I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. In my hometown, there are two museums of note. The first is called The Miners Museum. It is located at the edge of a tall cliff, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. For a few dollars, you can don the garb of a real coal miner and go under that ocean on a tour of an actual coal mine. My wife and I were married in the Miners Village Restaurant which is the greenish building you can see in the right side of this photo. We were serenaded afterwards by a Gospel Choir in the Museum theatre room. The Miners Museum holds a special place in our hearts. But, having said that, the Miners Museum is not the most famous museum in town.
On the other side of Glace Bay, at a part of town called Table Head, sits the Marconi Museum. This museum is dedicated to celebrating one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of this past century. For it was at Table Head that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Trans-Atlantic wireless message in history.
I was thinking a lot about Marconi and about Glace Bay recently because I just finished reading, Thunderstruck, by author Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has written many books; most of which involve the connection between some infamous moment in History and some famous moment, too. In the case of Thunderstruck, Mr. Larson tells a tale of one of England’s most famous murder cases and how Marconi’s invention enabled authorities from Scotland Yard to apprehend the criminal involved.
In our modern times, it seems inconceivable that anyone could move freely about the planet. We are constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and satellites, our purchases tracked on-line and our social media feeds instantly updated to include stories and advertisements tailored to our lifestyles. Everything is immediate. Real privacy or anonymity is hard to come by.
But back in the early 1900s, when Marconi was conducting his experiments, news took time to travel. So, when the mild-mannered Dr. Crippen murdered his over-bearing wife and fled England with the woman he really loved, Dr. Crippen correctly believed that it was possible to travel abroad, incognito, with his lover and avoid detection and capture. But, as Mr. Larson so expertly details in his book, Marconi had invented a means of reducing the time it took for messages to travel across the Ocean to mere seconds. Not only that but, Marconi had fine-tuned the ability of ships to communicate quickly and accurately with receiving and transmitting stations on land. Thus, by the time Crippen and his lover had boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, the Captain had already received a police bulletin from Scotland Yard with photos of the suspects on it. Furthermore, because the Captain was able to confirm the identities of the two criminals, he was able to quickly rely that information to Scotland Yard authorities who, in turn, were able to dispatch officers who sailed on a speedier ship and were able to make the arrest before Crippen’s ship ever made its destination of Quebec City.
I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck because I like reading about Historical events. An added bonus, for me, was that such a large portion of the book was set in Glace Bay. The photo on the right shows the original station that Marconi and his crew erected at Table Head. Much of today’s instantaneous communication can trace its roots back to this rocky spot on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
I think that most of us take for granted the push-button world we live in. We complain if there is a delay of only a few seconds between the time we click our mouse and the arrival of our content. But, back in Marconi’s time, it took him and his team over a decade of trial and error in order to figure out how to do what he did. *That is Marconi sitting cross-legged, as his wireless operator attempts to ascertain whether or not his message has been received in England.
That Marconi’s invention helped catch a notorious criminal certainly captured the world’s attention in a tabloid kind of way. It was the first time in History that a police pursuit was reported on in, what amounted to, real time, a hundred years ago. Millions of people on both sides of the Ocean knew that Crippen and his accomplice were doomed well before the arrest was ever made. In fact, perhaps, the last person to realize the drama that had been unfolding around him as he sailed from Belgium to Canada was, Dr. Crippen, himself. Right up until the end of the voyage, as the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway came into view, Crippen thought he had escaped to a new life; first, in Canada and, eventually, in America. As Larson points out in his book, on the last evening before his arrest, Dr. Crippen stood outside the wireless office on board the ship, watching the electrical arcs colour the sky. He commented to the Captain about how magical this new wireless thing seemed to be. The Captain, to his credit, merely smiled and nodded.
As much as newspaper editors cheered the arrival of wireless communication, one of the real values of it came a few years later, when wireless communication played such a huge role in saving survivors of the Titanic sinking.
As with so much in our world, things are never simply black and white. Wireless communication started our world down a path where silence rarely exists anymore. Amid the noise comes wonderful things like tsunami warnings that save countless lives and astronauts who walk on the Moon and tell us about the giant leaps they are taking. There is wonder in all of that. But, lack of privacy is a very real concern and there are no easy answers to that. For a genius once sat on a windswept part of my hometown and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, with a few bits of morse code that transformed into electrical waves that sailed across the Ocean faster than any ship, obliterating national boundaries, making us all, simultaneously, citizens of the world. There is no such thing as a personal identity anymore. Thanks to Marconi, we are now all stitched together in a social-media fabric held together, not with wires and batteries but, with binary codes. Our world has become digitized.
And, that process began in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A town that has two museums; one that probably means more to those of us who were born there and one that we share with the world.