Signor Marconi's Magic Box
Gavin Weightman
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Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century & The Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution* online

Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century & The Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution
Gavin Weightman
DaCapo Press
320 pages
August 2003
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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In 1896, a young man not long out of his teens first demonstrated a mysterious device that transmitted signals through the "ether". Few understood how this "wireless" telegraphy worked or its ramifications for the future. However, Guglielmo Marconiís invention led to the development of radio in all of its current forms.

Marconi was just a kid playing around in the attic of his family home using the ideas of other inventors like Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Heinrich Hertz and Wilhelm Roentgen when he began performing "tricks" for his cousins. His father viewed Marconiís activities with the usual parental suspicion. But when Guglielmo began transmitting messages through the air using electrical signals and Morse code, the elder Marconi decided that his errant offspring might have accomplished something of value. Using family contacts, Giuseppe sent Guglielmo and his mother to England where they found financial backers to start a company.

Having used the concepts of others and trial and error, Marconi was frank about not understanding the scientific principle behind his invention. Young and modest, his disarming demeanor endeared him to heads of state and business alike. For the next few years, he divided his time between exploring the transmission limits of wireless and promoting himself and his company.

While the minutiae of Marconiís travels are enough to make a readerís eyes glaze over, the history of wireless communication is fascinating. From the early years when the public marveled over signals sent from one side of the room to the other until Marconigrams routinely criss-crossed the Atlantic, the growth of radio mirrored developments in many other areas.

It was the time of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers. Inventions like electricity, telegraphy, motorcars, airplanes and telephones improved the lives of people all over the world. Scientists and engineers were heroic figures. It amuses me that a kid trumped the lot of them and made a name for himself that remains to this day.

Even though Marconiís vision for his invention was narrow and he missed some of the bigger applications like broadcast radio for news and entertainment, his focus on using it for marine communications proved to be the key to his ongoing fame. After ships began installing Marconi systems and hiring operators, several headline-grabbing events proved the value of wireless for maritime applications to ordinary people around the world.

In 1909, The Florida, a small ocean liner with two thousand passengers on board, rammed The Republic, a White Star ship carrying sixteen-hundred people off the coast of Massachusetts. The Republic was seriously damaged and sinking. Jack Binns, a Marconi operator on board The Republic, became a hero by calling other ships and guiding them to the wreck, thus saving many lives. This was the first time wireless telegraphy was used during a maritime emergency and the notoriety of the event led to Marconi receiving the Nobel Prize that year.

An even more intriguing episode demonstrating a different application for radio was the case of Dr. H. H. Crippen. In July 1910, The Montrose of the Canadian Pacific Line left Antwerp headed for Quebec. The captain noticed that a certain passenger looked like newspaper pictures of a murder suspect. Doctor Crippen had escaped with his mistress Ethel Le Neve before police found his wifeís body. The passenger in question was traveling with his son, an effeminate boy with loose clothes. The captain wired Scotland Yard. Boarding a ship faster than The Montrose, a detective rushed across the Atlantic and arrested the pair when they disembarked in Canada. What made this event so intriguing to the public was that the newspapers picked up the story and, throughout the long trans-Atlantic crossing, the whole world knew about the race Ė everyone but Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve, that is. An early version of Court TV, Iím sure.

Then of course, in 1912 The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The two Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, signaled for help until the very last moment Ė jumping into the sea as The Titanic went down. When The Carpathia arrived, the two operators were floating in the middle of an ice floe with the surviving passengers in lifeboats. Jack Phillips was dead. Harold Brideís feet were frozen.

As they steamed toward New York, Harold Bride and Harold Cottam from The Carpathia worked 24 hours a day sending messages about the catastrophe to authorities. One of their biggest tasks was to transmit lists of survivor names. Like Jack Binns before them, these two young men became famous because of their role in rescuing people from certain death at the bottom of the ocean.

These dramatic events secured Marconiís place in history. They also are the highlights of this book. In truth, aside from hobnobbing with the rich and famous of his time, Marconiís life made for dull reading. Oh, there was the outrage I felt at the way Guglielmo treated his wife, but that wasnít enough to encourage me to turn the page. It was the long passages on how things work and who figured out how they work that caught my eye.

Weightman obviously spent a lot of time researching this subject. The piece is chock full of interesting but little-known facts about the personalities surrounding Marconi Ė from his mentor William Preece to Abraham White, an unscrupulous promoter of wireless who attracted unsuspecting investors. Iíd recommend Signor Marconiís Magic Box as a definitive reference on nineteenth-century inventors concerned with telegraphy. While not an easy read, itís an intriguing one.

© 2003 by Joyce Faulkner for Curled Up With a Good Book

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