Boston, 1868, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate its first class. Founded four years before, the school has endured the mocking of its neighboring and well-known school, Harvard University, but is coming into its own.
On a foggy night at the harbor, a terrible accident takes place resulting in the wreckage of several ships. The accident is blamed on faulty compasses, which were reported to spin wildly at the time several of the ships were pulling into port causing the catastrophe. Some individuals believe it might be the work of some strange phenomenon and others a madman. The police aren’t sure who to turn to for answers — Harvard with its gravitas or the new upstart school with the means for experimentation. When a second odd event, glass melting spontaneously in an area in downtown Boston, causes the death of a popular actress, the police turn to an esteemed Harvard professor to find the answer. However, students from the Institute of Technology also decide to investigate knowing their means of experimentation will result in a faster answer and hopefully bring calm to the city.
Marcus Mansfield, and several of his colleagues including the first female student of the Institute, re-form The Technologists, a defunct club at the school, and begin their investigation in a secret basement laboratory experimenting with every known compound to find the answers they need. Racing to put an end to the madness now griping the city, they search for a madman using technology to prey on the fears of everyone.
Rivaling investigations take place between the two schools — old Harvard with an eminent scholar at the helm ready to explain how man has brought about the accidents and the Institute of Technology ready with chemicals and formulas to counter the out of date arguments of the old university. The police aren’t sure who to turn to and finally decide on the tried and true Harvard University but find the arguments put forth aren’t stopping the bizarre occurrences. When Marcus and his friends are able to find explanations for the events, the police aren’t willing to listen. When they finally begin to understand, it may be too late to save everyone and the city from total destruction.
The geek in me loved the science in this book. The Technologists is true to its name in that regard. Marcus Mansfield, a former soldier and factory man, is an example of the old world meeting the new. He understands technology and the fears of the men who work in the shops. The idea that man has brought down the wrath of God on himself with his experimentation adds some nice tension but unfortunately, isn’t explored in much detail as the real culprit starts to come into focus.
One of the more interesting characters in the book, Ellen Swallow the first female student at the school, adds to the outdated thoughts that man with his new experiments is testing the limits of his creator by allowing a woman to study, not only among men, but science. Her steadfast mind proves she can more than hold her own among her peers though. She might take a minute to grow on you as a character but she’s definitely one of the more notable ones.
I became a fan of Pearl’s with The Dante Club. I enjoyed the way he married technology and fear in this book and think fans of his earlier works will find The Technologists an enjoyable read as well.
By Matthew Pearl