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Marconi's legacy to education

A radio pioneer's archive has inspired a scheme to train teachers, reports Michael Prestage

A valuable archive collection from the early days of wireless transmissions will help to fund a scheme aimed at training 1,000 teachers a year in electronics.

GEC-Marconi, which owns the collection charting the history of radio from Marconi's arrival in England in 1896 to the end of the Second World War, had planned to sell the recordings and papers at auction.

A public furore about the sale of such a valuable collection, however, has prompted discussions with the Science Museum, and the company says the collection will now remain in the UK.

But the idea of setting up a fund to finance "Marconi days" for teacher training will continue. The project will be under the auspices of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

At auction, the little-known collection had been expected to raise Pounds 1 million. The financial return from any deal currently under discussion is not being revealed, but the idea of improved training in electronics for teachers remains.

Andy Tull, director of communications at GEC-Marconi, said: "As regards the future of the collection, there is a lot of work still to be done. We are talking about display, conservation and safe keeping of the collection. Much of it is ephemera up to 100 years old and in a very delicate state."

The collection is housed near the Science Centre at the company's headquarters at Great Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex.

Mr Tull said the education scheme would give an opportunity to motivate and bring teachers up to date about the world of electronics.

"The importance of science, technology and engineering should not be underestimated," he said. "And it is in that context we want to focus on teachers of 11 to 14 year-olds. It is crucial for our industry to excite and motivate children of that age in electronics."

He said other countries, particularly the United States, were much better at teaching the subject, but the Marconi days would help to redress the balance. The feedback from education authorities had been positive and a pilot scheme would start in the autumn.

John Williams, secretary and chief executive of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, said details of how the training would be delivered were still being discussed.

He added: "We are very interested in doing all we can to raise the level of teaching. We already support a lot of initiatives to help teachers with training and in providing support materials.

"The idea that we should administer some funds to bring together teachers in groups to help them to teach electronics fits in with what this institution wants to do. We think it is an excellent way of using the money."

The collection includes the first recordings of wireless messages transmitted across water, made by Guglielmo Marconi from Lavernock Point in South Wales and received by Post Office officials on Flat Holm, an island in the Bristol Channel, in 1897.

Also included is the text of an after-dinner speech by Marconi, who died in 1937, thanking those who helped him during the Bristol Channel experiments. The invention of wireless telegraphy a century ago marks the beginnings of modern telecommunications. The collection includes Marconi's patent for "Improvements in Wireless Telegraphy".

It also contains an important cross-section of early equipment and experiments, alongside technical, business and personal papers. Messages include some relating to Queen Victoria as well as the huge number of radio messages transmitted during the sinking of the Titanic.

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