Top positive review
Weaves together two stories: a murder mystery & Marconi’s contributions to wireless communications
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 14, 2020
The book entitled: “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson was another enjoyable and entertaining book by Erik Larson. I highly recommend purchasing and reading it. It is a work of nonfiction written as if it were a novel. It weaves together two stories one of a murder mystery and the other of the story of Marconi and his contributions to wireless communications over many years around the year 1900. It will have a particular appeal to those with an interest in engineering and science and the continuing debate over whether theory or application are the fast way to improve technical products. As one of the valuable aspects of Marconi’s work involved ship to shore communications, which were later also valuable in at sea rescues this book will also have appeal to those who have sailed on the high seas in the military or as cruise passengers and those who are aware of the work of the international ice patrol. The book also introduces one to the value of patents both obtaining and defending them internationally and early examples of how start-up ventures worked in the UK.
Because I had read other books by Erik Larson, I selected this one after tiring of reading the umpteenth book on politics leading up to the November 2020 elections in the US. As it turns out, I had switched almost entirely to reading books on my Kindle app and was pleased when I discovered Amazon.com would alert me if I had already purchased and downloaded a title. When I purchased this book copyrighted in 2006, it was not flagged as previously purchased but as I started to read it the story line was very familiar and lo and behold, I had purchased and still had a hardcover copy of the book. As I continued to read my Kindle version, I was reminded of how well Larson writes and how much interesting and entertaining technical detail he provides in his stories. This book is well worth purchasing and reading … even twice.
One of Marconi’s competitors was one with a strong academic background but one who also suffered and benefited from two traits: one his willingness to consider and investigate new phenomenon (including the paranormal) and the other the curiosity to be easily distracted to follow a new lead. Marconi in contrast was a classic experimentalist continually trying new adjustments to his equipment in the hopes of improving their performance without really any scientific understanding of why changes were leading to improvements. In the process, he comes close to bankrupting his company before later going on to win the Nobel prize.
The author states: “Historians often place humankind’s initial awareness of the distinct character of electrical phenomena in ancient Greece, with a gentleman named Thales, who discovered that by rubbing amber he could attract to it small bits of things, like beard hair and lint. The Greek word for amber was elektron.
Initially scientists were pleased just to be able to launch a spark, as when Isaac Newton did it in 1643, but the technology quickly improved …” Larson goes on to remind the reader that: “But it was James Clerk Maxwell who really shook things up. In 1873 in his A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism he proposed that such oscillations produced invisible electromagnetic waves, whose properties he described in a series of famous equations. He also argued that these waves were much like light and traveled through the same medium, the mysterious invisible realm known to physicists of the day as ether.” And goes on to remind the reader that: “In 1886 Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of such waves through laboratory experiments and found also that they traveled at the speed of light.”
Larson goes on to state that after doing a presentation on a short distance communications demonstration that: “Lodge’s own statements about his lecture reveal that he did not think of Hertzian waves as being useful; certainly the idea of harnessing them for communication never occurred to him. He believed them incapable of traveling far—he declared half a mile as the likely limit. It remained the case that as of the summer of 1894 no means existed for communicating without wires over distances beyond the reach of sight. This made for lonely times … in the many places where wires did not reach, but nowhere was this absence felt more acutely than on the open sea, a fact of life that is hard to appreciate for later generations accustomed to the immediate world-grasp afforded by shortwave radio and cellular telephone.”
Larson identified the key to Marconi’s ultimate success stating: “The true scholar-physicists, like Lodge, had concluded that waves must travel in the same manner as light, meaning that even if signals could be propelled for hundreds of miles, they would continue in a straight line at the speed of light and abandon the curving surface of the earth. … Marconi saw no limits. He fell back on trial and error, at a level of intensity that verged on obsession. It set a pattern for how he would pursue his quest over the next decade.” Moreover, Larson, explaining Marconi goes on to state: “As he worked, a fear grew within him, almost a terror, that one day he would awaken to discover that someone else had achieved his goal first. He understood that as research into electromagnetic waves advanced, some other scientist or inventor or engineer might suddenly envision what he had envisioned. … And in fact he was right to be concerned. … Scientists around the world were conducting experiments with electromagnetic waves, though they still focused on their optical qualities. Lodge had come closest, but inexplicably had not continued his research.”
Larson goes on to state: “One day, by chance or intuition, Marconi elevated one of the wires of his transmitter on a tall pole, thus creating an antenna longer than anything he previously had constructed. No theory existed that even hinted such a move might be useful.
It was simply something he had not yet done and that was therefore worth trying. As it happens, he had stumbled on a means of dramatically increasing the wavelength of the signals he was sending, thus boosting their ability to travel long distances and sweep around obstacles. … “That was when I first saw a great new way open before me,” Marconi said later. “Not a triumph. Triumph was far distant. But I understood in that moment that I was on a good road. My invention had taken life. I had made an important discovery.””