In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson returns to a technique that he used successfully in his best seller The Devil in the White City (2003). He intertwines the history of one example of enormous human creativity with another of human depravity. In the case of Thunderstruck, he weaves together the story of Guglielmo Marconiwho transformed wireless telegraphy (radio) from a scientific curiosity to a commercially successful technology, radically changing the worldwith that of Hawley Harvey Crippenan American-born doctor who became one of England’s most infamous wife killers.
Born in Italy of an Irish mother and Italian father, Marconi was educated primarily by private tutors. As a youth he loved to experiment with electricity, but he had almost no formal training in science or technology. Inspired in 1894 by reading an obituary of Heinrich Hertz, who had discovered radio waves, the twenty-year-old Marconi began research on the transmission of wireless telegraphic messages. Fluent in English because of his mother, he moved to London in 1896. Not only was London a great international center for science and technology, but England had a patent system that he felt would reward his efforts.
In England he clashed with the established scientific community, especially Oliver Lodge, professor of physics at University College, Liverpool, who was a pioneer in the transmission and reception of radio waves and who had developed an early form of radio receiver. The Lodge-Marconi contrast is the centerpiece of this book.
Larson paints Lodge as a man easily diverted from his experimentation on wireless telegraphy (as opposed to the single-minded Marconi, who persevered whatever the obstacle), especially when opportunities arose to explore the psychic world. Lodge’s interest in the paranormal clearly fascinates Larson, but it is uncertain how much this interest prevented Lodge from fully exploiting his insights into wireless telegraphy. Lodge represented a recurring type in the history of science and technology, the scientist whose interest in a particular form of technology is rooted in his desire to understand the underlying scientific processes. His experimentation is part of a broader attack on the mysteries of nature, in this case electromagnetic waves. If it had not been the paranormal, something else would have diverted Lodge. He did not have the inventor’s focused mentality that would have allowed him to zero in on a single innovation and bring it to fruition.
In describing and interpreting the relationship between Marconi and Lodge, Larson could have drawn upon the literature that describes a similar situation that occurred fifty years earlier in the United States, which involved scientist Joseph Henry, inventor of Morse code Samuel F. B. Morse, and the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. One feels that Larson might have missed an opportunity to look at larger issues than just this one innovation.
Larson, however, does vividly demonstrate that Marconi brought to his self>assigned task of transmitting wireless messages over long distancesin contrast with the much easier task of short-range transmissionthe single-mindedness and self>assurance necessary to overcome the awesome technological and economic barriers he was facing. Nothing stopped Marconi: neither windstorms that destroyed thousands of dollars worth of equipment nor repeated failures to transmit messages because of his lack of understanding of the physics. His approach to human relations was as single-minded and self-centered as his approach to technology. He loved adulation from others and sought it incessantly but offered little humanity in return. He gladly accepted others’ contributions to the invention process and improvements in the technology, but he did not acknowledge them. He was quick to fire employees when their usefulness had ended. He alienated business partners. His first marriage was disastrous; destroyed by his infidelity and selfishness, it ended in divorce and subsequent annulment. Larson provides immense and succinct insight into Marconi’s attitude toward his wife when he characterizes him as “her keeper,” an acknowledgement that he wanted control over her actions. Marconi even grew distant from his doting mother, who had been his strongest supporter early in his career, and did not attend her funeral. Given his apparent disdain of other humans, one is not surprised to learn that in the end he became a fascist and supporter of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
In contrast to Marconi’s...
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