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  • Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy
  • David F. Channell (bio)
Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World. By Marc Raboy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 872. Hardcover $39.95.

This new biography of Guglielmo Marconi is in many aspects what could be the definitive study, especially of the role played by politics and business in Marconi's development of the wireless telegraph. The book is encyclopedic, sometimes to a fault, in detailing the day-by-day events of Marconi's connections to governments, especially the British and Italian, in his attempt to establish wireless technology as a worldwide system. The author has done monumental research into what appears to be every possible archive and primary source associated with Marconi. The book provides genealogies on most of Marconi's family as well as some of his important associates. The author even goes so far as to provide the names and [End Page 973] addresses of the many hotels where Marconi stayed during his hundreds of business trips. In some cases, this wealth of detail gets in the way of understanding the bigger and more important events in Marconi's life. The book also provides long and detailed quotations from Marconi's correspondence with business partners and in some cases with the various women with whom he was romantically involved. Again, it is sometimes difficult to decide which pieces of correspondence are really important in gaining a broad understanding of Marconi's life. The book does not always provide a straightforward timeline; rather, it is often organized around topics such as regulation, litigation, or his marriages, so often there can be some confusion concerning whether an event in a later chapter took place before or after some event in an earlier chapter.

The strength of the book is that it is not a hagiography. It presents some of the darker sides of Marconi's life, such as his womanizing. After reading the biography, no one will think of him as a wonderful husband and father. But the most important discussion of the darker side of Marconi's life is probably his relationship with Mussolini and Fascism. Many previous studies have tried to either ignore or sugarcoat these aspects of Marconi's final years. Raboy provides significant hard evidence of Marconi's embrace of the Fascist program and his close personal connection to Mussolini. The book shows that the appeal of Fascism to Marconi may not have been surprising given that while he claimed the wireless telegraph would bring about world peace and understanding, throughout his life Marconi often tried to market his wireless technology as a tool for the military or as a tool for colonialism. If anything can be said in Marconi's defense, it is that he died before the vilest aspects of Mussolini's Fascist program became apparent.

In terms of the history of technology, the book has both strengths and weaknesses. Probably one could not find a better case study concerning how a new technology such as wireless both shaped and was shaped by political and business forces. The book provides detailed examples of the complex relationships that were established between Marconi and various governments and businesses. The book also provides a broad overview of technological changes that occurred in wireless technology, such as the movement from spark to continuous wave to short wave, and analyzes how those technological changes impacted Marconi's relationships with governments and businesses. But the book is fairly weak on giving a detailed study of the actual history of wireless technologies. While the author provides almost a daily description of Marconi's business and political travels, when it comes to his technical activities, the events are often glossed over by saying something like he spent several weeks doing research or he spent time improving his system. The author does make use of some important scholarship in the history of technology, such as that of Hugh Aitken, Susan Douglas, and Sungook Hong, but a reader would have to consult their actual works to gain a full knowledge of the history of wireless [End Page 974] technology. Interestingly, Thomas Hughes's name appears in the bibliography but not...


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