Most hams know a little about Guglielmo Marconi’s work in bringing radio into the realm of practical use. This book tells the tale of Marconi’s invention in a thrilling way that you will enjoy, as well as the contemporary — and converging — tale of the man who has been called the second most gruesome murderer in the history of British crime. The author, Eric Larson, a skilled literary detective, provides exhaustive end notes to assure us that the tale has been told as it actually happened, rather than being embellished by his imagination.
Signor Marconi was one of many men who were trying to make radio work in a practical manner. Most of those early radio men had the best training science could offer. Marconi was, instead, a relatively unschooled experimenter who spent long days, and sometimes sleepless nights, experimenting with various devices and techniques, continually improving his apparatus and keep slightly ahead of other experimenters.
Marconi scored some early successes that attracted funding for his work, enabling him to build a number of wireless stations in North America and Europe (wonderful details are provided of those stations, the horrendous noises their gigantic spark gaps made and their huge antennas). But then Marconi’s funding started to dry up as other experimenters began to catch up with his work and it was yet uncertain who would become known as “The Inventor of Radio.”
Meanwhile, a murder most gruesome had been committed in London — and done so carefully that it took thousands of hours of work by Scotland Yard detectives to even prove that a murder had actually been committed. Just as the police started to close the net around the suspected murderer Hawley Crippen (the husband of the deceased), he and his paramour went underground and fled by ship for Canada where they could assume new lives and likely never be found out.
But the ship the runaway pair sailed on had a wireless station. Scotland Yard signaled the ship’s master that a suspected murderer was onboard. The captain swore the radio officer to secrecy so no one onboard knew of the drama that was unfolding.
But the press learned of the story, publishing lurid accounts of the murder, the suspect and his fleeing with his lover on a transatlantic ship. The story sold a lot of newspapers in England and in Canada and the shadowing of the fugitives via wireless was at the center of the public’s attention.
The drama and intrigue built to a fever pitch, but then slid down to a rather anticlimactic moment when police went on board and quietly arrested the murderer and his companion.
The drama of that practical use of wireless had been spread throughout the world by the press. Marconi’s funding became more than adequate. And that is what gave Signor Marconi a major advantage over his competitors and why today the world recognizes Marconi as the inventor of radio.
At the end of the book you will find 40 pages of notes, seven pages of archives and bibliography, and a complete index, to help you keep up with all the details of the story.
The book is a real page-turner and you will have a hard time putting it down long enough to check into your favorite net. Enjoy.
Thunderstruck is published by Three Rivers Press, New York, NY, 2006, 465 pages, ISBN 978-1-4000-8067-0. It is available in hardcover, paperback, audio CD, digital download, eBook and large print editions.
Al Brogdon, W1AB, is a QST contributing editor.
Al Brogdon, W1AB