It’s easy to be enthused about a new Erik Larson book; the stories he weaves in Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City contrast intriguing personal stories with greater the events of a period of time. In one he tells of the biggest natural disaster in United States history, while in the other, the nation’s industrial might is on display while a murderer goes about his grisly work. In his newest work, Thunderstruck, Larson tells the fascinating story of Guglielmo Marconi and sets it against the backdrop of one of the biggest criminal stories of the time: the Crippen murder. These stories intertwined relate a vivid picture of life in the early 20th Century. It illustrates the first uses of technology in police work, shows how technology changed the everyday lives of average citizens, and shows the stunning power of telegraphy—an addition to the DF archive that is not only informative, but enthralling.
Guglielmo Marconi’s successful demonstration of telegraphy is one of the “bullet points” we all talk about in the history of kites. Marconi provide the first transatlantic wireless transmissions December 1st 1901 using a Baden-Powell Levitor kite. Larson goes into great detail to describe the initial problems that Marconi had in constructing his trans-Atlantic transmitting stations, as well as the problems of power management, efficiency, and reception. Initally, Marconi’s aerials were lifted by large towers. After a series of ship-to-shore successes, though, Marcouni couldn’t afford to build towers high or strong enough to get good reception.
Then Marconi, in December of 1901, traveled to Newfoundland to attempt communication with his English station at Poldhu. Below, Larson describes what happened on December 12th;
I [Marconi] came to the conclusion that perhaps kites would answer better,” They attached two wires, each 510 feet long. Coats flapping they launched the kite into the gale. It dipped and heaved but rose quickly to about four hundred feet…. The kite shuddered through the sky and strained at the line that tethered it to the plateau. At the appointed time Marconi held the telephone receiver to his ear. He heard nothing but static and the noise of wind…. At about twelve-thirty the receiver issued a sharp click, the sound of the tapper striking the coherer. It meant the receiver had detected waves. (Marconi) “Unmistakably, the three sharp little clicks corresponding to three dots, sounded several times in my ear.
These are just a few of the details Larson includes to tell of Marconi’s success, and because of such attention to detail, I found it interesting that he never mentions kites again – not because of their importance to me, but simply because they appear to be a large part of Marconi’s translantic success.
It’s also interesting in light of another copy of a piece about Marconi that the Drachen Foundation recently acquired, a French article entitled, “Wireless telegraphy extends its rule over the world: the latest experiences of wireless telegraphy” from the review Je Sais Tout. Found in avid historical kite collector Jan Desipleare’s library, this fascinating article tells the same story, generally, that Larson tells—Marconi’s grit and determination to pursue telegraphy from the you age of 15, the triumph of telegraphy, and the role of telegraphy in catching the murderer Hawley Crippen.
In Wireless telegraphy, much is made of Marconi’s use of kite telegraphy onboard the French battleship, Dreadnought, as well as sharing many stories of its use on other commercial ships—after a disaster at sea, crews are saved by contacting neighboring ships, more criminals are apprehended, smugglers are warned by their husbands to declare their goods, as the government is onto them.
It seems as though, at least for the first few years of ship-to-shore communications, kites were critical. Each page shows Marconi flying a Brooks Box kite from England in an early demonstration for the French press.
The Wireless telegraphy article also tackles the Crippen murder:
Not long ago, a fugitive had succeeded to embark for Canada on the steamer Montrose while the English police endeavor to search for him around London. Captain Kendall, commander of the Montrose, is a cool observer. Under the false name that was protecting such a passenger, he guessed doctor Crippen, from which continuously recorded radiograms from his ships post, had taught him of the crime and disappearance…. It is this that made a connection that the famous inspector, Sexton, could take a faster ship, pass the Montrose, and pick Crippen up at disembarkment, when, without the wireless telegraphy, he could have perhaps escaped.
So, for the details of Marconi, Inspector Sexton, and Hawley Crippen, Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is a must-read. Then drop a note to the Drachen Foundation for a translation of the Wireless Telegraphy article, it’s a great footnote that Larson might not have seen and a wonderful, if surprising, combination of Marconi information for Drachen’s archive.