Thunderstruck

Eric Larson

No one alive writes more intriguing historical novels than Eric Larson When you read Eric Larson, you read history (a.k.a. “narrative history”), cloaked in the intrigue of real human lives, fleshed with dialogue that actually occurred (which was extracted from memoires, newspaper quotations, Scotland Yard depositions, etc., of the speakers or those listening to them); Larson thus makes history live and breathe with a pulse that often spellbinds and hypnotizes the reader, as might fiction, further corroborating the hackneyed axiom, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In his 2006-published Thunderstruck (a term, I surmise, that captures the electric explosions relating to early wireless telegraphy experiments), Larson regales us with graphic depictions of Edwardian London (the London of “Jack the Ripper”), replete with concurrent histories of Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), a non-scientist and confessed layman but, nonetheless, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics and the inventor of long range wireless telegraphy and radiotelegraphy (which led to AM and FM radio, as we know them), and the unrelated, “kind hearted” Dr. Hawley Crippen, a homeopathic doctor, the infamous “London Cellar Murderer” and the latter’s intriguing capture at sea, whilst on the SS Montrose, which capture was made possible by Marconi’s transoceanic, wireless telegraphy. The femmes fatale of these men added the indispensible female dimension.

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were also an era of “Darwinian Darkness” (the first, widespread disillusionment with biblical creation), which had inspired many to seek refuge and hope outside religion. “Spiritualists”, in the form of the occult, became the rage, including “visitations” from ghosts, séances, trances, telepathy, poltergeists, magicians, and related occult activities; it was “The Age of the Supernatural”. In London alone, there were 150 Spiritualist Societies, led by mediums. Even the likes of Twain, H.G. Wells, psychologist-Wm. James, and Queen Victoria consulted mediums and/or joined these Societies.

Short-range wireless communications became useful tools of “spiritualists” and magicians, while Marconi, and a number of other inventors, worked on wireless and obtained early patents, but, until Marconi made break a through, all provided for short-range communications only; Thunderstruck details Marconi’s protracted, sometimes electrically dangerous, deafeningly loud and often maddening attempts to extend short range to long range wireless. Larson provides incredibly detailed accounts of Marconi’s experiments, failures, frustrations, idiosyncrasies (such as an obsession with clocks), marital life, and contentious relationships with other inventors. (He adds some 50 pages of Notes, recounting his innumerable source materials, corroborating his text almost passage by passage.) The descriptions of countless failed experiments are at once captivating and educational but, ultimately, a bit tedious, driving impatient readers to scan intermittent passages.

Larson is the author of the award-winning novel Devil in the White City and the gripping narrative history, Isaac’s Storm, plus two other books. He knows how to write best sellers. As with Isaac’s Storm, his prose can be full lovely metaphors and unforgettable descriptive passages, but, on balance, he writes his historical narratives in a journalistic style, but he still keeps his readers riveted to his plots. The evolution of wireless telegraphy and radio is educational, and, here, it is also spiced with a gruesome murder which ironically expedited the widespread use of long range wireless communications. Larson, thus, made these historical accounts enjoyable to learn. Those, who revel in history and mysteries, will delight in this book.