Listening to the radio is something we all take for granted these days. It is hard to believe there was ever a time where the only way you could hear music was live. In 1896, a young Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi changed our world forever when he first demonstrated the ability to send communication over the airwaves, rather than using cable, increasing our ability to connect more rapidly with people who were far away and more quickly distribute information.
The story of Marconi’s visionary and obsessive quest to transmit messages through the air across oceans and continents is coupled with a sensational Edwardian murder mystery in Erik Larson’s phenomenal book, Thunderstruck. Along with Marconi, we are introducted to the soft-spoken, gently mannered Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen of Michigan, a physician who created and sold patent medicines in London (those ‘cure-all’ products from the 1900’s that didn’t cure anything). Crippen’s life was unremarkable until the sudden disappearance of his obnoxious wanna-be showgirl wife Cora Crippen, who went by the stage name of Belle Elmore. Crippen was not suspected in her disappearance at first, thanks to his public devotion to his wife and quiet, mannerly ways, until he suddenly and inexplicably fled town permanently with his girlfriend, Ethel le Neve. Suspicions now raised, Scotland Yard detectives did some more investigating at the Crippen home and made a gruesome discovery when they unearthed a pile of human skin and organs buried under the cellar floor, with no identifying features such as hands, feet, teeth, head or even sex organs. Meanwhile, Crippen disguised le Neve as a boy and the two of them left London and traveled throughout Europe for some time as “father and son” until boarding a ship, the Montrose, that was headed for America.
Had it not been for Marconi’s Nobel Prize winning discovery of radio transmissions and how to harness them, the couple might have gotten away scot-free. Without television, telephones and fax machines, manhunts back in the early 20th century were pretty low-tech. However, astute identification of the couple was made by the Montrose’s captain, Henry George Kendall, who then used the Marconi wireless station aboard his ship to relay his suspicions to the police back on land. By the time Dr Crippen and le Neve were arrested aboard ship, the entire world, thanks to wireless, knew about the chase and where the fugitives were. Crippen would be convicted of the murder and hanged.
Ironically, Dr Crippen’s downfall cemented the usefulness of wireless technology to society, as its public acceptance had been slow and rather bumpy. Although Marconi applied for his first patent in 1896, it would be years before he was able to discover the correct wavelengths to broadcast on, and how to build antennas to catch them, spending millions of today’s dollars of his own money building stations on both coasts. Although amazed by the ability to communicate without wires, people did not begin to see the practical usage of his technology until it became possible to communicate with ships at sea using the wireless, which resulted in Crippen’s capture. Before then, ships setting out on transocean voyages were in a communications blackout, and could not receive any news or even information about other ships in the area. It is believed that without the Marconi set on the HMS Titanic there would have been far fewer survivors, as the wireless men were able to call other ships to the area for help before it sank. The pre-WWI era also began to see the usefulness of wireless from a military and strategic standpoint, as ships would be better able to communicate with each other about their positions and that of the enemy.
I really enjoyed this book. The pacing was perfect, and the suspence was trip-wire tight. Would Crippen be caught in time? Did he really do it? Would Marconi be beaten in the race to get wireless technology distributed? Would he ever be able to successfully get a message across the Atlantic? I could not put this book down. Larson seamlessly switched back and forth between the two stories, interweaving them masterfully at the end. The book also touched on some other history that I’ve read about in previous books for this blog…Oliver Lodge was a member of and did research for the Society of Psychical Research, touched on so hilariously by Mary Roach in Spook. It was because of his fascination with mediums and the afterlife that he was distracted away from his earlier research on Hertz’ wavelengths, which might have led to Lodge as the father of radio. The use of forensic medicine in determining Belle’s cause of death (poisoning by a powerful drug that had been purchased before Belle’s death by Crippen) was reminiscent of the Hooblers’ The Crimes of Paris.
What was most interesting was how Larson painted both of the main characters. He treats Dr Crippen almost sympathetically, and takes a very harsh line with Marconi. Although I appreciate Marconi’s brilliance, personally he sounded like a real jerk. I felt more sorry for Dr Crippen, who systematically cut up his wife and buried her so that he could take off with his lover, than I did the guy who gave us sports radio and JACK FM. Now that’s masterful writing!
I would totally recommend this book to anyone, and thanks to all of you readers out there who told me to pick up a Larson book. I was not disappointed.