Excerpt from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Erik Larson

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    Oct 2006, 480 pages
    Sep 2007, 480 pages

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For even as Lodge conducted his new explorations on the Ile Roubaud, far to the south someone else was hard at work—ingeniously, energetically, compulsively—exploring the powers of the invisible world, with the same tools Lodge had used for his demonstration at the Royal Institution, much to Lodge’s eventual consternation and regret.

The Great Hush

It was not precisely a vision, like some sighting of the Madonna in a tree trunk, but rather a certainty, a declarative sentence that entered his brain. Unlike other lightning-strike ideas, this one did not fade and blur but retained its surety and concrete quality. Later Marconi would say there was a divine aspect to it, as though he had been chosen over all others to receive the idea. At first it perplexed him—the question, why him, why not Oliver Lodge, or for that matter Thomas Edison?

The idea arrived in the most prosaic of ways. In that summer of 1894, when he was twenty years old, his parents resolved to escape the extraordinary heat that had settled over Europe by moving to higher and cooler ground. They fled Bologna for the town of Biella in the Italian Alps, just below the Santuario di Oropa, a complex of sacred buildings devoted to the legend of the Black Madonna. During the family’s stay, he happened to acquire a copy of a journal called Il Nuovo Cimento, in which he read an obituary of Heinrich Hertz written by Augusto Righi, a neighbor and a physics professor at the University of Bologna. Something in the article produced the intellectual equivalent of a spark and in that moment caused his thoughts to realign, like the filings in a Lodge coherer.

“My chief trouble was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic that it seemed difficult to believe no one else had thought of putting it into practice,” he said later. “In fact Oliver Lodge had, but he had missed the correct answer by a fraction. The idea was so real to me that I did not realize that to others the theory might appear quite fantastic.”

What he hoped to do—expected to do—was to send messages over long distances through the air using Hertz’s invisible waves. Nothing in the laws of physics as then understood even hinted that such a feat might be possible. Quite the opposite. To the rest of the scientific world what he now proposed was the stuff of magic shows and séances, a kind of electric telepathy.

His great advantage, as it happens, was his ignorance—and his mother’s aversion to priests.

Excerpted from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City Copyright © 2006 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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