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At the turn of the 19th century, in an England ruled by Queen Victoria, which was becoming used to the miracles of technology - the previous year, x-rays were discovered - a new miracle arose. In 1897, wireless telegraphy, called by some in the press "nothing more than miraculous" appeared, thanks to the discoveries and research of Guglielmo Marconi. This technique, which defied understanding even among the learned, allowed telegraph operators to send dots and dashes through the ether, at distances of several miles, and eventually changed the face of technology and society.
The telegraph, at that time, was already common, and was an important source of news and exchange. But telegrams had to travel over wires, which is why for a very long time, even after wireless telegraphy became common, one spoke of sending "cables". Marconi had made a unique discovery "while experimenting on his father's estate": he was able to "generate signals which went through or over hills" though he had no idea how this worked. This was cutting-edge technology, but, since this was the dawn of science, even amateurs like Marconi could be players.
Marconi built on the work of Heinrich Hertz, who had first managed to send waves across very short distances. What Marconi wanted to achieve was communication with ships, where it was impossible to use cables. He experimented essentially through trial and error, piecing together techniques and ideas he read about in electrical magazines and testing his own ideas. As his technique began to work, he didn't know how it happened, how the waves actually traveled through the air, but he refined the devices he used to improve its efficiency and increase its distance.
But this is less a story of a discovery than its development and marketing. Coincidence helped Marconi in this element. His mother, Annie Jameson, who had moved to Italy to marry Giueseppe Marconi, was Irish, of the Jameson whisky family. Marconi went to London to show off his discovery and seek investors, and it was eventually the Jamesons who were responsible for setting up the well-funded Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company to bring his discovery to market.
And it was indeed brought to market. With demonstrations ranging from one with the royal family to cross-Channel communications performed in front of American journalists, Marconi's invention became known around the world. In October 1899, Marconi assured his fame in the United States by broadcasting news from the America's Cup sailing competition. He was able to send news of the races from a ship to a land-based receiver, providing, for the first time even, real-time play-by-play of this famous event.
Marconi continued working on his invention, with the next step being to send transatlantic signals, a feat he realized in December 1901, from Cornwall to Newfoundland. Over the years to come, he was able to refine this even more, turning it into an essential tool for ships at sea, and for others sending telegrams.
The story that Gavin Weightman tells here is one of tiny steps, as Marconi moves ahead slowly, with great humility. This narrative is interesting and well-written, and gives an excellent feeling of this exciting period when the technologies that we take for granted were just getting off the ground. Weightman barely touches on the technical issues, on the science behind wireless, making this a book that anyone can appreciate. There are no formulae, no schematics, only an interesting story about an interesting man.
As I sit in my living room, writing this review on my iBook, which is connected to a wireless network, I try and imagine how people in the 19th century viewed such a development, one that seems so small compared to what we have around us today. Just like many of the building-blocks of today's communication technology, Marconi's invention was another step forward in the discovery of techniques that went on to change the world. When Marconi died in 1937, television broadcasts had been made and radio signals had been sent around the world. In just a short time, the world had become a global village, thanks in part to his tenacity and vision.