The centenary of the first Marconi broadcast: How the world was changed from a shed in Chelmsford

Dame Nellie Melba outside Marconi's New Street Works in Chelmsford Credit: Chelmsford City Museum

Today marks 100 years since the world’s first live entertainment broadcast, that paved the way for radio and TV as we know it, was achieved from Marconi’s Wireless Factory in Chelmsford.

On the June 15 1920, at 7.10pm, superstar opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba, stepped up to a makeshift microphone in Chelmsford, and sang to the world.

‘Home Sweet Home’, was the first tune to crackle over the airwaves, transmitted for the decidedly unglamourous packing shed in the yard of Marconi's New Street Wireless Factory.

It was the first professional, live, entertainment radio broadcast, transmitted from the world’s first purpose built wireless factory.

Italian born Guglielmo Marconi came to Chelmsford at the end of the 1800s.

His team of engineers and scientists had been experimenting with radio for more than 20 years by the time tests to make an entertainment broadcast began.

Marconi opened his wireless factory close to Chelmsford train station on New Street in 1912.

Two years later World War One began and the military demand for Marconi’s wireless radios and radar soared.

Wireless factory in New Street Credit: Chelmsford City Museum
  • Watch Charlie Frost's report here:

When the war ended, the Spanish Flu saw Marconi's factory close it's doors as much like today, the world was in lockdown.

But back then, there was no Netflix or news websites to keep people entertained and informed.

Marconi's men transported equipment to Ballybunion in Ireland to continue experimenting with wireless as a means to transmit music and speech, rather than just Morse code.

They began by reading train timetables and, when they returned to Chelmsford, turned to reading the newspaper. Eventually, they recruited a local singer, Winifred Sayer to sing on the wireless.

Winifred Collins nee Sayer in later life Credit: Chelmsford City Museum

Tim Wander, Former Marconi employee and historian said:

Watch an extended interview with Alan Pamphilon, a former Marconi Company employee and local historian:

Winifred Sayer's performances were a success, but Marconi knew he needed a big name to get people's attention - and in 1920, you couldn't get much bigger than the name Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie was an Australian opera singer, famous world wide for her voice and her reputation as a diva.

She was dubious about the technology, and of the novel idea of performing without an audience but she agreed to sing for the sum of £1,000 - the equivalent of about £40,000 today.

A special train from London to Chelmsford delivered the soprano, and on arrival she was taken around the town in a white Rolls Royce, a crowd lining the route.

Arriving at Marconi’s she dined on chicken and pink champagne, before being taken to an old disused packing shed on the factory grounds.

Originally she had been due to sing in one of the grander conference rooms, but a fire along one of the cables meant it had to be moved to the shed.

The broadcast was transmitted through huge 450 foot masts that towered above the factory and the whole of Chelmsford.

On the walk to the makeshift ‘studio’, Dame Nellie was told the masts were where her voice would be broadcast from.

The story goes, she replied, ‘Young man, if you think I’m climbing up there, you’ve got another thing coming!’

She sang into a microphone made up of half a telephone receiver, bits of a cigar box, string and a hat stand. It was technology that would change the world.

Dame Nellie singing into the makeshift microphone Credit: Chelmsford City Museum

The broadcast was heard over 3,000 miles away in Iraq and Iran.

It was heard all over Europe, in America and even crackles in Australia.

Commercial radios didn’t exist then, so the people listening would have been on ships or the owners of old army radios.

Some made their own radio receivers with crystal just so they could listen.

Others went to department stores that were broadcasting it through speakers and into the streets.

There are reports of people dancing outside of Harrods in London and along the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Manufacturing of commercial radios could now begin.

From this moment, it was suddenly possible to listen to a live concert in your living room.

Two years later, the BBC was formed and the world's relationship with technology was changed forever.

But Guglielmo Marconi's story is not just about breakthroughs.

His place in the history books is tainted by his support for Benito Mussolini’s fascism.

He was a member of the Italian fascist party from 1923 and in 1930, Mussolini made him president of the Academy of Italy, automatically making him a member of his Fascist Grand Council.

He would serve on the council until his death in 1937.

While the inventor was flawed, the invention opened up the world, and that is what Chelmsford was planning to mark, before coronavirus outbreak.

The city had planned a year of major events to celebrate its part in the birth of broadcasting. But, due to the pandemic, all of these are now cancelled, rescheduled, or, quite fittingly, have been moved to online events.

A play about that night called "The Power Behind the Microphone" will be live streamed to an online audience on Chelmsford City Theatre's Facebook page at 7.10pm - showing just how far we've come from Marconi's original invention, and just how important it still is to have the theatre in our living rooms.