Wireless: from Marconi's Black-box to the Audion

Wireless: from Marconi's Black-box to the Audion

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Wireless: from Marconi's Black-box to the Audion


Wireless is a methodical account of the early development of wireless telegraphy and the inventors who made it possible. Sungook Hong examines several early significant inventions, including Hertzian waves and optics, the galvanometer, transatlantic signaling, Marconi's secret-box, Fleming's air-blast key and double transformation system, Lodge's syntonic transmitter and receiver, the Edison effect, the thermionic valve, and the audion and continuous wave. Wireless fills the gap created by Hugh Aitken, who described at length the early development of wireless communication, but who did not attempt "to probe the substance and context of scientific and engineering practice in the early years of wireless" (p. x). Sungook Hong seeks to fill this gap by offering an exhaustive analysis of the theoretical and experimental engineering and scientific practices of the early days of wireless; by examining the borderland between science and technology; depicting the transformation of scientific effects into technological artifacts; and showing how the race for scientific and engineering accomplishment fuels the politic of the corporate institution. While the author succeeds in fulfilling these goals, the thesis, it seems, is to affirm Guglielmo Marconi's place in history as the father of wireless telegraphy.

Wireless begins with a brief discussion of the 1995 centennial of the invention of radio by Marconi and a rebuttal by the British historians who oppose this claim. Using underused or previously overlooked or perhaps ignored resources the author disproves the claims against the originality and ingenuity of Marconi's 1897 patent on wireless telegraphy. While credit is given to several British scientists and engineers and their scientific discoveries and inventions, it was Marconi, a practitioner, who made the first significant breakthrough in practical wireless telegraphy when he "connected one end of the plate of the receiver, and one end of the transmitter, to the earth" (p. 20). Marconi transformed these scientific effects into wireless technologies and then exploited them for commercial purposes. The focus of British scientists and engineers on optical analogies, scientific experimentation and demonstration, and the fear of British national interests becoming monopolized (particularly by a foreigner) are the primary reasons for the dispute surrounding Marconi's patent. (By 1897 it was clear how wireless telegraphy would impact military interests.) The author shows in great detail how British scientists and engineers, namely physicist Oliver Lodge, J. J. Thomson, Minchin, Rollo Appleyard, and Campbell Swinton, deliberately constructed false scientific and social claims to discredit the originality of Marconi's patent.

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Later, Neville Maskelyne would sabotage a crucial Marconi-Fleming demonstration at the Royal Institution where Marconi's purpose was to validate the distance at which messages could travel using wireless telegraphy.

Throughout most of the book, the disharmony between scientific and engineering theory and practice is illustrated in substantial detail. For each invention that contributed to the maturation of wireless telegraphy, the author describes, at length, the scientist or inventor, the conceptions and context for discovery, the demonstration of its scientific or technical worth, the transformation of specific scientific discoveries into technological artifacts or the contribution of technology to science, as in the case of the Edison effect and thermionic emission. Regardless of the scientist or inventor and the original context of invention, Marconi continued to hone and exploit these technologies in his quest to perfect wireless telegraphy. Marconi transformed Fleming's invention, the thermionic valve— into "a sensitive detector for wireless telegraphy" (p. 148), an example of one of many cases where Marconi's ingenuity and insight proved to be resourceful.

In the final chapter of Wireless, the author introduces the technologies that eventually led to the "making of the radio age", namely the audion and the continuous wave. Unlike the early discoveries and inventions of wireless telegraphy, the audio revolution was an example of "simultaneous innovation" where "at least four engineers, and perhaps six, arrived at the amplifying and oscillating audio circuits almost simultaneously" (p. 156). These simultaneous discoveries would eventually lead to multiple first claims and patents, lawsuits by both individuals and corporate interests, the reversals of patents, and intense public debate. The controversy that once focused on Marconi and his exploitation of invention became common practice in highly technical and scientific fields.

Overall, the book is extremely well organized and researched. Sungook Hong does a superb job of illustrating how science and engineering discovery, invention, and demonstration shape an institution, and in turn, how an institution exploits science and technology for commercial purposes. More importantly, though, the author validates the originality and ingenuity of Marconi's 1897 patent by discrediting those scientists and engineers who used their credibility to mislead the public. For those readers interested in discovering the origins of wireless telegraphy along with the pioneers, the science, and engineering inventions that made it all possible, Wireless is a good place to start.
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