Thunderstruck

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1867

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.

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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 self-assurance, self-centeredness, and insensitivity, H. H. Crippen was passive, self-effacing, and patient. Trained as a homeopathic physician in the United States and England, Crippen had moved back and forth among the United States, Canada, and England before settling in London in 1897 as the extremely well-paid manager of the London office of a highly respected American patent medicine firm. Thereafter, employment came and went, and Crippen steadily moved toward the less savory side of the patent medicine industry. His economic situation also declined. The combination of his personality and his circumstances left him very unhappy. The greatest source of his unhappiness was his second wife, Cora Turner Crippen, an aspiring operatic singer and music hall performer, who eventually took the stage name Belle Elmore.

The picture Larson draws of Mrs. Crippen is not sympathetic. She comes across as a very self-centered woman who at first glance might have made a worthy match for Marconi; but there was a difference. Mrs. Crippen could be warm and sociable with her friends; it was only with her husband that her dark side became evident. Although she spent far more on her dress and personal adornment, including jewelry, than the family could afford, forcing Crippen to perpetually worry about income and seek less expensive lodging, she greatly restricted household expenses. Larson contrasts the external finery of Mrs. Crippen with the family’s dreary, depressive domestic life. Expenditures on food, for example, were limited, as she often sought bargain or cheap cuts of meat. She refused to hire a maid at a time when household help was standard for a middle-class household like theirs, but she was an inadequate housekeeper herself, and their house was almost repulsively dirty. Many household chores, which in most households of their social and financial standing would have been done by the wife or the servants, were Mr. Crippen’s responsibility. She also had a male friend, Bruce Miller, with whom she spent considerable time alone. Although Miller later denied that they had an affair, Mrs. Crippen made it clear to her husband that Miller was a rival for her affections. There were indications that she was going to take all their money and abandon him. All in all, it was not a happy state of affairs for Crippen. In Larson’s view, Mrs. Crippen needed to dominate every aspect of Crippen’s life. He was, the author concluded, “almost on a par with the household’s other pets.” It is perhaps not surprising that Crippen looked elsewhere for happiness. He found it with a young typist with his firm, Ethel Le Neve.

What turned Crippen from henpecked husband into a murderer is not clear. Le Neve’s pregnancy, miscarriage, and subsequent depression may have changed the tenor of their relationship. Larson speculates that Mrs. Crippen criticized her husband one time too many. Whatever the impetus, his wife suddenly disappeared and Crippen clumsily tried to cover it up. First he informed his wife’s friends that she had gone to the United States because of a relative’s illness. Then he told them she had died overseas but was vague about when and where she died. Suspicious friends, angry at the now open relationship between Crippen and his girlfriend, called the police, who investigated. Then Crippen changed his story, claiming that his wife had left him and that he had invented the trip to the United States to prevent scandal. Apparently spooked by the police investigation, Crippen and Le Neve fled to the Continent in early July, 1910. Shortly thereafter, the police found human remains in the cellar of the Crippen residence. The manhunt was on.

The lives of Crippen and Marconi now intertwined at a crucial point in their respective lives. By July, 1910, Marconi had solved most of the technical problems of wireless transmission. Ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication were commonplace. A year earlier, his achievements had been rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics. Nevertheless his company was still in a precarious financial situation. There remained skepticism about long-range wireless communication: “the world continued to see it as an invention of limited use.”

That same summer, Crippen and Le Neve, disguised as father and son, attempted to flee the manhunt by escaping to Canada on board the SS Montrose. Henry George Kendall, the ship’s captain, grew suspicious of the pair. Using his wireless, he alerted Scotland Yard of his suspicions. In response, a police inspector was sent on a faster ship to intercept Crippen and his companion in Canada.

Thanks to messages transmitted by wireless telegraphy, the world was able to follow the saga of the fleeing wife killer and his lover and the police inspector following them. Larson concludes that the publicity surrounding the chase and capture of Crippen “did more to accelerate the acceptance of wireless as a practical tool than anything the Marconi company previously had attempted.” Subsequently, wireless telegraphy became more and more commonplace on all oceangoing vessels. Then came the Titanic disasterwith the recognition of the need to alert ships to the presence of icebergsfollowed by World War I. The public began taking wireless telegraphy for granted. Within a decade of the Crippen chase, voice and music were being transmitted over the airwaves, and commercial radio was not far behind.

Scattered throughout the book are descriptive pieces worthy of a novelist and relatively detailed sketches of the lives of secondary characters. Skilled though they are, few, if any, of these descriptions or biographical sketches are necessary to move along the story. In providing, for example, a description of the street scene outside the Royal Institution, right down to the smell, or the subsequent events in the life of Crippen’s executioner, Larson wants to evoke accurately for the reader an entire culture: Edwardian England during the first decade of the twentieth century. This he succeeds in doing, but it leaves the book feeling bloated. In “A Note to Readers,” Larson apologizes for his “passion for digression.” The book would have been improved if Larson had better controlled this passion.

In contrast to his inability to control his infatuation for detail and digression, Larson successfully distances himself from the usual crime study. For the most part, he scrupulously avoids indulging in the usual sport of speculating about the unanswered questions surrounding the murder and the unexplained details. For example, did Le Neve assist Crippen in the crime? The court accepted her plea that she was unaware of what happened. Larson admits the possibility of her compliance but goes no further. His refusal to try to reconstruct the crime ultimately is unsatisfying because there was one fact about it that was annoyingly never explained. Mrs. Crippen’s hands, feet, and head were never recovered. Why was Crippen able to dispose of those body parts in a manner that defied the police’s attempts to find them while simply burying the remainder of the corpse in his cellar? After all the research that Larson did on the topic, his speculation here would have been welcome.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

Booklist 102, no. 21 (July 1, 2006): 5.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 13 (July 1, 2006): 666.

Library Journal 131, no. 13 (August 1, 2006): 102.

The New York Times 156 (November 13, 2006): E1-E6.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (November 5, 2006): 60.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 32 (August 14, 2006): 191.

School Library Journal 52, no. 10 (October, 2006): 191.

The Washington Post Book World 36 (October 22, 2006): 3.

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