SIGNOR MARCONI'S MAGIC BOX by Gavin Weightman. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003. 312 pages, index. Softcover; $15.00. ISBN 0-306-81378-5.

Marconi. His life is the story of the birth of modern communications. This superb book is the social micro-history of an era, a technology that defined it, and the man, Signor Guglielmo Marconi, who, more than any other early wireless researcher, engineered it. The author, Gavin Weightman, is a journalist, filmmaker and a most excellent and entertaining writer.

ASA members who are theorists may find the book somewhat disconcerting. Marconi accomplished his inventions with almost no knowledge of, or even interest in, their theoretical underpinnings. Beginning with an 1896 show in a London theatre of two wooden boxes transmitting messages to each other "through the ether," seven years later Theodore Roosevelt would send a message to the King of England across the Atlantic. Marconi's competitor, Reginald Fessenden, first sent a wireless voice message in 1900 (One, two, three, four, is it snowing there, Mr Thiessen?") The birth of radio, from Chelmsford, England, 7:10 PM on June 15, 1920, is described. From Oliver Lodge's first experiments, which he too quickly dismissed as being of no practical application, being interested instead in the scientific possibilities of spiritualism, to the sudden explosion of amateur radio, fueled by teen-aged "gurus" of the 1900s, the story is told, chronologically, by a born storyteller.

This book is a keeper. It has application to science-religion issues, primarily because it portrays a real person, a pragmatic scientist, careful not to claim too much, relentless in the pursuit of how (not why) things worked. It is also a social history, detailing how fortunes were made and lost, and how some early scientists abandoned their professionalism in the pursuit of fame and fortune, while others fell prey to the ever elusive quest to finding a "scientific" approach to the divine.

Marconi was not one of these.

It is the 21st century. We take wireless communications for granted, bitter complaints when our cell phone encounters a "dead spot" -- perhaps in the Colorado mountains. We forget that it was not always this way. I remember, as a boy in 1937, "helping" my father string an long aerial outside our Ohio home. How pleased he was to finally hear KDKA Pittsburgh from 75 miles away! Marconi set a sea change in motion, and the world today is far different because of it. Read this book. It will give you a perspective on the sweeping changes of technology. You will be entertained as well as educated.

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson, IBM Corporation (retired)
Mancos, Colorado