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Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention Of The 19th Century & The Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked A Revolution [Hardcover]

Gavin Weightman
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)


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Book Description

August 14, 2003 0306812754 978-0306812750 New edition
The world at the turn of the twentieth century was in the throes of "Marconi-mania"-brought on by an incredible invention that no one could quite explain, and by a dapper and eccentric figure (who would one day win the newly minted Nobel Prize) at the center of it all. At a time when the telephone, telegraph, and electricity made the whole world wonder just what science would think of next, the startling answer had come in 1896 in the form of two mysterious wooden boxes containing a device one Guglielmo Marconi had rigged up to transmit messages "through the ether." It was the birth of the radio, and no scientist in Europe or America, not even Marconi himself, could at first explain how it worked…it just did. And no one knew how far these radio waves could travel, until 1903, when a message from President Theodore Roosevelt to the king of England flashed from Cape Cod to Cornwall clear across the Atlantic.Here is a rich portrait of the man and his era-and a captivating tale of science and scientists, business and businessmen. There are stories of British blowhards, American con artists-and Marconi himself: a character par excellence, who eventually winds up a virtual prisoner of his worldwide fame and fortune.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dapper, aristocratic Guglielmo Marconi doesn't fit the typical inventor stereotype: he lacked wild hair, wasn't absentminded, wore debonair-looking hats and frequently wooed women when traveling by ship. Yet Marconi's aptitude for technology led him to become the father of wireless telegraphy and radio. Born in 1874 to an Italian father and an Irish mother, Marconi was always fascinated by the nascent technology of electricity and, as a young man, was struck by the idea that he could transmit telegraph messages-then carried by cables-through the air. At a crowded London meeting hall in 1896, he made a dramatic public demonstration of his idea by sending a current from one innocuous-looking box to a receiver he carried around the hall with him, causing it to ring: "No messages were being sent at all-just an invisible electronic signal. But in 1896 that was sensational enough," writes documentary filmmaker and journalist Weightman. Like many other great inventions, wireless was being pursued at the same time by a number of different inventors, including some shameless charlatans-some of whom, like the delightfully crooked Abraham White, give Weightman's dry book some desperately needed spark-and a great deal of Weightman's text is about the juggling for position among the inventors and their respective companies around the turn of the century. Although Weightman has his hands on an extremely exciting subject, there is precious little life to his writing, and even exciting episodes, like the sending of an early type of wireless distress signal from the sinking Titanic, fail to engage. Photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Guglielmo Marconi invented the best radio equipment in the technology's infancy a century ago. He made a fortune, cruised among queens of England and kings of Italy, and died an acolyte of Mussolini. Weightman ably chronicles Marconi's life in the context of his urgency to perfect radio transmission and reception before rivals did. Marconi was born into comfortable circumstances, and his youthful passion for crafting devices to generate "Hertzian" waves was supported by his Irish mother and Italian father. Weightman delivers the technical information about Marconi's sending radio waves further than anyone else could at the time--he was the first to send signals across the Atlantic--then settles into the narrative of Marconi's patent battles and business operations, as well as his two marriages. Taciturn and careful, Marconi does not make for an effervescent biography; rather, the author's study is as stolid as its subject and does justice to Marconi's central place in the origination of wireless communication. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; New edition edition (August 14, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306812754
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306812750
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,853,070 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wired August 31, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Thomas Edison, who was a man who was not easily impressed, once quipped about Guglielmo Marconi that he "delivered more than he promised." This statement demonstrates two of Marconi's most significant traits: he was modest and extremely hard working. Marconi was the first to admit that his work was based on both the theories and the inventions of others. He also acknowledged that he didn't understand the reason his own inventions worked. He believed, contrary to many of his contemporaries, that "radio" waves could travel great distances. Many other people thought the waves could not be transmitted to a receiver that was beyond the horizon line...that at longer distances the waves would travel off into outer space. Based on this belief, with no theoretical underpinning, Marconi kept things simple: he built taller transmitters and he kept making them more powerful. His goal was to transmit electrical signals in Morse Code that could be received across the Atlantic Ocean. He eventually succeeded in this, and gained worldwide fame and popularity when wireless telegraphy, after being used by ships in distress at sea, resulted in the saving of many lives. Marconi was also an astute businessman, rather than a starry eyed inventor.(He amassed a very healthy fortune, perhaps equal to $200-$250 million today.) He was an early master of public relations- for example, using wireless to report on important yacht races. Mr. Weightman doesn't ignore the less savory aspects of the inventor: Marconi's womanizing and obsession with work resulted in the termination of his first marriage. As previously mentioned, Marconi was very weak on theory. He also failed to see the commercial possibilities of radio. That was left to others, such as Lee de Forest, to develop. While Mr. Read more ›
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking (and thinking) inside the box April 7, 2004
Format:Hardcover
The story of the development of wireless technology is complicated and surrounded by claim and counter claim. Marconi is undoubtedly the central figure of this story but the main characters are interwoven like the twisted pair wires that were replaced by the increasing use of telegraph communications.
Einstein has said that scientific advance is opaque with foresight, transparent with hindsight, and this book amply illustrates the point. It is easy to look back on the breakthroughs of Guiglielmo Marconi and belittle the impact. Yet much of the enormous advances at the end of the 20th century would not have been possible without Marconi (or rather the technology STARTED by Marconi's discoveries). Marconi was a strange mixture of modern and ancient, and did not understand the theoretical background of his advances. Nor does the reader need to understand the science of signal transmission to thoroughly enjoy the book. It is interesting and enlightening to see the attempts to rationalise how `radio' worked, particularly by some of his contemporaries. I suspect that some of our own imperfect understandings will be viewed with similar wonder when viewed from the other side of lucid explanations.
The story is generally well told, and is particularly effective when describing three Atlantic dramas in the years just before the First World War. The passengers rescued from the steam ships Republic and Titanic owed their rescue to both the technology, and to the seriously dedicated wireless operators. Indeed, the operators from the Titanic only ceased transmitting about 20 minutes before the vessel went down, and one of the pair perished.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This book, at 291 pages, is a quick read. It can be read in about two hours. We learn that Marconi's main contribution was to combine Heinrich Hertz's invention of radio waves with Oliver Lodge's invention of the coherer. We learn of Marconi's discovery of radio waves bouncing off the upper atmosphere, an effect essential for trans-Atlantic radio waves (paves 53-55, 258). We learn of Marconi's "spark method" which worked better than Edison's jumping current method. We learn that it was actually David Hughes (pages 97-98) and Oliver Heaviside (pages 128-131), not Marconi, who built the first wireless. We also learn that Nathan Stubblefield was the inventor of a wireless that could transmit not just Morse code, but also voices and music.

Much of the book tells about Marconi's efforts at building higher aerials and scouting out locations to build aerials, e.g., on various ships, in Cape Cod, Newfoundland, or Santa Catalina Island. In fact, this is the major thrust of the book: scouting out locations for building aerials. The book should not have been called "Signor Marconi's Magic Box," since we learn nothing about the "spark method" or the "coherer" beyond their names. Instead, the book should have been called "Signor Marconi Builder of Aerials." The word "patent" occurs 19 times in the book, but here the word patent is just used in passing, and we learn nothing about the patents, or how they represented improvements over the earlier state of the radio art. "Patent" does not even occur in the index.

The book spends a good deal of time utilizing literary devices, especially the literary device of describing the weather, and the literary device of naming personalities with little or no direct relevance to Marconi.
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