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Pages: pp. 101-103

Sungook Hong, Wireless from Marconi's Black-Box to the Audion, MIT Press, 2001, 248 pp., $40.00, ISBN 0-262-08298-5.

Not too long ago, many regarded wireless technology as something belonging to the past; wireless was good for microwave ovens and space applications but was of little day-to-day importance in a world dominated by the fiber-optic telephone network and the Internet. However, the growth of the cell phone, WiFi, and ubiquitous computing have put wireless technology back on the agenda.

Hence, Sungook Hong's book is important because it covers a critical period of the history of wireless and is timely because wireless technology is experiencing a renaissance.

Rather than cover the long history of wireless, Hong opts for depth rather than breadth. He covers little more than the events leading up to the first transatlantic broadcasts and the development of the vacuum tube or thermionic valve. In particular, the book concentrates on the leading players in the development of wireless and the vacuum tube and shows how an invention arises and is developed into a real product.

I found this book interesting because it has much to say on the nature of invention and how it is remarkably difficult to tie an invention to a particular person or event. We see the same phenomenon with the invention of the digital computer, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor, where more than one person claims to have made each significant invention.

The two themes Hong explores differ in one important aspect. The early history of wireless is concerned with personalities and the exploitation of an invention, whereas the vacuum tube's history is more concerned with the invention's development.

Writing a history of an early technological development is difficult because you are addressing two audiences: the expert who wishes to understand its origins and the non-specialist interested in the history of engineering. Conflicts arise because each audience has to be treated differently, especially when it comes to terminology and background knowledge. In this case, I felt that a nonexpert reader might have some difficulty with the book's detailed treatment of early wireless systems. Perhaps the author could have included a section on the basic theory of electromagnetic radiation and the operation of transmitters and receivers. A time chart depicting the landmarks between the discovery of radio waves and development of commercial wireless would also have been helpful.

It may come as a surprise to people today, but the spanning of the Atlantic was not viewed by all with great enthusiasm. Some resented long-range wireless because they thought it would interfere with local transmissions; they believed that wireless should be used only for ship-to-shore and similar communications. Hong goes into the details of the development of the tunable transmitters and receivers required to allow multiple, simultaneous broadcasts.

I was fascinated by Hong's account of the affair when Nevil Maskelyne attempted to sabotage John Ambrose Fleming's public demonstration of Marconi's tunable wireless system at the Royal Institution in 1903. The demonstration was intended to show that you could have several transmitters on different frequencies and a receiver could pick up only one transmitter. Maskeleyne installed his own transmitter near the Royal Institution to attempt to interfere with Fleming's demonstration. Also a wireless pioneer, Maskelyne was hostile to Marconi because Marconi's patents prevented the exploitation of his own systems. Hong covers Fleming's encounter with Maskeleyne in considerable detail (with a whole chapter) because he feels the Maskelyne affair illustrates the interplay between the social, scientific, and commercial worlds.

One of the principal values of Hong's book is that it divides the development of wireless into the distinct phases required for commercial radio:

  • the initial crude transmitters and receivers and the early high-power transmitters,
  • the ability to tune transmitters and receivers to different frequencies to allow multiple communications channels, and
  • the thermionic valve that permitted sensitive receivers and the generation of signals with a narrow bandwidth.

The chapter on the Maskelyne affair delves into the development of tuned systems in some detail.

An important, and perhaps controversial, theme of this text is the relationship between the inventor-entrepreneur-enthusiast Marconi embodies and the academic-theoretician that Oliver Lodge and Edwin Armstrong embody. Hong comes down on the side of the entrepreneur and gives Marconi credit for inventing wireless telegraphy over academics like Lodge. The book argues that Lodge demonstrated the transmission and reception of radio waves but did little to create a commercial telegraphy system. Marconi gets credit for telegraphy—the amplitude modulation of a signal in order to carry information in the form of Morse code.

My view differs; I feel that once radio waves were demonstrated, future developments were inevitable. It's the same with microelectronics; once the transistor had been demonstrated in 1948, the PC was inevitable. (Okay, perhaps in a different universe the case might have been black rather than beige.)

In my view, it really is impossible to name the definitive inventor of wireless. Heinrich Hertz was the first to demonstrate radio waves, Lodge experimented with transmitters and receivers, Aleksander Popov in Russia is credited with developing early transmission systems (although Hong summarily dismisses Popov's claims as Soviet propaganda), and so on.

Hong maintains that Marconi should get the real credit for wireless because he was responsible for the commercial wireless and the wireless industry. On the other hand, the account of Marconi's famous first transatlantic broadcast makes it clear that the triumph is really due to Fleming's high-power transmitter. Fleming had to overcome many major technological difficulties to scale up a desktop transmitter from several watts to the kilowatt level.

Curiously, Hong does not go into Marconi's life, his background, and the events that influenced him. The narrative is concerned more with the competition between Marconi and other wireless pioneers and the subsequent legal actions and patent wars.

The book's second half is devoted to the vacuum tube's development. The vacuum tube was needed to amplify radio waves, demodulate them, and amplify sound. Without the vacuum tube, a domestic radio industry could not have developed. This account is interesting because it goes into considerable depth and looks at how inventions are created and how their inventors see the world.

The section on the vacuum tube begins by asking why it took so long for Fleming to exploit unilateral conductivity, an effect Thomas Edison observed. This section is particularly interesting because it asks why one scientist develops an observed phenomenon into a practical application whereas others never go beyond basic observation. Hong goes into considerable depth about the dispute between Fleming and Lee de Forest over the thermionic tube's invention.

This is a scholarly text with extensive notes and biography. It is readable and sets the background for anyone carrying out in-depth research into the early history of wireless. My only criticism is the lack of personal details about the key players and the lack of technical background concerning wireless.

Although I don't entirely agree with all the book's conclusions about the invention of wireless and Marconi's central role, I think that this is an excellent text because of its depth and the way in which it looks at both the process of invention and the exploitation of inventions. The relevance of this text goes well beyond the invention of wireless; it extends into the invention of the computer where the same patterns of behavior emerged.

Jeffery Yost, The Computer Industry, Greenwood Press, 2005, 262 pp., $45.95, ISBN 0-313-32844-7.

Most would think using the phrase "a quick read" to describe a book titled The Computer Industry would be a bit of a stretch. However, Jeffery Yost has managed to accomplish this by transforming what could be a dull, tedious chronology into an insightful and sometimes compelling history of the US's computer industry. Rather than fall into the trap of discussing specific technologies and hardware releases ad nauseum, Yost focuses on the major players and their machinations that led to today's most successful computer-based technology firms.

Yost sets the stage for his narrative with a short, clever chapter titled "The Prehistory of the Computer Industry, 1880–1939." Rather than a discussion of the abacus and other early computer devices (as is the norm in other books of this genre), this chapter provides a business-driven perspective of how and why the computer industry emerged. Yost accomplishes this mainly by detailing backgrounds for major office machinery companies and the key players responsible for their success. Specifically, he focuses on four firms: the precursor to IBM, the Computer-Tabulator-Recording Company (CRT); National Cash Register (NCR); Burroughs Adding Machine Company; and Remington Typewriter Company.

Yost builds a case for the profit-motivated emergence of this new industry by describing the connection between business demand for labor-saving devices and the capitalism-rooted decisions that inspired organizational decision makers to invest in projects that yielded faster, more efficient office machines. As the industry became more profitable, political and economic forces fueled a dramatic dance between talented executives and technology that would ultimately yield today's modern computer industry.

The book's initial section closes with insightful comments regarding the US stock market crash of October 1929. This event reshaped the office machinery marketplace in a way that favored IBM's approach to leasing rather than selling systems, setting it up to become the computing industry's early, influential giant.

In the main body of the book (from Chapters 2 to 8), Yost continues his earlier thesis by first comparing the nascent computer industry to the US automobile industry of a half-century earlier. He goes as far as to contrast Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM and John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, who were designers of the first commercial American computer, with various auto executives from General Motors, Oldsmobile, and Ford.

After this, he moves the reader through a carefully controlled examination of the computer industry's various developmental phases. The book progresses from mainframe to PC to networked Internet with intermediate stops for substantial niche markets such as high-end supercomputers and affordable minicomputers.

Throughout all this, the author chronicles the industry's growth from a business perspective with insightful comments regarding market expansion from relatively few, sophisticated users to today's mass-market demand for PCs and end-user software. The reader's entire journey is pleasantly couched in the human drama accompanying those individuals Yost views as being crucial to the current state of the art. At each juncture in the computing industry's history, he also provides insight into various academic, military, and government influences on technological development as well as examinations of lost opportunities that could have reshaped today's corporate landscape.

Toward the end of the book, Yost begins to describe the computer industry's transition from its traditional hardware focus to a software-based one. He describes the economic gamesmanship between various companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Oracle from a business and profit motive perspective, depicting key personalities and giving historic context. Interaction and competition among various US PC manufacturers are added to the complex mixture with clear, accurate insight.

Before a rather abrupt ending following the emergence of the Internet and network-related hardware and software firms, Yost briefly mentions the dot-com shakeup and how the digital divide might be impacting society.

Overall, this is a book that will have a permanent home on my bookshelf. Yost's writing style is readable and informative from both stylistic and content perspectives. From a critical perspective, as the author mentions in the introduction, the book draws almost entirely from secondary sources. For this reason, some of the material leaves the reader hungry for more detail. This is particularly true in the later stages of the book where it discusses a shrinking subset of the most important players in the increasingly broad spectrum of computer-related industry participants.

Another weakness is the book's nearly exclusive focus on the US. Many of the most important computer-related developments in the past decade have occurred in Asia and Europe. One of these, SAP from Germany, has dramatically altered the computing industry both inside and outside the US, but Yost fails to mention this in his narrative.

The strengths of the book are its early chapters and the unique perspective the author uses to explain the emergence of the US computing industry. In spite of its shortcomings, I would recommend reading the book, but perhaps with a mental addition to the title: The Computing Industry [ in the US].

Roger McHaney

Kansas State University

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