A Journalist's Archive

Erick Larson
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Going wireless?  Thank Guglielmo Marconi

          Inventions never succeed until society finds a need for them.  "Thunderstruck," a non-fiction book by Erick Larson, intertwines the biographies of Marconi and Hawley Crippen to prove that point beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

          While we all learned about Marconi's wireless telegraph in grade school, few of us ever heard of Crippen.  His life was hardly worthy of comment in our history books, yet it was his heinous actions that made Marconi's invention a success.

          Erick Larson begins the story with a teaser.  The year is 1910, and Captain Henry George Kendall is preparing his ship, the S. S. Montrose, for a voyage from Antwerp to Quebec City, Canada.  He observes a father and son, the Robinsons, standing close to a lifeboat, but Kendall believes there is something amiss, something not quite right about these passengers.

          Next the reader is transported to the Royal Institution in London.  The year is 1894 and Oliver Lodge, a professor of physics at University College in Liverpool, is about to give a lecture entitled "The Work of Hertz."  At the end of his speech, Lodge demonstrates his latest invention.  A spark goes off, "a gunshot crack jolts the audience to attention," and a flash of light in seen in "a distant unattached electrical apparatus."  Lodge has just proved Hertz's invisible radio waves can be harnessed.

          Unfortunately for Lodge, he belonged to a group of scientists who believed theoretical science was a religion.  The world of patents and commercial gain was left to men like Thomas Edison and Marconi who were willing to spend a lifetime turning scientific theories into practical devices.

          Even as a child Marconi was fascinated by electricity.  He started out his life as an oddity.  Born to a prosperous father from Bologna and an Irish mother, Anne Jameson, Marconi was a pale-skinned, blue-eyed Italian.

            It was his mother, and the money from the famous Jameson Whiskey Empire, that supported Marconi while he tinkered, experimented, failed, and tried again to make the wireless telegraph a success.

          Even so, with telegraph cables stretched across the Atlantic, there was little public support for Marconi's new wireless invention.

          Then an unlikely character enters the story.  Dr. Hawley Crippen, a frail, mild-mannered man, dispensed homeopathic medicine from an office in Brooklyn.  He was 30 years old when a voluptuous seventeen year old calling herself Cora Turner entered his store.         

          The would-be actress and singer started out life as Kunigunde Mackamotzki, changed her name to Cora Turner, and then changed it again to Belle Elmore after marrying Crippen. 

          No matter what she called herself, Larson describes her as a domineering woman who hen-pecked Crippen throughout their marriage.

          Larson's suspenseful narrative produces a book that is half science and half pulp fiction - but it is all true.   The story also gives readers a clear picture of life at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

          Larson successfully alternates between Marconi's and Crippen's biographies until their stories collide in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

          How that happens would give away the ending of this captivating book.

          Read "Thunderstruck," and you will think about Marconi when you use a cell phone or wireless internet connection.  And Crippen will come to mind when you think about a simple twist of fate. 

          Whether or not Crippen deserved his fate is something only you the reader can decide.        

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2007 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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