August 1958 Radio-Electronics
[Table of Contents]
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Electronics,
published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
I don't know about you,
but I had never heard of Augusto
Righi before seeing him honored in this "Inventors of Radio" feature in a 1958
issue of Radio−Electronics magazine. Reportedly
Marconi was an informal student of Righi's when he, Righi, taught at University
of Bologna. Augusto is credited as being the first to generate using the apparatus
shown in the article. Interestingly, as was customary in the era, the frequency
of 12 GHz was reported as 12 kmc, or 12 kilomegacycles. He also is recognized
as being the discovered of
Along with many other scientific endeavors, Righi worked on Special Relativity in
his later years, and was considered one of the few people who understood the concepts
and equations. He lived from 1850 to 1920, which is pretty good for the era.
Inventors of Radio: Augusto Righi
Dexter S. Bartlett
Augusto Righi was a brilliant Italian basic physicist and educator who sought
facts for the sake of science rather than publicity. This has resulted in his being
an unknown in this missile age. Both myself and others have diligently sought information
on Righi but, with the exception of short biographies, very little information can
be found in English. Yet, as a research scientist and educator, he laid much of
the foundation for today's electronics as well as other physical sciences. As Guglielmo
Marconi was a student at Bologna, while Righi was professor, they became acquainted
and Righi was a great help to Marconi, both in encouragement and actual experimentation.
Augusto Righi (sometimes spelled Richi or Rigi) was born in Bologna, Italy, on
Aug. 27, 1850. He attended the Bologna University, where he received his diploma.
In 1873, he became professor at the Bologna Technical Institute, later to become
principal extraordinary at Palermo University where he taught up to the time of
his death in 1920. He received many honors and several medals from universities
in Italy and elsewhere. In 1872, he was natural science ambassador to the King of
Italy. In Rome, he published the results of his theoretical experiments, in 250
scientific papers, embracing almost all subjects in the realm of the physical.
Augusto Righi's oscillator.
Besides his basic researches in electromagnetic waves, he made two practical
contributions to wireless with his oscillator and detector, the basic equipment
used in Marconi's first experiments. It was remarked by a veteran engineer that
"before describing methods Marconi devised by which he realized his ambition, it
is advisable to refer to the work of those pioneers who influenced Marconi in his
early experiments, and of whose work he had knowledge: Maxwell, Hertz, Righi and
One disadvantage of Hertz's radiator lay in the fact that the sparks in a short
time oxidized the little knobs and roughened their surfaces, resulting in irregular
action. Professor Righi overcame this difficulty by partly enclosing two metal spheres,
A and B in the sketch, in an oil-tight case, the inner hemispheres being immersed
in petroleum with only a minute gap between them. In a line with these spheres are
ranged two smaller spheres, C and D. It is between A and B in the oil gap that the
oscillatory spark takes place, the other two sparks serving merely to charge the
large spheres. This arrangement not only produced a more constant spark by preventing
pitting electrodes but greatly extended the range of wavelengths which it was possible
to employ in investigations of this character. The dimensions of the oscillator
could thereby be reduced and the amplitude of the oscillations increased greatly
as higher potentials could be reached before the energy was released by discharge.
Righi obtained oscillations at 12 kmc by using 8 millimeter spheres for A and
He contributed a new "detector" by cutting thin lines on the back of a mirror,
dividing the metallic surface with a diamond point into narrow unconnected strips.
This provided a spark distance much finer than could be attained by a micrometer
gap, as used by Hertz, hence affording greater sensitivity and greatly increasing
the distance, Hertz covered only a few meters. The frog's leg, to which we owe the
discovery of electric current, had been previously tried by others but had given
even poorer results as a detector.
It is a strange coincidence that it took at least 50 years for the electronic
industry to go back to centimeter waves. Later researchers added antenna and ground
to their oscillators, lowering their frequencies greatly and therefore lengthening
In his youth, Righi did a great deal of research in the basic relationships between
mechanical, electrical and magnetic forces, endeavoring to prove them all of one
origin. In this he failed but, considering the status of atomic physics nearly a
century ago, this was understandable. However, he did accomplish much in extending
Faraday's research on electric and magnetic forces,
Righi did extensive research on the Kerr cell, which is now used in some facsimile
systems, and discovered the rotation of the polarization plane with different light
frequencies. This in turn led him to the discovery of the photo-electric effect
of various materials and then on to work on ionized gases.
From 1915 to his death, he devoted his researches to the theory of relativity,
being one of the few physicists of that day who could understand Einstein's mathematics.
His principal scientific papers were: "The Optics of Electric Oscillations,"
1897; "The Motion of Ions in the Electric Discharge," 1903; "Telegraphy without
Wires" (in collaboration with B. Dessau), 1903; "The Modern Theory of Physical Phenomena,"
1904; "On the Hypothesis of the Electrical Nature of Matter," 1907; "New Views of
the Intimate Structure of Matter," 1910; "Radiating Matter and Magnetic Rays," 1910;
"The New Physics," 1911; "Ionomagnetic Rotation," 1915; "Electro-Atomic Phenomena
under the Action of Magnetism," 1918.
Enciclopedia Italiana, 1936
Cyclopedia of Applied Electricity, 1911
Florian Cajori, History of Physics