Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larsen

Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen (Crown, 2006) interweaves the stories of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic pharmacist and doctor, with Enrico Marconi, the inventor of the radio.  Though these individuals never met, their tales intersect in a seminal moment, perhaps the first such moment, that illustrates the galvanizing power of media in the human world.  Crippen’s story is a miserable one.  Regarded by everyone as meek and mild-mannered, he apparently murdered his flamboyant and overbearing wife, removed the bones from her body, removed her head, and buried what was left underneath his house.  His motive was, we can assume, to free himself of an unhappy marriage so that he could be with a young woman with whom he had fallen in love.  Persistent detective work by a Scotland Yard inspector brings out the truth.
Others besides Marconi were working to develop a way to communicate by electromagnetic waves.  But no one was so persistent as Marconi, who through hours and years of experimentation succeeded in developing the first successful wireless communication system.  In Thunderstruck Larsen describes how Marconi tries to prove the utility of his invention by sending Morse code messages over the Atlantic Ocean.  Marconi himself believed it was possible to do this, even though he also knew that because radio waves move in straight lines the curvature of the earth should have prevented it from happening.  When he did succeed in sending a transatlantic message, he wasn’t sure why it worked (the reflection of radio waves off the ionosphere provide the explanation). Marconi’s story is more interesting than that of the miserable Dr. Crippen.
The seminal moment comes when Dr. Crippen and his lover try to escape from England in a ship headed towards America.  Unknown to him, chief inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard learns what he is trying to do and communicates with the ship’s captain.  Messages fly back and forth as Inspector Dew on a faster ship tries to reach Canada first to be able to arrest Crippen.  His attempt to outwit Crippen is communicated by wireless all over the western world and widely reported in newspapers.  Everyone follows the developing events (except Crippen).  It’s one of those moments in media that punctuate the 20th-century: from Edward R. Murrow’s World War II broadcasts from England, to the moon landing, to O. J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, to the Gulf War broadcasts, to the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Everyone was watching.  The Whole World Was Watching, or in this case listening.
Such moments have had a major impact on reducing and leveling out cultural differences and gaps across the world.
Dr. Crippen was hanged.

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