Originally created 12/31/06

Wireless technology unites two stories



When good and evil coexist in close quarters, they create the potential for some intense drama.

Erik Larson takes advantage of this tension in Thunderstruck. The book, set between 1900 and 1910, tells two true stories: how wireless communication was introduced to the world by the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, and how that technology fed the public's hunger for information about a sensational murder. At the book's climax, the parallel story lines are brought together in a meaningful way.

Mr. Larson's decision to intertwine the stories is similar to what he did in The Devil in the White City, which was about an architect of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and a serial killer who found his prey among the fair-goers.

Technology is a main theme in Thunderstruck, as Mr. Larson depicts Marconi's obsession with creating and serving a mass market for wireless telegraphy.

The book's other thread involves Dr. Hawley Crippen, who killed and dismembered his wife in London, then fled with another woman on a ship to America.

Mr. Larson, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, brings these individuals to life with an impressive amount of research.

Early on, Mr. Larson establishes Marconi as an underdog, and as his story develops it becomes clear why this is important. Marconi was no scientist, and men of science regarded him initially as a tinkerer, an amateur.

They were mistaken. Even though Marconi didn't fully understand his invention, through trial and error, intuition and some luck, he triumphed.

Describing the wireless station at Cornwall, England, Mr. Larson writes:

"At (Marconi's) direction, the men at Poldhu erected two new masts, each 160 feet tall, and strung a thick cable across the top. From it they hung fifty-four bare copper wires, each 150 feet long, that converged over the condenser house and formed a giant fanshell in the sky. No particular law of physics directed the design. It just struck Marconi as right."

A similar spirit prevailed in many of his efforts. His persistence seemed to be his greatest strength, and his impulsiveness his greatest weakness, although his apparent lack of sensitivity toward others came close. He was also a risk-taking entrepreneur long before the dot-com era.

Marconi's ambition drew many enemies, among them some of the most respected scientists of the day. As history reveals, many of his contemporaries became footnotes.

His story, though, was radically altered and in some ways helped by Crippen, Mr. Larson writes.

Crippen murdered his wife, and was pursued by Scotland Yard when he and his new love fled across the Atlantic. The public, fascinated by the story, followed the chase in newspapers through Marconigrams sent by the trailing ship. In this way, Crippen unintentionally created attention for, and public confidence in, wireless technology.

"The Crippen saga did more to accelerate the acceptance of wireless as a practical tool than anything the Marconi company previously had attempted." Mr. Larson writes. "Almost every day, for months, newspapers talked about wireless, the miracle of it, the nuts and bolts of it, how ships relaying messages from one to another could conceivably send a Marconigram around the world."

A more famous event linked to wireless technology was the sinking of the Titanic. The Crippen case came first, providing a boost to the previously untested and untrusted technology.

J.B. Priestley, a playwright and essayist of the time, wrote that Crippen had erred, that "he had forgotten, if he ever knew, what Marconi had done for the world, which was now rapidly shrinking."

That doesn't sound much different from another, more recent world-shrinking wireless technology. Same story, different day.

BY THE BOOK

TITLE: Thunder-struck (Crown, 462 pages, $25.95)


AUTHOR: Erik Larson