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The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age

April 25, 2016

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Scott Woolley gathers the threads of the first wireless communications breakthrough to spin a tale of intrigue and innovation that continues to this day.

We like to think of the developments of our information age today as completely new-fangled—although not, perhaps, in such old-fangled terminology. Instant messaging and text messages are hip, new phenomena. The word "wireless" sounds thoroughly modern. We might believe it hadn't been uttered prior to twenty or thirty years ago. In The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age Scott Woolley cures us of this notion.

It was Edwin Armstrong who turned "the ability to send information through the air" from "little more than a parlor trick" into a paradigm shift in global communications. The year was 1914.

David Sarnoff was on the ground floor of the "New York's hottest high-technology company," The Commercial Cable Company, when he was fired for taking off for Rosh Hashanah (okay, so not every aspect of the book seems so very modern). He was 15 years old, and like many in today's economy, he threw his lot in with a startup—the American branch of Marconi Company, which specialized in wireless telecommunications. The year? 1906.

It is where there two paths cross that the history Scott Woolley recounts is made, and their first encounter is in a test done with Marconi company equipment, but more on that in a second.

To give you an idea of the wonderfully complete narrative structure that continues throughout the book, this is where Woolley digresses to bring the backstory of Guglielmo Marconi into the fray of fascinating characters that populate the book. Like today's tech startups, Marconi relied on investors for funding and had a hard time figuring out how to turn a profit—to his investors' chagrin. Much of the company's story—right down to its company's strategy of buying and compiling patents and its construction of beautiful company campuses—mirrors the realities of today's tech firms. It was a time when wireless technology was suspect, when the underwater cable companies dominated telegraph communications, and the US branch of Marconi, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, was in danger of collapsing. This is when the story turns to events in "The North Atlantic—1912" and how Marconi telegraph operators aboard two ships at sea were able to communicate with each other over their wireless transmitters and save the lives of hundreds, in so doing extended the life of the company.

Those Marconi Company operators were on ships named the RMS Titanic and RMS Carpathia.

Of the Titanic''s 2,223 passengers, 1,517 never made it to shore alive. Thanks to the Marconi operators and their wireless telegraph, 706 people did [make it].

 

Guglielmo Marconi just happened to be in New York City at the time to request an additional $7 million in funding for the American branch of his company, and was able to board the Carpathia upon its return to harbor—with a reporter from The New York Times, no less—and talk with the sole surviving operator. Marconi was hailed as a hero, and the fight brewing for the $7 million among shareholders was effectively over.

And this is where we are more formally introduced to Edwin Armstrong, through a series of experiments he did with Marnoff when they were both just 23 years old—experiments done on state-of-the-art antennas made possible by the $7 million secured in New York—that showed the great effectiveness, and almost unlimited promise, of a signal amplifier Armstrong had developed. Through Marnoff, who delivered a glowing report of the device, Marconi could have been in on the ground floor of the technology. Instead, he dismissed the results of the experiments and chastised Marnoff for doing them on company equipment. AT&T would be the first company to buy in.

The story, along with Marconi and the world, is upended and progressed by the first world war. One of the first things Britian did was cut the five underwater telegraph cables that connected Germany to North America. Germany, of course, responded in kind. This made wireless the only option. Unfortunately for Marconi, the British military took control of all wireless stations and manufacturing. Marnoff and Armstrong would fare much better in the war (Armstrong working out ideas that allowed the Allies to more effectively eavesdrop on German communications and would eventually lead to radar) and that is where the real story begins.

What ensues is the history of a friendship and collaboration that would bring the world both radio and television. It is the story of corporate interests and personal betrayal, of invention and intrigue, conspiracy and communications, lengthy legal battles, the ruining of a man's life, and eventually "a digital revolution fueled by microchips and laser pipes." And from the opening pages when you learn that, at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, it was the practice of New York City newspapers to use the clouds above the city "as floating billboards upon which giant spotlights blinked out election results, sports scores, and other big news in Morse code," to stories of Edwin Armstrong bouncing FM signals off the moon, the way Scott Woolley tells the tale is gripping.

Simply put, The Network is brilliant, and as suited to those interested in ongoing business and technology issues as in current affairs, communications, and a exquisitely crafted, engaging history.

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