A spellbinding history of a massively impressive work of technology.
Cellphones barely cover 14 percent of the world. Most readers will be surprised to learn that another service, Iridium, covers the entire Earth through a dazzling system of a few dozen satellites launched in 1997 and still operating today. It is expensive, and the handsets are nonsmart, but if you’re climbing Mount Everest, crossing the ocean, or wintering in Antarctica, you can phone home. A tireless researcher, investigative journalist Bloom (co-author: Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs, 1985, etc.) delivers a superlative history in which politics and cutthroat business tactics often overshadow the technical feats. In 1987, during the stone age of cellular phones, Motorola engineers proposed to make reception easy and universal through satellites. Rival systems were already in the works, and national phone monopolies hated competition. The 10 years before the 1997 launch, writes the author, were “full of treachery, deception, and espionage worthy of the Roman Senate at its worst, penetrating across borders, arousing the ire of nations, and often resulting in outright violations of the law.” Nine months after beginning operation on Nov. 1, 1998, Iridium filed for bankruptcy. Mismanagement was a factor, but the phone itself, as large as a World War II walkie-talkie, cost $3,500 to buy and $4 to $7 per minute to use. From the mad scramble that followed emerged Bloom’s hero: elderly, retired entrepreneur Dan Colussy, who managed to block Motorola’s yearning to destroy the satellites, assemble investors, persuade government officials that Iridium was essential to U.S. security, and revive the service. Colussy’s efforts, which take up the second half of the book, turn out to be no less gripping than Iridium’s launch and flameout.
A tour de force history of a star-crossed technological leap.