Goodbody died of cancer.      In 1899 he had accompanied Marconi to New York, where they broadcast the first sporting event heard in the United States, the America’s Cup yacht race.

           Robert Goodbody of Inchmore, Clara – promoter of Marconi’s American company in New York

An American subsidiary company was also formed, promoted by Willie’s older brother Robert Goodbody, another of the Inchmore family, who had set up as a stockbroker on Wall Street in 1891. This had an authorised capital of $10 million as the company’s president claimed that there was ‘an immense field before us and the system is as yet in its infancy’.[2] It was planned to extend operations across the whole of the United States, as well as Hawaii and Cuba. The maritime rights were sold to a separate quoted company, Marconi International Marine Communication Company, in 1900.

          Robert Goodbody of Charlestown examining a colt rifle at Clara House 1901

  The Goodbodys’ investment in Marconi’s company was a shrewd one, as wireless communications gradually spread around the world and shareholders began to receive useful dividend income. The share price trebled between 1908 and 1911 and then multiplied five-fold in the next twelve months. They would have been well advised to have taken their profits at the time as it suffered a sharp reversal soon after. This was due to the famous ‘Marconi scandal’ involving members of the government and including Lloyd George and the Postmaster General. Harold Goodbody of Clara later wrote that the family had missed the main opportunity to cash in but still came out on the right side when they eventually sold in the 1920s.

            Willie Goodbody and Guglielmo Marconi on New York visit 1899

Marconi died in 1937, his reputation as a scientific innovator well established and internationally recognised. His business ultimately became part of the leading English ‘Blue Chip’ company, G.E.C., which – possibly tempting fate – changed its name to Marconi in 1999. Three years later and just over a century since the experiment in Clara, it collapsed and went into liquidation.

[It is good to be able to bring this important story to the notice of our readers. Our thanks to Michael Goodbody for establishing ‘the connection’ and to his late father, Llewellyn Marcus Goodbody, whose interview on the subject of about thirty years ago was replayed by John Bowman on his RTE 1 Radio Sunday morning programme of 30 October 2022  (ed).

All Offaly History blogs are copyright, but fair use is acceptable provided the source is acknowledged.]

[1] Charlestown House visitor’s book entries 1898 and 1901 (courtesy of Patricia Murray).

[2] Electrical World and Engineer, 2 Dec. 1899.