Invisible Death, by Anthony Pelcher

Back into some posts about invisibility in fiction, based on those stories that I didn’t talk about in my (hopefully) upcoming book about the history and physics of invisibility!

If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you might think that I made a mistake and have reposted something that I posted last week! Because didn’t I just write a post about “The Invisible Death“?

Well, I did, but that was “The Invisible Death,” by Victor Rousseau, which appeared in Astounding Stories of Super-Science in October, 1930, but now we’re talking about “Invisible Death,” which appeared in Astounding Stories of Super-Science in January, 1930!

If you’re confused, well, so was I: I stumbled upon Pelcher’s story while looking for Rousseau’s, but more on that later. Let’s talk about the story and the science of “Invisible Death”!

“Invisible Death” counts as a mystery/thriller invisibility story. As the tale begins, a reclusive and mysterious inventor named Darius Darrow has been found dead, and an inquest opened into the cause of death. His wife, Susan Darrow, describes how her husband had built two prototypes of a device that he said would “do away with war,” but on the day of his death, he said that he must have displaced one of them. Soon after, he was found dead, with a fatal blow to his head, and strange events followed. The gardener claimed to have been pushed over by something unseen, and Susan had noticed a strange car parked near their house all day. As she went to look at it again, it simply vanished!

The inquest cannot pinpoint a cause of death, but it is concerning to Darius’ employers, Perkins Ferguson, head of the Schefert Engineering Corporation, and the vice-president of the company, Damon Farnsworth. At a board meeting, Perkins “Old Perk” reveals that he has received an ominous, threatening, and extorting letter:

Honestly, in these days of corporate corruption I have a bit of sympathy for the Death.

Soon after the letter is read, a low humming sound is heard in the room, and papers fly all about as if thrown by unseen hands, and chaos ensues: the “Invisible Death” has demonstrated their power! Perkins assigns his best engineer, Walter Lees, to solve the mystery and eliminate the threat. But can he act fast enough to save Ferguson and Farnsworth?

Overall, “Invisible Death” isn’t a terribly compelling story, even though it does end with a car chase involving an invisible car! But it does present a truly novel method of invisibility. It is later discovered, of course, that Darius had discovered a method of turning things invisible. The explanation:

Darrow got his idea from watching a rapidly revolving wheel. He noticed that the spokes and rim blended into a blurred disc when a certain speed was reached. The entire wheel was practically invisible, under certain lighting conditions, when a higher speed was attained.

Darrow went further and reached the conclusion that there was a rate of vibration that would produce invisibility. This was accepted in practically all engineering research plants, long before it was perfected by Darrow.

“The facts are that any rapidly vibrating object becomes more and more difficult to outline as its rate of vibration increases. All that was left for Darrow was to arrive at the exact mathematical time, tone, or rate of vibration producing invisibility and to construct a vibrator tuned to produce this condition.

This is a clever idea, inspired by the disappearing spokes of a spinning wheel! I hadn’t seen any vibration-based invisibility in fiction before this tale. And the vibration is a key clue for the investigators, since they realized that they could always hear a humming sound when the Invisible Death struck!

Let me conclude again by noting the curious coincidence that two stories, one by Anthony Pelcher and a later one by Victor Rousseau, would appear in the same magazine in the same year. Or was it a coincidence? Let’s look at the cover of the January 1930 issue, where Pelcher’s story appeared:

The cover story is by Victor Rousseau! He certainly knew of Pelcher’s story in the same issue. Whether he borrowed the title with the author’s blessing or not is a mystery I’ll probably never solve. (Certainly the editor knew, and was okay with it.) The fact that Rousseau’s name appears in two issues of the same magazine that both contain a story about an “invisible death” caused me much confusion.

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