The BBC reports that the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Princess Elettra, has been shocked by the derelict condition of her father’s former factory in Chelmsford, England. Once providing a makeshift studio for the very first radio broadcast intended purely as entertainment, the factory has now become a local shooting gallery and residence of last resort — undoubtedly still offering an abundance of cross corporeal transmissions.
Guglielmo was evidently quite fond of the name Elettra, giving it to both his daughter and his yacht, which doubled as a floating laboratory for his lifelong investigations into the vagaries of maritime wireless communication. SOS, as in Save Our Ship or Sink Our Ship? History has heard plenty of both.
The first entertainment broadcast beamed forth on June 15, 1920, featuring the voice of Dame Nellie Melba, who gave her name to toast and to a peach dessert. Opening with a rendition of “Home! Sweet Home!”, the broadcast was confirmed as having been clearly received from as far away as Newfoundland, and was even recorded by wireless enthusiasts in Paris.
A quite entertaining video documentary of Melba’s performance can be found here. From all accounts, the broadcast was a great success, the one complaint being that the strength of the signal obliterated all other wireless transmissions in the vicinity, a strength that contrasts notably with Marconi’s first attempt at transoceanic wireless on December 12, 1901, centering around the infamous letter “S”, dot dot dot. Did Marconi actually hear the S, up there on Signal Hill, or did he hear what he wanted to hear, amidst the crackle of cosmic interference?
In any event, one wonders what is to become of the derelict factory, given that Elettra, for all her horror at the state of decay, does not appear eager to twitch a single noble finger towards purchasing the property. I suspect that the market for luxury flats is not exactly on fire in Chelmsford, and of course, the English, like Americans, don’t really fabricate much of anything anymore, not even Melba toast. But whatever the future brings, it is clear that the good ship Marconi at Chemsford has been forever dismasted.
But what’s the message?
A few years ago, I co-produced a documentary for BBC Radio 3 that set out to follow the watery migrations of bits of Gospel tossed into the ocean by bottle evangelists. Like the bottles themselves, we soon found ourselves in deeper waters, and the program gradually shifted into a more global meditation on the planetary postal delivery system formed by intersecting ocean currents:
A retired oceanographer named Curt Ebbespeyer has become possibly the world’s foremost expert in reading the strange and unruly texts that wash ashore around the world each day. By tracking various categories of flotsam and jetsam, he is also able to guage the relative health of the postal conveyor belts, the sub currents that together remind us that we are all truly connected via the flows of Okeanos. Over the years, Ebbesmeyer has tracked everything from vast flotillas of Nike sneakers to potentially lethal depth charges.
Now let’s shift focus to the two large floating dump sites for discarded plastic:
Needless to say, these enormous globs severely gum up the flow of global mail, with consequences that remain unknown.
OK, so with the stage set, let us imagine that the oil gushing forth in the gulf is a sort of cosmic ink, and let us further imagine that it enters the postal delivery system via the Gulf Stream, an event that may only be a few weeks in the future. Finally let us imagine that this vast quantity of ink eventually finds a suitable surface upon which to leave its mark: the twin sheets of plastic garbage.
The resulting text creates the world’s most spectacular dead letter, an ominous message that cannot be delivered nor returned, a text as strange, violent and inscrutable as the hulking corpus of The White Whale.