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Book Reviews

Submission + - Thunderstruck the invention of wireless dramatized

Ferante125 writes: This book is a immersive trip into the early 1900's, where Marconi's sensational new wireless technology meets a sensational mystery. I enjoyed this book very much, which is why I felt like reviewing it, and I also thought it would be a relevant and entertaining book for slashdot's audience, which is why I'm reviewing it here (c.f. internet at sea, which deals with some of the same issues, albeit in the book it is telegraphy at sea). This book was a gift from my brother Kurt for last year's Christmas, but i was busy so I didn't have time to read it right away. If it took me a long time to get around to start reading, it was quick to finish. It is a very engaging narrative that jumps between the story of Marconi, the infamous Italian inventor of radio, some of his rival inventors--in particular Oliver Joseph Lodge, whose interest in the occult sidetracked him from following up on his early wireless experiments, and Howley Harvey Crippen, a seller of patent medicine (like today's internet prescriptions) who has an overbearing wife that has mysteriously disappeared.

The mood of the book has a similar feel to "The Prestige" and Sherlock Holmes stories. Scientists are on the verge of revolutionary discoveries, but before the illumination of retrospect, people are dubious, superstitious, and opinionated. There are plenty of themes that seem applicable to our current time. There is the debate between science and engineering, wisdom and experience versus naive experimentation, Maxwellian professors versus the telegraph engineers. There are arguments about who is the originator of a discovery. Is invention the idea or following though and showing that it actually works and can be used practically? The scientists who may have actually first demonstrated wireless communication did not work on perfecting it because they did not think the signal would carry farther than sight, while Marconi thought that taller and more powerful antennae would enable longer range communication, and in the process realized the effects of the time of day and waves traveling over open sea. Another timely theme is proprietary versus open source. Marconi took great pains to maintain a monopoly on wireless telegraphy, but there was the problem of interference with competitors and nationalistic interests of Germany.

Another interesting aspect I saw is the relationships with women. Marconi does not have problems finding women because he's very rich and Italian, but he has a hard time keeping them because he's busy with his research and a bit asocial from being a boy-wonder. Crippen on the other hand, is a bit homely and is cheated and mistreated by his wannabe opera singer wife. He finally leaves her for his secretary, with whom he escapes by dressing her up as a boy. The relationships add to the story and though they are a tad exaggerated, they add to the sensationalism. The book's relationships are refreshingly dysfunctional and seem to cut out a lot of the typical Hollywood crap. As he is pursued as a suspect in his wife's disappearance, the wireless telegraphy between boats is instrumental in the search. The public's fascination with the mystery and the wireless technology makes this the turning point in wireless' adoption. A friend to whom I lent the book remarked that this may have been the first high-speed pursuit, with boats and telegrams standing in for cars and television. Though the high-speed pursuit may be slower and lower-tech, it is none the less exciting and the book ends with a nice denouement.

Despite the lengthy bibliography at the back of the book, I found it hard to believe this book was non-fiction. I'm a big fan of historical fiction and I have no qualms about an author's right and obligation to entertain, but this book is both entertaining and also seems to be the result of lots of digging through historical records, court transcripts, and memoirs of Marconi's relatives. Some of the dialog in the book was even based on transcripts.

Though my review may have focused on the tech, I also think that this is a good book for others due to its historical and dramatic content.

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