My explorations of the early history of science fiction and horror has turned up a surprising number of scientists or people with scientific training who have dabbled in speculative fiction. Optical scientist Robert Williams Wood coauthored a pair of science fiction novels, The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon-Maker (1916). Millionaire inventor John Jacob Astor wrote the space exploration novel A Journey in Other Worlds in 1894. Many people are likely unaware that science fiction master H.G. Wells was a trained biologist and worked as both a science teacher and science journalist for short periods of time. (There are more modern examples such as my friend Blake Stacey’s book Until Earthset.)
Scientists are often envisioned as passionless people whose scientific endeavors drain the beauty out of life: “unweaving the rainbow,” so to speak. The examples above put the lie to that accusation. Some time ago I found another example of a famous scientist trying his hand at science fiction: in 1900, the astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) published His Wisdom The Defender: A Story.
In Newcomb’s book, a brilliant scientist makes an Earth-shaking discovery that can change the world, and he sets out to do just that! The heroic antics of the scientist were, to me, actually rather reminiscent of another famous fictional scientist, as I describe below…
By 1900, Newcomb had already established himself as a first-class astronomer, scientist and mathematician. In 1861 he had become a professor of mathematics and astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and revised numerous astronomical tables. By 1877, having decided that his true interest was in mathematics, Newcomb became the director of the National Nautical Office, where he undertook a recalculation of all major astronomical constants. Other significant work of Newcomb’s included collaboration with Albert Michelson on early measurements of the speed of light and the discovery of what would later be known as Benford’s law: the curious observation certain digits appear more frequently in the first position than others. Newcomb noticed that the earlier pages of a book of logarithm tables was more worn than the latter pages, suggesting they were consulted more frequently. The phenomenon was later rediscovered and quantified by physicist Frank Benford in 1938.
Newcomb’s scientific knowledge permeates His Wisdom The Defender. Set in the far future of the 1940s, the novel is treated as a written history of the events that led the world to become a peaceful utopia. This utopia was accomplished by the discoveries and actions of one Professor Campbell of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Working with two assistants in a secure research lab, the Professor makes two inventions that will transform the world. He immediately resigns from the university and starts a business based on the first invention, a furnace of seemingly endless energy. He applies this furnace first to smelt aluminum, but later modifies it to form the engines of a series of motorized bikes and cars that become popular worldwide.
Campbell’s business makes him the wealthiest man on the planet, and nobody can duplicate his process. With his new resources, Campbell starts to implement his true plan: to save the world from war and tyranny via the application of his second invention: the discovery of flight!
Is the story beginning to sound familiar? A fabulously wealthy genius inventor who seeks to do good for the world through the use of his radical new method of flying? Not yet?
Well, Campbell introduces a series of flying transports (known as “motes”) to the world and sets up regular transports between nations. An illustration of these machines was included in the first printing of His Wisdom.
Campbell then assembles in secret a group of young, intelligent, university-educated men and trains them to use the newest type of motes he has built:
Suspended to each rope, near its mid-point, was an object of singular shape and aspect. Seen externally, it looked like a large hogshead, perhaps six feet in diameter and eight feet high. On top of the hogshead was what might be a little cask about a foot in diamter. This was pierced round its upper portion with little holes filled with glass, giving the appearance of as many eyes. On each side of the hogshead, two feet below the top, projected two jointed arms. Hanging below it, and reaching to within ten feet of the ground, were a pair of jointed legs. The whole looked like a grotesque caricature of the human form.
Emphasis mine! Professor Campbell invented a flying mechanical suit. He’s like an Edwardian age Tony Stark/Iron Man!
The similarity first struck me with the early description of Professor Campbell’s first test flight.
Going back to the safe, he next took from it an article of clothing. It was a close-fitting leather coat, fastened to the outside of which were a number of tubes of the size and shape of small organ-pipes. When the little man arrayed himself in this coat he stood in the centre of the circle of pipes and looked as if an organist might have played a tune on him. The coat was a very close fit. He buttoned it as tightly as if he feared it would be torn off. He then walked to the carpenter’s bench, on which lay an instrument looking like a pair of wooden pincers about four feet long. Near them lay two or three little round metal handles, rather more than a hand’s-breadth long. Simple though these things looked, he seemed afraid to touch or even approach them. He carefully took hold of the long pincers, and, reaching out his arm, took the handles one by one and laid them on the floor. Near where he put them a solid staple had been driven firmly into the floor. He then took a piece of cord some twenty feet long, tied one end to his foot and fastened the other end to the staple, as if he were a cow allowed to graze, but secured from running away. As soon as the knots were tied he tested each of them by a pull this way and that with all his strength, as if resolved to make escape impossible. Then he stooped cautiously to where the handles were lying and took one in each hand, being careful at first to hold both at arms’s length. He gradually brought them closer to his body, holding them in a vertical position.
As they approached the organ-pipes, the reason for his caution became evident. The little man began to rise from the floor as the spiritual mediums were said to do a hundred years ago, and was very soon nearly up to the roof, being prevented from striking it and perhaps passing through it only by the rope with which his leg was tied. As he moved the handles slightly from him he began to descend. He then proceeded to amuse himself by alternately swinging up and down in the way described. He could apparently move in any direction he might choose through the air, by a very slight inclination of the handles. Holding them in one way, he swung round and round a circle having for its radius the length of the rope; holding them another way, he swung in the reverse direction. And, all the while, he kept peering round as if fearful that he might be seen.
This description reminded me of this scene from the first Iron Man movie:
Campbell is well-aware of how his inventions could be turned into weapons of death and destruction, and he takes active steps to keep their workings a secret. But he has even bigger plans in mind: the permanent end of war worldwide. But the nations of the world will not give up their military might without a struggle, and Campbell and his followers will have to overcome many obstacles — political, military, and journalistic — in order to achieve their vision.
Simon Newcomb’s novel is a fascinating look at the scientific views of the time. Professor Campbell’s monumental discovery that allows flight and unlimited energy is a substance known as etherine, which allows one to tap directly into the luminiferous aether.
I’ve talked about the aether a number of times on this blog; see, for instance, this post. When it was proven that light possesses wave properties in the early 1800s, physicists naturally assumed that light waves must travel in a material medium, just like water waves travel in water and sound waves travel in air. Nobody had ever observed such a medium, which was “ghostly” or “aetherial.” If it existed, however, it was perhaps not unreasonable to speculate that it could be harnessed to produce effects essentially like anti-gravity.
Newcomb was not just introducing “etherine” as a science fiction plot device. In an article he wrote in McClure’s Magazine in 1901, “Is the airship coming?”, he discusses whether human beings will ever achieve the power of flight. He is rather pessimistic that flight like a bird would be possible for human or larger-size objects, and appears much more interested in the idea of aetherial anti-gravity:
It goes without saying that the science of to-day is not satisfied to accept any of these limitations longer than it is forced to do so. It is battering at every gate which Nature has closed against the entrance of its forces: Well knowing that the eye of man is never to see a molecule of matter, it is nevertheless investigating the phenomena associated with it, determined, if possible, to penetrate the mystery of its constitution. It is seeking to discover the cause of gravitation, the force which, coextensive with ether itself, may be in close association with it. From time to time philosophers fancy the road open to success, yet nothing that can be practically called success has yet been reached or even approached. When it is reached,when we are able to state exactly why matter gravitates, then will arise the question how this hitherto unchangeable force may be controlled and regulated. With this question answered the problem of the interaction between ether and matter may be solved. That interaction goes on between ethers and molecules is shown by the radiation of heat by all bodies. When the molecules are combined into a mass, this interaction ceases, so that the lightest objects fly through the ether without resistance. Why is this? Why does ether act on the molecule and not the mass? When we can produce the latter, and when the mutual action can be controlled, then may gravitation be overcome and then may men build, not merely airships, but ships which shall fly above the air, and transport their passengers from continent to continent with the speed of the celestial motions.
Newcomb would be proven wrong in both of his opinions in an embarrassingly short period of time. In 1905, Einstein would introduce his special theory of relativity, which would essentially render the aether unnecessary in theoretical physics and imply that Newcomb’s anti-gravity is impossible. In 1903, the Wright brothers would make their famous first manned flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, demonstrating that Newcomb’s estimates of bird-like flight for humans were inaccurate.
It is fair to say that Newcomb’s philosophical views were also hopelessly naive. In His Wisdom The Defender, Newcomb envisions an educated and civilized elite acting as guardians of the world, protecting it through the use of superior technology. This sounds very much like the idea of the “Philosopher King” that Plato discusses in The Republic, written around 380 B.C.E. The problem with this, in part, is that everyone envisions themselves to be that perfect noble ruler — of course, very few of us, if any, are truly wise enough to be given absolute power!
Views of utopia through powerful technology and wise rulers are curiously common in the science fiction of the era, especially in those books written by scientists. In R.W. Wood’s 1915 The Man Who Rocked the Earth, a mysterious scientist named Pax manages to blackmail the Earth into peace via the threat of a massive atomic weapon. In H.G. Wells’ 1914 The World Set Free, devastation caused by atomic war leads the wisest rulers to negotiate a permanent peace. It seems that the exciting promise and deadly threat of new scientific discoveries in that era were spurring scientists to imagine, and advocate for, a new enlightenment to meet these challenges.
Newcomb’s book also shows that one thing has not changed much in the course of 113 years: the mutual suspicion of scientists and journalists! Professor Campbell’s nemesis in the novel is an unscrupulous reporter who seeks to uncover the scientist’s plans, and is willing to make up a story when the truth is hidden from him.
Newcomb’s novel is not an especially complicated novel, and is quite predictable throughout. It is nevertheless a fascinating look at the scientific, social and political situation at the turn of the 20th century. And, as I noted at the beginning of the post, it shows that scientists can be beautiful dreamers just like the rest of humanity!
Thanks for the plug!
Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is another example of the “educated and civilized elite acting as guardians of the world” story, although the “world” in that case is the Milky Way Galaxy. I wonder if the desire to be a Philosopher King has fuelled the popularity of those books for the past seventy years! Though, if that’s not your goal in life, then after three books, the psychohistorians can rather come off as callous, amoral sociopaths….
George Orwell’s essay on HG Wells during WWII was an end note to the optimistic era that believed new technologies and new ideas would bring peace. From Wells, Hitler and the World State (http://www.george-orwell.org/Wells,_Hitler_And_The_World_State/0.html):
‘What has Wells to set against the “screaming little defective in
Berlin”? The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey
Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human
rights, of anti-totalitarian tendency. Except that he is now especially
concerned with federal world control of air power, it is the same gospel
as he has been preaching almost without interruption for the past forty
years, always with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can
fail to grasp anything so obvious.’
My favorite flying solution of the pre-airplane era was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sixth ray, the ray of flight. He was obviously influenced by the recent discovery of alpha rays (the first rays) and the fact that they were the nuclei of the newly discovered element helium.
It should also be noted that Simon Newcomb’s attitudes towards other “races” are strikingly typical of the era in which he wrote this book, and that the only woman ever mentioned in it is far younger than he, and eventually becomes his wife. This is not a complaint about the book – it was fun to read – but it is a stark reminder of how far we have come.