Still more invisibility in fiction to come! It seems like an almost endless subject.
I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this next story. “The Invisible Bomber,” by Lieutenant John Pease, appeared in the June 1938 issue of Amazing Stories. My initial thought: “An invisible airplane? That’s been done, and doesn’t seem like a particularly exciting concept.”
However, this story, which is relatively short in comparison to others I’ve read (7 pages instead of an average of 14), has a few clever twists and surprises to it, as well as a novel description of invisibility! I will talk spoilers in this post, so read the story here first if you want.
“The Invisible Bomber” is set at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Aberdeen, Maryland, where novel weapons and ammunition are tested by the U.S. Armed Forces. As the tale begins, Captain Melton and his staff have just narrowly escaped death when a bomb lands on their howitzer just after they depart the area for lunch. The Commandant wants to blame a careless pilot from the nearby Phillips Flying Base for dropping the bomb, but there’s one problem — nobody saw a single airplane in the sky when the bomb fell!
Later that day, Melton is visited by Phil Winters, a former classmate at West Point who left the service after inheriting a lot of money. Incredibly, Winters admits to dropping the bomb on Melton’s howitzer, but what he has to say next is even more incredible:
Melton gasped. Then sputtered. “You dirty pup!”
Unperturbed, the civilian continued, “You didn’t see my plane, did you?”
“Of course you didn’t,” laughed Winters. “You couldn’t. It was invisible.”
Winters has developed revolutionary new physics of invisibility, and dropped the bomb on the abandoned howitzer basically as a publicity stunt to get the attention of the President of the United States. He is willing to provide his secrets to the U.S. Government — for a price. And if the U.S. doesn’t take it, he’ll find another government that will!
How does Winters achieve this invisibility? Here things get weird. he views the universe as existing in four-dimensional space-time, as Einstein’s theory of relativity highlights, but suggests that our entire universe is effectively traveling through the time dimension as a whole — and that there exist other universes neighboring ours that lie just a little further ahead or behind on the time dimension. He uses a famous book to illustrate his point and explain his idea of a “laminated” universe:
“Did you ever read ‘Flatland’, Mr. President? It’s a fanciful yarn about a two-dimensional state of existence, with no up and down; only north and south, east and west.”
The President nodded and smiled a slightly puzzled smile. Yes, he had read the book, but what did that—?
Winters continued, “Suppose there were another flatland a few millimeters away from the first. The inhabitants of either would never even guess at the existence of the other. There could exist an infinite number of these flatlands, piled one on top of another, like sheets of paper or strata of rock structure. You could even move the whole pile steadily upward at the same rate of speed; and yet, in spite of the fact that each two dimensional space would successively occupy the position formerly occupied by some other two-space, this would not at all mean that the peoples of any one plane of existence would ever experience any plane of existence other than their own.”
Winters has developed a device, powered by a massive amount of electrical energy, that allows him to push his aircraft into the space between two universes. From there, he can fly and travel unobserved, and use more energy to “snap” a bomb back into our universe at the right time for an attack. His aircraft itself will naturally snap back to our universe in time, just like a switch only partially thrown will have a tendency to return to its starting position.
The President is troubled by this invention, making him wiser than many of his literary (and real) counterparts:
But the President sadly shook his head, and a tired look passed across his kindly face. “With that invention,” he declared, “this cockeyed world would be utterly unsafe for any nation. One of my dearest ambitions is to keep the world at peace.”
But he agrees to Winters’ demands, and provides a down payment, with the rest of his payment to be delivered after successfully demonstrating another bombing run, at a very specific time. Winters gets in his plane, turns on his invisibility, and disappears. When happens next surprises Melton and the Secretary of War:
The President’s shoulders were slumped, and he seemed very tired, as he stalked out of the hangar and toward his car.
“Aren’t you going to wait for the explosion?” asked the Secretary of War in surprise.
“There will be no explosion,” the President listlessly replied.
“What do you mean?”
“You shall see.” He leaned heavily against the side of his car, and waited. Three fifteen; no explosion. Three twenty; no explosion. Three twenty-five; no explosion. Three-thirty; no explosion.
Worried about the existence of this dangerous technology, the President arranged for an excess of electricity to be delivered through the power grid to Winters’ aircraft, presumably catapulting him forward into the next adjacent universe, to be trapped there! Thus the secret of invisibility becomes another universe’s problem, and our universe is safe.
I really liked the very imaginative explanation of invisibility in “The Invisible Bomber,” as well as the twist ending to the story! As another surprise: it turns out the story was inspired by real life, in a sense! In the “Meet the Authors” section of the issue of Amazing Stories, we learn that Lieutenant John Pease used to work at Aberdeen:
The plot of his story was suggested to him by a narrow escape which be had when a flyer from Phillips Field dropped a 400-pound bomb on his battery, scarcely a minute after he had knocked off for lunch.
Even stranger, Pease viewed himself as an amateur relativity theorist, and his invisibility story is based on his actual belief of how the universe is structured:
“One thing which the relativitists seem to me to overlook, when they talk about the four-dimensional space-time continuum, is that we never experience any time except the present. Therefore may not our space, after all, be Euclidean and three dimensional, infinitely thin in the time direction, a lamina as it were, moving through time?”
This puts Pease dangerously close to being a classic relativity crackpot, but we’ll forgive him since this was almost a century ago and I have no evidence that he ever harassed scientists with his ideas!
Incidentally, it is worth noting that Wonder Woman’s invisible jet first made its appearance in Sensation Comics #1 in January of 1942, so Pease beat Wonder Woman to the idea by about four years!