How Kites and Marconi Settle Biggest Criminal Story of the Century
It’s easy to be enthused about a new Erik Larson book; the stories he weaves in Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City contrast intriguing personal stories with the greater events of a period of time. In one, he tells of the biggest natural disaster in United States history, while in the other, the nation’s industrial might is on display while a murderer goes about his grisly work. In his newest work, Thunderstruck, Larson tells the fascinating story of Guglielmo Marconi and sets it against the backdrop of one of the biggest criminal stories of the time: the Crippen murder. These stories intertwined relate a vivid picture of life in the early 20 th Century. It illustrates the first uses of technology in police work, shows how technology changed the everyday lives of average citizens, and shows the stunning power of telegraphy; it is an addition to the DF archive that is not only informative, but enthralling.
Guglielmo Marconi’s successful demonstration of telegraphy is one of the “bullet points” we all talk about in the history of kites. Marconi provided the first transatlantic wireless transmissions December 1 st 1901 using a Baden-Powell Levitor kite. Larson goes into great detail to describe the initial problems that Marconi had in constructing his trans-Atlantic transmitting stations, as well as the problems of power management, efficiency, and reception. Initally, Marconi’s aerials were lifted by large towers. After a series of ship-to-shore successes, however, Marcouni couldn’t afford to build towers high or strong enough to get good reception.
Then Marconi, in December of 1901, traveled to Newfoundland to attempt communication with his English station at Poldhu. Below, Larson describes what happened on December 12th:
I [Marconi] came to the conclusion that perhaps kites would answer better,” They attached two wires, each 510 feet long. Coats flapping they launched the kite into the gale. It dipped and heaved but rose quickly to about four hundred feet…. The kite shuddered through the sky and strained at the line that tethered it to the plateau. At the appointed time Marconi held the telephone receiver to his ear. He heard nothing but static and the noise of wind…. At about twelve-thirty the receiver issued a sharp click, the sound of the tapper striking the coherer. It meant the receiver had detected waves. (Marconi) “Unmistakably, the three sharp little clicks corresponding to three dots, sounded several times in my ear.
These are just a few of the details Larson includes to tell of Marconi’s success, and because of such attention to detail, I found it interesting that he never mentions kites again – not because of their importance to me, but simply because they appear to be a large part of Marconi’s translantic success.
This book is also interesting in light of another piece about Marconi that the Drachen Foundation recently acquired, a copy of a French article entitled, “ Wireless telegraphy extends its rule over the world:the latest experiences of wireless telegraphy” from the review Je Sais Tout . Found in avid historical kite collector Jan Desimpelaere’s library, this fascinating article tells the same story, generally, that Larson tells—Marconi’s grit and determination to pursue telegraphy from the young age of 15, the triumph of telegraphy, and the role of telegraphy in catching the murderer Hawley Crippen.
In Wireless telegraphy, much is made of Marconi’s use of kite telegraphy onboard the French battleship, Dreadnought, and sharesmany stories of its use on other commercial ships—after a disaster at sea, crews are saved by contacting neighboring ships, more criminals are apprehended, smugglers are warned by their husbands to declare their goods, as the government is onto them.
It seems as though, at least for the first few years of ship-to-shore communications, kites were critical. Each page shows Marconi flying a Brooks Box kite from England in an early demonstration for the French press.
The Wireless telegraphy article also tackles the Crippen murder:
not long ago, a fugitive had succeeded to embark for Canada on the steamer Montrose while the English police endeavor to search for him around London. Captain Kendall, commander of the Montrose, is a cool observer. Under the false name that was protecting such a passenger, he guessed doctor Crippen, from which continuously recorded radiograms from his ships post, had taught him of the crime and disappearance…. It is this that made a connection that the famous inspector, Sexton, could take a faster ship, pass the Montrose, and pick Crippen up at disembarkment, when, without the wireless telegraphy, he could have perhaps escaped.
So, for the details of Marconi, Inspector Sexton, and Hawley Crippen, Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is a must-read. Then drop a note to the Drachen Foundation for a translation of the Wireless Telegraphy article, it’s a great footnote that Larson might not have seen and a wonderful, if surprising, combination of Marconi information for Drachen’s archive.
DF QUIZ: Like other great inventors on the cusp of technology, Marconi was not initially recognized and supported by his native country. In which country did Marconi reside and receive support to work on his wireless telegraphy research?
Email your answer to email@example.com  by June 30, 2007. All correct entries will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.
If it wasn’t made obvious by last month’s missing newsletter, please note that the Drachen Foundation has a new location in Seattle! The Foundation’s study center and administrative offices now reside in bustling lower Queen Anne.
Why, after 10 years residence, would the Drachen Foundation move?
Well, this was an decision made for us; after 6 years of donated, rent-free office space, our landlords sold the building and DF staff were challenged to find a new location that would work within our budget and programming needs.
Although the previous space was in many ways ideal, we at the Drachen Foundation would like to stress that the Foundation itself is not comprised of the building we work in, but the work that is done and the people who volunteer with and benefit from our programs. To this end, there is much in this move to look forward to.
The new space is larger and is located in the very heart of Seattle—within walking distance of major museums, cultural centers, theatres, other foundations (soon to be neighbors with the new Gates Foundation, just two blocks south) and the center of downtown. This adds ease to commuting to school workshops and makes collaborative programming and partnerships with other cultural institutions much easier. (See new joint program with Seattle’s Artist Trust  as just one example .)
During the summer, the Foundation will vacate the warehouse in which much of its archive has been housed and will move it 2.5 hours from the city to begin a transformation from “warehouse” storage to that of a more secure archival space. Again, this move was precipitated by rising rental costs and the unavailablilty of affordable warehouse space in growing Seattle, as well as the advent of a very unique opportunity to archivally store our collection in the cultural community of Tieton, Washington.
Those of you who have been with us for the last 10 years have witnessed slow progress in putting the collection online due to limited staff and ever-present programs. It is Drachen’s hope that this move to a larger, stablized space will allow us to better fulfill the organization, stabilization and preservation of our collection in a very professional manner for the future generation. (It will also allow visitors better access to the collection for viewing and study).
All of these changes have been taxing—no one really likes to move—but is worth the effort, as it provides us a better foundation for the future to come.
In a unique collaboration with Artist Trust , a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Washington state artists, the Drachen Foundation is sponsoring Art Takes Flight , a special auction of art kites made in the collaboration of Drachen, Artist Trust, and 30 top Washington artists.
Historical Kite Conference
This year’s Historical Kite Conference was held in Wasserkuppe, Germany, the historic home of German gliding planes and an idyllic place to study this year’s kite by German Gottlob Espenlaub. Read more .