You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Erik Larson's Thunderstruck is an account of the discovery of radio telegraphy intertwined with an intriguing murder mystery. Larson describes how Guglielmo Marconi invents a system to transmit signals through the air by a system of trial and error. The story of how a murder was solved and the murderer apprehended joins the story of radio in a case that made international headlines.

Marconi did not have any formal scientific training but was both confident in his understanding and obsessive in his tests. Through long hours of testing he was able to send a signal from one end of his lab to the other. Then he sent a signal over a hill. With his confidence high, he traveled to England to find financial backers. He found an immediate colleague in William Preece of the British Post Office. Preece was both knowledgeable and connected, and he saw promise in Marconi's invention. Unfortunately Preece let an agent of Germany view the invention, so the Germans acquire the technology. Marconi files for a patent for his invention and acquires investors. Yet he struggles to gain the one triumph he seeks, to send signals across the Atlantic wirelessly.

The other story follows Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic doctor who travels to London with his young vivacious wife to help run a patent medicine business. His wife Belle aspires to be an opera singer, though she soon abandons that idea to pursue a career in vaudeville. Despite his support and affection, she begins to resent him. He is short and soft spoken, while she is outgoing, boisterous, and tempestuous. Their marriage deteriorates, and he finds solace in his young assistant Ethel.

As the 1900's progress, Marconi faces difficulties. His devices are sold to shipping companies to allow ships to communicate while at sea, yet he faces competition from others and regulation from the British government. His investors are reluctant to keep financing his plans. He gets engaged, And his grand venture to prove that he can reliably transmit messages across the Atlantic has constant problems.

Harvey and Belle's problems get worse and she keeps threatening to leave. Her friends are shocked one day to discover that she is gone and Crippen says she has gone back to America. Then he tells them that she has died and begins showing up with Ethel, who wears Belle's clothes and jewelry. Some friends talk to Scotland Yard and an inspector comes to talk to Crippen. Crippen confesses that his wife has left him and he has been trying to avoid a scandal. But when he and Ethel disappear, the inspectors dig further and find gruesome evidence.

The ultimate crossing of these stories occurs on a ship on a trans-Atlantic voyage. With the use of Marconi's technology the captain is able to notify the authorities of his suspicions, and the international manhunt focuses on the ship. The case becomes a sensation, and the wireless device is the star. Larson is meticulous in his details and his digressions. I enjoyed the history of radio, especially how Marconi stumbled into his discovery. It was also interesting to learn about how his ideas were copied and became controversial when others said they had already made the same inventions. The story of Crippen and his wife is also riveting, a crime sensation of the early Twentieth century. A-

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