The luxurious yachts, which are the playthings of the super-rich, are often an object of scorn for other people. Not too long ago, for instance, a Financial Times journalist described the sleek new yacht just delivered to an unpopular British businessman as “3,000 tons of bombast”.
Yet, sometimes, these floating pleasure palaces serve useful purposes. In 1893, for instance, the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, secretly underwent cancer surgery on board the Oneida off the coast of Long Island. And in the late 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would sail away on their Kalizma in order to find refuge from the crowds who were constantly seeking to possess them.
Another example of a yacht which became more than just a mere leisure facility, was the one which belonged to Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian scientist (winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909), pioneer of wireless telegraphy and successful businessman. She was a steam yacht called Elettra which also acted as Marconi’s floating laboratory. Because she was not confined to a fixed, land-based location, she enabled him to conduct his experiments from many different places, thus exploring the reach of wireless waves. And crucially, she helped him to publicise his work.
Designed by Cox & King of London, she had been built to the order of the Archduke Karl Stefan by the Ramage & Ferguson shipyard of Leith, who were well-known as purveyors of steam yachts to the nobility and gentry. The Archduke was a member of the Imperial house of Austria and was an Admiral in the Austrian navy. He was also, it would seem, a collector of yachts – over the years he had several. He called this one Rovenska after the bay on the Adriatic island of Lussino where he had a luxurious villa. Named by his wife, the Archduchess Maria Theresa (in whose name the yacht was actually registered), Rovenska was launched on the 27th March, 1904 and was completed in May that year.
In 1910, Rovenska was sold to the British merchant and philanthropist Sir Max Waechter; and then in 1914 she passed into the ownership of Gustavus H F Pratt of her designers, Cox & King. At this stage, she still retained her original name.
She was a very good-looking vessel, typical of the private yachts (and Royal Yachts) of the time, with a clipper bow and a fine-lined steel hull which culminated in a deeply sloping stern. Her deckhouse was built of polished mahogany and teak and she had a tall steamship funnel.
With a gross tonnage of 619 (later 633) and a length of 63.4 metres (67 metres overall), a 4.96 metres, she was powered by a triple expansion engine constructed by her builders. This was rated at 1,000 ihp, 126.5 nhp, and gave her a speed of 12 knots. Steam came from two boilers.
During the First World War, she was taken over by the Royal Navy who used her for escort and patrol duties in the English Channel. At the end of hostilities, she was laid up in Southampton until February 1919, when she was bought by Guglielmo Marconi for £21,000. Although she was now the great man’s private yacht, it would seem that she was subsidised by his companies who, of course, benefitted enormously from his scientific investigations while on board.
By August 1919, she was lying in Naples, but soon she sailed to La Spezia where conversion for Marconi’s purposes took place. Transmitting and receiving equipment was installed and her already tall masts were further lengthened to accommodate antennae. Also, extra superstructure was added.
She was now manned by a crew of 38. There were four ‘passenger’ cabins: one for Marconi, which was immediately adjacent to his laboratory so that he could conveniently work at any hour of day or night; and three guest cabins, which were suitably fitted out to accommodate some very grand visitors. At various times, King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy, King George V of Great Britain and members of the Spanish Royal house came on board – such was the interest that Marconi’s pioneering work was by then attracting among the great and the influential. There were four bathrooms and the “public” rooms on this very private ship included a large dining room and an oak-lined study.
One of the early expeditions made by Marconi in his yacht took her into the Bay of Biscay in April 1920, where his guests were able to hear transmissions of performances by the orchestra of the Savoy Hotel in London and by Dame Nellie Melba of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. These transmissions came via his broadcasting station in Chelmsford in Essex (although Italian, Marconi based much of his early work in Britain). There are conflicting accounts as to whether these were live broadcasts or, more probably, whether they were taken from gramophone records. Either way, to hear these sounds coming from such a distance must have been a sensational experience for those listeners in 1920.
Later that year, by now in the Adriatic, Marconi and Elettra became involved in politics when Gabriele d’Annunzio, the adventurer who, with his band of followers, had seized the city of Fiume in the name of Italy, came on board to advocate the official annexation of the city by the Italian government – was this the world’s first political broadcast?
The yacht was not formally registered under the Italian flag until the 27th October 1921. She now became Elettra. It is not unusual for proud owners to name their yachts after their wives or daughters: Marconi, on the other hand, named one of his daughters after his beloved yacht when she was born in 1930.
Through the 1920s and much of the 1930s, Elettra was the base from which he conducted a whole series of hugely significant experiments and demonstrations which took him to the Mediterranean, the North Sea, West Africa and as far afield as America. Over the years, in his sea-going laboratory, Marconi further explored the possibilities of radio waves, exploiting the latest developments in transmission and reception equipment.