Life Was... Short
Avedon Carol Issues Marching Orders

My Day: Magister Ludi, or From Econ 115 to Tesla to Gernsback to "The Skylark of Space" to Oliver Wendell Holmes...

My day starts with the fall course: Econ 115, Twentieth Century Economic History. The question is how to teach the acceleration of global and North Atlantic economic growth around 1870. Before 1870 the capital- and resource-corrected efficiency of labor in the North Atlantic region looks to have grown by only some 0.4% per year--a pace at which it would take 180 years for the efficiency of labor to double. America supports real income growth of some 1.0% per year before 1870 only by conquering and expanding across the continent, greatly increasing the stock of natural resources the economy has at its disposal faster than its population grows.

Then around 1870 the frontier closes: natural resources per capita begin to fall. But real income growth does not fall: it doubles. Post-1870 real income growth is driven by (a) much faster increases in the efficiency of labor, and (b) capital deepening made possible by inventions that cheapen old and make possible the production of an entirely new range of capital goods. And both of these processes are in turn driven by (a) the application of science to technology, and (b) the scent of profit in the nostrils of financiers and entrepreneurs opened up by the possibility of applying science-based technologies to make both old goods (i.e., dyestuffs, steel, etc.) and new goods (electric lights, airplanes, etc.).

And I decide that the right way to teach this is to make them wake up by telling them about the life of autism-spectrum genius inventor Nikola Tesla, known for, according to Wikipedia: the Tesla turbine, teleforce, Tesla's oscillator, Tesla electric car, the Tesla principle, Tesla's egg of Columbus, Alternating current, Tesla's AC induction motor, the rotating magnetic field, wireless beamed-power technology, particle-beam weapons, death rays, terrestrial standing waves, the bifilar coil, telegeodynamics, and electrogravitics; recipient of the Elliott Cresson Medal (1893), the Edison Medal (1916), and the John Scott Medal (1934).[1]

Tesla then leads me to Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions, published in 1919 in Electrical Experimenter magazine, which was then edited by... science-fiction genre founder Hugo Gernsback, after whom science fiction's Hugo awards are named, who later edited Amazing Stories.

And so I found myself at the gym reading not David Wessel's In Fed We Trust nor Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter nor Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold nor Tyler Cowen's Create Your Own Economy nor Rafael Yglesias's A Happy Marriage but instead a book I last read when I was twelve: E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space, written in 1915-1921 and published in 1928 in Gernsback's Amazing Stories--and then compounding the offense with Spacehounds of IPC.

Seven things strike me about E.E. Smith and Skylark:

  • The hero is a chemist--admittedly, a chemist who liberates "intra-atomic energy" through some bizarre catalytic process and then directs the energy via electromagnetic and other etheric disturbances (weak? strong? whatever extension to the standard model produces proton decay?), but a chemist.
  • The villains are big business--"World" Steel--and the effete wealthy financial WASP establishment--"Brookings"[2] (plus the adversarial Nietzschean chemist-uebermensch).
  • The adversarial Nietzschean chemist-uebermensch--Marc DuQuesne--will steal, will kill, will kidnap, but he will not lie: his word is good. Moreover, he will not engage in preemptive violence: he will not kill you on general principles simply because you might be an obstacle later, because he is always sure that he could deal with you if it were to become necessary.
  • A "computer" is not a machine but rather a human job description.
  • Smith doesn't understand special relativity at all.
  • The casual genocide--alien women and children (or perhaps I should say "brooders" and "younglings") are exterminated by the billions without anyone batting an eyelash.
  • The casual eugenics--evolution as directed toward greater scientific nerdity (but it is a very buff scientific nerdity)[3] and intelligence, this directed evolution as desired by the First Cause or as the point of it all, and the duty to assist in the improvement of the species (or perhaps specieses).

And this then led me to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell (1927):

Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony.... She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother... and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child.... An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives....

The attack is not upon the procedure [i.e., due process] but upon the substantive law.... We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson. v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

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Just as young men can be drafted and compelled to give their lives for the health of the state (or is it the volk?) in war, so feeble-minded women can be drafted and compelled to give their fertility for the improvement of the genome.

Let me say that this is a case where I suspect that a wise Latina justice might have been more able to consider the proper equities than Justice Holmes was.

And let me say that if we are going to play at genetics and eugenics it should be done not by a literary-intellectual judge but by a real live professional scientist, like Arianne Emory I:

[A]bsolutely essential... are adequately diverse [human] genepools.... We do not create Thetas because we want cheap labor. We create Thetas because they are an essential and important part of human alternatives. The ThR-23 hand-eye coordination, for instance, is exceptional. Their psychset lets them operate very well in environments in which... geniuses would assuredly fail. They are tough, ser, in ways I find thoroughly admirable, and I recommend you, if you ever find yourself in a difficult [wilderness] situation... hope your companion is a ThR... who will survive, ser, to perpetuate his type, even if you do not...[4]

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Unfortunately, I only have half an hour of lecture--1/6 of one week--to talk about Tesla and company this fall--and I now easily have enough material outlined that I could now lecture for three weeks on science, invention, technology, popular culture, eugenics, and the idea of progress at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. God knows if I will ever teach it or write it up--or if anybody would be interested if I did...

[1] When Tesla died in 1943, an old man living on charity in the New Yorker Hotel and talking to pigeons, Wikipedia claims that FBI head J. Edgar Hoover seized his property and turned it over to the government's Alien Property Custodian (despite the fact that Tesla had been a citizen for 51 yeara) while the FBI searched frantically for a working model of Tesla's death ray. Six months later Chief Justice Stone of the Supreme Court ruled that Tesla's beamed-power patent of 1897 incidently invalidated Marconi's later radio patents, and so the U.S. Navy did not have to pay for using Marconi-designed radio equipment. (Marconi's patent by then had a company, and lawyers. Tesla's patent did not.)

[2] To name your chief villain "Brookings" and have him reside in Washington DC in a book written over 1915-1921--when Robert S. Brookings is one of the U.S. economy's wartime central planners on the War Industries Board, is Chair of the Board of Directors of Washington University (St. Louis), and founding the three organizations that are going to become the Brookings Institution (the Institute for Government Research, the Institute of Economics and the Brookings graduate school) and is bankrolling Harold Moulton who is drafting legislation to create the Budget Bureau (now OMB)--is perilously close to libel before the Supreme Court changes the law in New York Times v. Sullivan.

[3] I.e., the Hero and the Ingenue in Spacehounds of IPC:

"Well, you've seen it, Miss Newton," Stevens said regretfully, as he led her toward the captain's office. "The lower half is full of heavy stuff—accumulators, machinery, driving projectors, and such junk, so that the center of gravity is below the center of action of the driving projectors. That makes stable flight possible. It's all more or less like what we've just seen, and I don't suppose you want to miss the dance—anyway, a lot of people want to dance with you."

"Wouldn't you just as soon show me through the lower half as dance?"

"Rather, lots!"

"So would I. I can dance any time, and I want to see everything. Let's go!"

Down they went, past battery after battery of accumulators; climbing over and around the ever-increasing number of huge steel girders and bracers; through mazes of heavily insulated wiring and conduits; past mass after mass of automatic machinery which Stevens explained to his eager listener. They inspected one of the great driving projectors, which, built rigidly parallel to the axis of the ship and held immovably in place by enormous trusses of steel, revealed neither to the eye nor to the ear any sign of the terrific force it was exerting. Still lower they went, until the girl had been shown everything, even down to the bottom ultra-lights and stern braces.

"Tired?" Stevens asked, as the inspection was completed.

"Not very. It's been quite a climb, but I've had a wonderful time."


"I think it's all perfectly wonderful!" she breathed. "Just think of traveling in comfort through empty space, and of actually seeing through seamless steel walls, without even a sign of a window! How can such things be possible?"

"I'll have to go pretty well back," he warned, "and any adequate explanation is bound to be fairly deep wading in spots. How technical can you stand it?"

"I can go down with you middling deep—I took a lot of general science, and physics through advanced mechanics. Of course, I didn't get into any such highly specialized stuff as sub-electronics or Roeser's Rays, but if you start drowning me, I'll yell."

"That's fine—you can get the idea all x, with that to go on. Let's sit down here on this girder. Roeser didn't do it all, by any means, even though he got credit for it—he merely helped the Martians do it. The whole thing started, of course, when Goddard shot his first rocket to the moon, and was intensified when Roeser so perfected his short waves that signals were exchanged with Mars—signals that neither side could make any sense out of. Goddard's pupils and followers made bigger and better rockets, and finally got one that could land safely upon Mars. Roeser, who was a mighty keen bird, was one of the first voyagers, and he didn't come back—he stayed there, living in a space-suit for three or four years, and got a brand-new education. Martian science always was hot, you know, but they were impractical. They were desperately hard up for water and air, and while they had a lot of wonderful ideas and theories, they couldn't overcome the practical technical difficulties in the way of making their ideas work. Now putting other peoples' ideas to work was Roeser's long suit—don't think that I'm belittling Roeser at all, either, for he was a brave and far-sighted man, was no mean scientist, and was certainly one of the best organizers and synchronizers the world has ever known—and since Martian and Tellurian science complemented each other, so that one filled in the gaps of the other, it wasn't long until fleets of space-freighters were bringing in air and water from Venus, which had more of both than she needed or wanted.

"Having done all he could for the Martians and having learned most of the stuff he wanted to know, Roeser came back to Tellus and organized Interplanetary, with scientists and engineers on all three planets, and set to work to improve the whole system, for the vessels they used then were dangerous—regular mankillers, in fact. At about this same time Roeser and the Interplanetary Corporation had a big part in the unification of the world into one nation, so that wars could no longer interfere with progress."

"WITH this introduction I can get down to fundamentals. Molecules are particles of the first order, and vibrations of the first order include sound, light, heat, electricity, radio, and so on. Second order, atoms—extremely short vibrations, such as hard X-rays. Third order, electrons and protons, with their accompanying Millikan, or cosmic, rays. Fourth order, sub-electrons and sub-protons. These, in the material aspect, are supposed to be the particles of the fourth order, and in the energy aspect they are known as Roeser's Rays. That is, these fourth-order rays and particles seem to partake of the nature of both energy and matter. Following me?"

"Right behind you," she assured him. She had been listening intently, her wide-spaced brown eyes fastened upon his face.

"Since these Roeser's Rays, or particles or rays of the fourth order, seem to be both matter and energy, and since the rays can be converted into what is supposed to be the particles, they have been thought to be the things from which both electrons and protons were built. Therefore, everybody except Norman Brandon has supposed them the ultimate units of creation, so that it would be useless to try to go any further...."

"Why, we were taught that they are the ultimate units!" she protested.

"I know you were—but we really don't know anything, except what we have learned empirically, even about our driving forces. What is called the fourth-order particle is absolutely unknown, since nobody has been able to detect it, to say nothing of determining its velocity or other properties. It has been assumed to have the velocity of light only because that hypothesis does not conflict with observational data. I'm going to give you the generally accepted idea, since we have nothing definite to offer in its place, but I warn you that that idea is very probably wrong. There's a lot of deep stuff down there hasn't been dug up yet. In fact, Brandon thinks that the product of conversion isn't what we think it is, at all—that the actual fundamental unit and the primary mechanism of the transformation lie somewhere below the fourth order, and possibly even below the level of the ether—but we haven't been able to find a point of attack yet that will let us get in anywhere. However, I'm getting 'way ahead of our subject. To get back to it, energy can be converted into something that acts like matter through Roeser's Rays, and that is the empirical fact underlying the drive of our space-ships, as well as that of almost all other vehicles on all three planets. Power is generated by the great waterfalls of Tellus and Venus—water's mighty scarce on Mars, of course, so most of our plants there use fuel—and is transmitted on light beams, by means of powerful fields of force to the receptors, wherever they may be. The individual transmitting fields and receptors are really simply matched-frequency units, each matching the electrical characteristics of some particular and unique beam of force. This beam is composed of Roeser's Rays, in their energy aspect. It took a long time to work out this tight-beam transmission of power, but it was fairly simple after they got it."

He took out a voluminous notebook, at the sight of which Nadia smiled.

"A computer might forget to dress, but you'd never catch one without a full magazine pencil and a lot of blank paper," he grinned in reply and went on, writing as he talked.

"For any given frequency, f, and phase angle, theta, you integrate, between limits zero and pi divided by two, sine theta d...."

[4]The implications of the fact that Arianne Emory I is probably lying to some degree when she says that Union "do[es] not create Thetas because we want cheap labor. We create Thetas because they are an essential and important part of human alternatives..." is left as an exercise for the reader.