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Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The invention that sparked the radio revolution
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2006
This book is well-paced and easy to read. The fact that it makes no technical demands on the reader is, though, a very definite weakness.
Marconi worked extremely hard throughout his life, though it is never made particularly clear what precisely he was doing. What were the experiments that he was carrying out? What were the components that he was developing and using? What were the universities and other research organisations doing to try and emulate or understand his work?
In the early part of the book, we are told how very slow it was to transmit a single character by wireless telegraphy. Towards the end, Marconi operators - working much quicker than their military and other peers - were transmitting tens of words a minute. So early problems must have been overcome and the technology developed in some key areas. But it is not made clear what precisely those developments were. Nowhere in the book is there a diagram of the components of a Marconi system and the way in which they interacted; nowhere is there even the hint of an explanation of the reason why spark transmitters produced the "Hertzian waves" which are often referred to.
The last twenty years of Marconi's life is covered very quickly. Since the story ends with his death, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. The point is made, for example, that his Italian home - now a museum to his memory, and the place of his burial - has a lump of twisted metal in the garden, all that is left of the steam yacht on which he spent a lot of time in later life, partly because it was equipped as a laboratory. But what did he actually do on the yacht? And what happened to it? As with so many things in the Marconi story, we are left none the wiser.
I do not regret reading this book, for what is here is good. But I was frustrated by the glaring technical and other omissions.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
As a fully paid-up "grumpy old man" I should not find books as compelling as Signor Marconi's Magic Box. Within a few pages, Weightman immerses us in the fast-moving pace of the true life race for supremacy in wireless telegraphy and radio broadcasting. He skifully interveaves the technical challenges, business intrigue and family demands, which failed to divert Marconi from his single-minded quest to provide a reliable trans-Atlantic service and dominate marine radio. We live the thrills of Queen Victoria sending, perhaps, the first text messages from Osborne House to the Royal Yacht in the Solent, the first messages between England and North America and the untimely death of the Marconis' first child. However, we are not allowed to pause for breath as we travel the roller-coaster of contemporary, historical and competitive infuences on the work of Marconi. And yet, Marconi remained a relatively uneducated enthusiastic amateur, who never really understood why his magic boxes worked. With little time for his wife and family, Marconi still found time for adulation and adultery on opulant trans-Atlantic liners. As ever, Gavin Weightman has researched the subject in depth, whilst generously acknowledging those who have freely provided him with source material. Don't fail to read this gripping story of Marconi, the man who laid the major building blocks for radio broadcasting, reality television and soap operas.
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on 30 April 2013
This was a most enjoyable read. As a retired employee of the Marconi Company it was interesting to see how little theoretical basis there was for Marconi's success and the thought of the enormous sparks needed to attain the long ranges of his transmissions give me the shivers. Other readers may like to know that The Haven Hotel in Poole that Marconi used as an early base still exists and has a suite called after him.
The book is a chronological description of Marconi's life with the emphasis on his technical achievements. There are one or two technical clangers - Tesla is described as subjecting himself to "huge currents of thousands of volts" - and the chronology is a little hard to follow when the author digresses into the lives of some of the other greats of the subject (Faraday, Heaviside, Wheatstone etc.).
One tiresome flaw that cannot be blamed on the author is the high degree of typos in the text. This appears to be caused by the method that Kindle uses to capture the book for the Kindle format which seems to be based on scanning the text with an OCR system. Regrettably there is inadequate proof reading after this process and there is a small but continuous and annoying range of typos, especially towards the end of the book - Itadan for Italian, Dismanded for Dismantled, Detads for Details etc. etc.
I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the technology of the time and the ways in which it was applied. It includes plenty of anecdotes around Marconi's life, the way he acquired his knowledge and how he set up one of the most successful early electronics companies. It is a shame that his modern successors managed to destroy his legacy.
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on 5 June 2014
This is a fascinating story, and well told. The sense of wonder and amazement aroused in people when they saw that the seemingly impossible was now possible is well presented. The fact that one of the principal characters, Sir Oliver Lodge, was a disciple of Spiritualism is skilfully deployed to highlight just how mystified people were - if you accepted one, then why not the other ? Marconi, by his own admission, did not understand the science ( very few did at the time ) yet he was able to turn a laboratory curiosity into a hugely successful business, despite epic skulduggery from other wireless developers and the cable companies. A remarkable man, and a remarkable story.

There is no science at all in this book, which may be a relief for some, but I found the omission irritating. It's as though the author is saying to himself, "Science is hard and only for geeks, and it's not all that important, so let's leave it out". But it seems to me that a large part of the target audience would know about inductance and capacitance and wavelength and watts and stuff like that. Just a footnote now and then to outline the problems and the solutions Marconi & his team came up with would have been very welcome, instead of the "he worked hard and he fixed it" approach taken.
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on 30 March 2014
A well-written book that traces Marconi's life - and the work of his supporters and rivals in the very early days of wireless. I hadn't realised how much went on by others to try to copy, or to out-do, his inventions and achievements. Much of this led to patents, patent infringements, court cases and permanent stalemates - such as the refusal of Germany to use the Marconi system. But because of his successes, and the efforts of the adoring press, he was feted everywhere he went, earned huge sums of money, but remained a rather retiring and very effective inventor. All of this led to a rather sorry domestic life.

My only criticism of the book is that, at least for my interests, it is short on technical detail - no diagrams, few photos of actual equipment. But in all other respects, yes, a good and very informative read.
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on 31 July 2015
absolutely fascinating story recommended.
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