From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology


From Marconi's Black-Box to the Audion

By Sungook Hong

A new look at the early history of wireless communication.





A new look at the early history of wireless communication.

By 1897 Guglielmo Marconi had transformed James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic waves into a workable wireless telegraphy system, and by 1907 Lee de Forest had invented the Audion, a feedback amplifier and oscillator that opened the way to practical radio transmission. Fifteen years after Marconi's invention, wireless had become an essential means of communication, as well as a hobby for many.

This book offers a new perspective on the early days of wireless communication. Drawing on previously untapped archival evidence and recent work in the history and sociology of science and technology, it examines the substance and context of both experimental and theoretical aspects of engineering and scientific practices in the first years of this technology. It offers new insights into the relationship between Marconi and his scientific advisor, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming (inventor of the vacuum tube). It includes the full story of the infamous 1903 incident in which Marconi's opponent Nevil Maskelyne interfered with Fleming's public demonstration of Marconi's syntonic (tuning) system at the Royal Institution by sending derogatory messages from his own transmitter. The analysis of the Maskelyne affair highlights the struggle between Marconi and his opponents, the efficacy of early syntonic devices, Fleming's role as a public witness to Marconi's private experiments, and the nature of Marconi's "shows." It also provides a rare case study of how the credibility of an engineer can be created, consumed, and suddenly destroyed. The book concludes with a discussion of de Forest's Audion and the shift from wireless telegraphy to radio.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262082983 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 45 illus.


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262514194 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 45 illus.


  • Historians of science and technology will regard this book as the definitive work on the scientific underpinnings and technological development of wireless in its first fifteen years.

    Business History Review

  • This is a carefully drawn and well-written study that sheds new light on an old but central story.

    Communications Booknotes Quarterly


  • With clarity and precision, Sungook Hong shows how theoretical science and practical engineering came together in the 1890s to produce wireless telegraphy, a technology that now pervades the modern world. It is an important and fascinating story, and Hong tells it very well indeed.

    Bruce J. Hunt

    Department of History, University of Texas

  • While there have been many books about Marconi and the invention of radio, Sungook Hong is the first to combine a thorough discussion of the scientific details with a lively account of the give-and-take between Marconi and his British contemporaries. Through his brilliant narration of this pivotal moment in the history of technology, Hong reminds us that the path from scientific discovery to commercial technology is often long, bumpy, and highly contested; yet it only along this path that new technologies acquire utility and meaning.

    W. Bernard Carlson

    Division of Technology, Culture, and Communication, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia