I first got into wireless in my early teens. Kit-built an Allied 'Knight Kit' regenerative receiver. Then the obligatory Heathkit superhet shortwave set. Held an amateur ticket for a while, and scratch-built a small transmitter. All vacuum tubes, of course. Bread-boarded a few transistor circuits as well.
Wireless technology was still fairly transparent back then. Once you'd built that much gear, you knew the basic designs. If a neighbor or relative brought over a defunct radio or TV for the kid to mess with, it would have big fat wires that you could easily trace to figure out the circuits and deduce what was probably cooked. A multimeter and surplus oscilloscope were sufficient test gear. Tubes unplugged and could be tested separately. More basics and a lot of the history were available from ARRL publications, my father's old textbooks, even Boy Scout merit badge materials. The whole field of consumer level wireless was then about 50 years old, and much of its history still featured in general science texts.
A kid or curious adult interested in wireless today has a much harder task. Take apart the most easily accessible sample - a dead mobile phone - and you've got a bunch of parts opaque to all but experts. Just try to figure out a RAKE filter by staring at a few IC packages and a multilayer circuit board. With the advent of digital signal processing, even getting a start in comprehension involves understanding a very complex two-way system. No one bothers fixing the gadgets. If they flake out, they're eWaste. As far as a beginner building one, just forget it.
The existence of wireless is taken for granted, being over a hundred years old, with the start of effective use now beyond living memory. You may get some mention of twitching frog's legs and spark gaps in a science text these days, but the path from there to the Star Trek communicator you can get for nearly free at the local mobile store has become obscure.
Ira Brodsky's recent History of Wireless is meant to fill the gap between initial discovery and today's mobiles that (along with the Internet) are remaking global communications. The author is a long time technologist and consultant in the mobile phone arena, but he reaches all the way back to the discovery of electricity itself to begin his story. From there we go through the interaction between electric and magnetic fields, the first instances of wireless transmission, and into the vacuum tube era that made it practical for everyday use.
Along the way, Brodsky takes a lengthy detour into the origins of telegraphy and telephony. Back when I started, telegraphy would be mentioned as an aside, as the origin of the Morse code we were stuck learning. Wireless telephony had something to do with towers on mountain tops. Now, personal voice communications is the global driver of the wireless market. And telegraphy was the first successful example of the digital coding that lies at the base of all modern commercial wireless systems. Wireless technology intersected these two other threads of development in the late 1970s, and began cellular phone standards and bandwidth wars. The author is a veteran of those conflicts, and tells that recent story well.
In addition to the nominal story of its subject, History of Wireless carries two other narratives that are relevant to today, and only minimally elaborated by the author. The first is the complete arc from science to technology to entrepreneur to globalized corporations. It starts out with the natural philosophers ('physicists' hadn't been invented yet) at the British Royal Society and its peers, and ends up with a two-way medium delivered to billions of users by vendors and carriers with world spanning scale. Along the way, there was a largely forgotten wireless boom that will seem rather familiar to veterans of the Internet or PC equivalents.
The other back story is that of patents and intellectual property priority. For those who think disputes over both the outcome and ultimate utility of this kind of fight are something new, this is a good read. Over a hundred years ago, there were wars in the courts as bitter as anything seen today, with appeals lasting decades, talented inventors killing time finding work-arounds, and at least one court verdict that most of the technologists agreed was a travesty. Some things seem to never change, and business and technology keep going on.
If there's anything shorted in Brodsky's history, it's the technology itself. Once we get past the initial discoveries, the 'how' largely drops out of the story. To be fair, this is a history and not a technology textbook, and you can always look it up on the Web anyway. But it would be nice to have a few sidebars on key innovations, with a little more depth and specific links or cites to places to get more information.
Another lack is illustrations, which are completely absent. An occasional system or circuit drawing would support the descriptions. But the lack is felt most in the era of the first commercial systems, unfamiliar in appearance to all but a few of us today. From personal experience, you've really got to see the sheer scale of the early spark gear to understand that we once made artificial thunder and lightning to communicate. (For Bay Area locals, here's a bit of Californiana: The Marconi Conference Center on Marin County's Tomales Bay preserves the site and some of the facilities of one the first intercontinental communications sites of the spark gap era.)
Overall, I recommend this book to any adult curious about how we got our science fiction gadgets a few centuries earlier than Hollywood predicted, and as a great pass-along to a budding engineer who's noticed that technology didn't start or end with the Web.
(Disclosure: The author was a collaborator in several consulting projects about a decade ago.)