Thunderstruck is the story of Marconi and the first radio receiver/transmitter. It is also the story of the first murder solved by radio telegraphy. In that classic Erik Larson style, he weaves together two storylines, making a single cohesive narrative about some relatively dry history that becomes a thrilling race against time.
Marconi invented radio telegraphy, aka the ability to wirelessly transmit telegraph signals. This was a critical invention, for at the time there was little understanding about radio waves, and monopolies on literal cable companies that handled telegraph transmission, even over massive distances like… the entire Atlantic. One of my favorite anecdotes in this story was the earliest discovery of what they termed at the time, “Hertzian waves.” Scientists were apparently at that time dedicating their time and resources to see who could make the biggest spark. Like, literally, they would hold contests to see who could make the biggest electrical arc. At the time this was happening, someone else realized that things were reacting to the creation of the sparks, and this was the earliest recognition of radio waves.
Marconi himself sounded like an interesting person. He had little formal education but was encouraged to pursue any scientific interest he held. This resulted in one of those Cinderella story scientific upbringings, where his fixation and lack of mental barriers led to prodigious discoveries at a young age. He also appears to have been a total asshole who was hyper-fixated on commercializing his technology. Frequently throughout the book he freaks out when he thinks someone might beat him to market, cuts ties with friends, mentors, and partners, and focuses too much on his personal enrichment. It’s the opposite of a story like Tesla’s, who frequently attempted to do things for the public good, prevent his ideas from being abused for profit (Edison frequently sabotaged that idea unfortunately, and Tesla died penniless (and he had some weird ideas about his pigeons)).
Alongside this story is the murder of Cora Crippen, wife of Harvey Crippen. This itself is fascinating, and provides a lot of the dishy drama for the story, as Cora Crippen attempts and fails to build a vaudeville persona funded by Harvey, only for both of them to cheat on one another and live in a bizarre state of borderline hoarderism. It’s difficult to go into all of this because there’s a ton of “and then he did and then she did,” but it’s very entertaining in Larson’s voice.
I liked this book as much as Devil in the White City and would recommend it to any fans of history.