Monday, 3 October 2005

Signor Marconi’s Magic Box – Gavin Weightman *****

Wireless communication is much more romantic than pumping information down a cable. There’s still something exciting about being able to access the internet from a wireless connection – and an even stronger thrill was felt towards the end of the nineteenth century when the shackles of wired telegraphy were removed to allow messages to fly through the ether thanks to Marconi’s work on radio.
All too rare in a popular science book, Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box is a real page turner. It has all the right ingredients to become a Hollywood blockbuster. The young, dynamic Marconi, taking everyone by surprise both in his debonair looks and his command of English (though an Italian, Marconi had an Irish mother and did all his significant work in the UK and the USA). Then there’s the awesome impact of the new technology. The race to conquer huge technical barriers like getting a signal across the Atlantic. The fraudulent and dirty dealing companies that set up to make money out of the wireless boom without the capability of producing decent radio signals. And even a spot of love interest.
If you wanted to be really picky, there’s not a lot of science in the book – the story is driven by pure technology – but having said that, it’s almost a triumph of technology over the scientific knowledge of the day. From what everyone “knew” about “Hertzian waves”, the name at the time for radio waves, they should only be capable of transmission over a mile or two – yet Marconi was soon reaching a hundred and then thousands of miles, with the theory struggling to catch up with the reality that his experimental genius achieved.
What makes the book difficult to put down is the powerful draw of a race. This wasn’t a case of a sole inventor, tinkering away in his workshop. Many others were struggling to get wireless communication working, and Marconi knew it was only a matter of time before some other concern eclipsed his, putting immense pressure on him to achieve in a tight timescale. Though the earliest competitors missed the point, and tried to challenge his patents with devices that used induction to generate a current at the distance of a few yards, Marconi was under no illusion that he had the field to himself, and triumphed thanks to a combination of drive and personal initiative that would have made him a natural for Silicon Valley had he lived in the late twentieth century.
There is one slight moan. Michael Faraday is described as a chemist. Given that all the other remarks about Faraday concern his electrical and electromagnetic work, this seems an odd label. Faraday did make important contributions to chemistry, but it’s surely as a physical scientist that he is remembered.
However this is without doubt a book to treasure on a key development in the history of technology. Until recently Marconi was a well-known name, but as the companies he founded have all but disappeared, so too does Marconi himself fade away in the public consciousness – it’s a good thing this book is hear to keep his name alive.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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