Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

In The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson interleaved the story of Chicago's Columbian Exposition with that of a particularly depraved serial killer operating nearby at the same time.  Similarly, his also nonfiction Thunderstruck tells the story of Marconi's development of radio and another sensational crime.  I bought the book because I was interested in the early development of radio.

While the crime at the center of the book has many peculiar and suspenseful aspects, I was quite disappointed in the history of Marconi.  Larson has unearthed many stories of his fanatical dedication, and his struggles with rivals and competitors, the book, and I expect the author, is almost entirely innocent of any discussion of the actual technical difficulties encountered and overcome.

There is much about giant towers and antennas, their destruction by weather, giant sparks illuminating the darkness and shattering the silence with their thunderous booms, their is almost nothing about what is really going on in the electromagnetic spectrum.  Marconi was not a physicist.  Like Edison, he operated by cut and try.  Even though his efforts won him the Nobel Prize in Physics,  he confessed his lack of technical comprehension his acceptance speech.

Crucial details about the waves generated, and how they were tuned, are completely absent.  We are told  about the crucial role of tuning, but not told anything about how Marconi did it.  We are told that the invention of the thermionic valve (a vacuum tube diode) was important, but not told anything about its role (or even that it is a vacuum tube diode)).

I give this a B-, because the story is interesting and otherwise carefully told.  


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