1908

by Bob Kobres ~ 1986


The year is 1908; a fiery serpent has scorched the Tungus, and a genie is seen sleeping in a vial. . .


History, provided we preserve it, will record 1908 as a banner year in an incredible decade during which began a social metamorphosis of our species.

Perhaps H.G. Wells was prophetic with In the days of the Comet (1906) by fantasizing a global outbreak of love, compassion, reason and peace brought about by the Earth being enveloped in the glowing green gas of a comet. He certainly took a radical departure from the historical view of these long-haired demons which people believed capable of bringing fire and brimstone, gloom and doom, famine and pestilence to Earth. The pendulum has swung back more to the historical appraisal of such cosmic interlopers but it is just possible (hopefully likely) that Wells was metaphorically correct, for the comet or piece of one that struck the Earth in the sparsely populated land of the Tungus (Evenki) people did indeed envelope the Planet with its substance just two years after the publication of Wells' book, and brought with it a revelation which will prove invaluable to a successful social metamorphosis for ourselves.

There were, however, other revelations being made in 1908 that drew people's attention far more than the beautiful glowing nights of early July which were all the outside world was to then know of the object that the Evenki call a visitation from Ogdy, their god of fire. Only a few months before the minds of the Evenki were to be set wondering what had incurred the wrath of Ogdy, the minds of people who had attended the lectures of Frederick Soddy at the University of Glasgow had been caused to wonder what might be the result of science discovering the key to releasing the fire pent-up within the atom. In the words of Frederick Soddy:

"I have already referred to the total amount of energy evolved by radium during the course of its complete change. It is about two million times as much energy as is evolved from the same weight of coal in burning. The energy evolved from uranium would be some fourteen percent greater than from the same weight of radium. This bottle contains about one pound of uranium oxide, and therefore about fourteen ounces of uranium. Its value is about 1 (one pound sterling). Is it not wonderful to reflect that in this little bottle there lies asleep and waiting to be evolved the energy of about nine hundred tons of coal? The energy in a ton of uranium would be sufficient to light London for a year. The store of energy in uranium would be worth a thousand times as much as the uranium itself, if only it were under our control and could be harnessed to do the world's work in the same way as the stored energy in coal has been harnessed and controlled . . . With reference to the newly recognized internal stores of energy in matter we stand today where primitive man first stood with regard to the energy liberated by fire. We are aware of its existence solely from the naturally occurring manifestations in radioactivity. At the climax of that civilization the first step of which was taken in forgotten ages by primitive man, and just when it is becoming apparent that its ever-increasing needs cannot indefinitely be borne by the existing supplies of energy, possibilities of an entirely new material civilization are dawning with respect to which we find ourselves still on the lowest plane--that of onlookers with no power to interfere. The energy which we require for our very existence, and which Nature supplies us with but grudgingly and in none too generous measure for our needs, is in reality locked up in immense stores in the matter all around us, but the power to control and use it is not yet ours. What sources of energy we can and do use and control, we now regard as but the merest leaving of Nature's primary supplies. The very existence of the latter till now have remained unknown and unsuspected. When we have learned how to transmute the elements at will the one into the other, then, and not till then, will the key to this hidden treasure-house of Nature be in our hands. At present we have no hint of how even to begin the quest."

Soddy goes on to relate how the sun and the stars might be powered by transmutation, how the heat from radiation might drive geological processes on the Earth, and how the universe might be continuously regenerating itself. The idea of cyclical regeneration then led him to speculate on the age and history of man:

It is curious how strangely some of the old myths and legends about matter and man appear in the light of the recent knowledge. Consider, for example, the ancient mystic symbol of matter, known as Ouroborous--'the tail devourer'--which was a serpent, coiled into a circle with the head devouring the tail, and bearing the central motto "The whole is one." This symbolizes evolution, moreover it is evolution in cycle--the latest possibility--and stranger still it is evolution of matter--again the very latest aspect of evolution--the existence of which was strenuously denied by Clark Maxwell and others of only last century. The idea which arises in one's mind as the most attractive and consistent explanation of the universe in light of present knowledge, is perhaps that matter is breaking down and its energy being evolved and degraded in one part of a cycle of evolution, and in another part still unknown to us, the matter is being again built up with the utilization of the waste energy. The consequence would be that, in spite of the incessant changes, an equilibrium condition would result, and continue indefinitely. If one wished to symbolize such an idea, in what better way could it be done than by the ancient tail-devouring serpent?

Some of the beliefs and legends which have come down to us from antiquity are so universal and deep-rooted that we are accustomed to consider them almost as old as the race itself. One is tempted to inquire how far the unsuspected aptness of some of these beliefs and sayings to the point of view so recently disclosed is the result of mere chance or coincidence, and how far it may be evidence of a wholly unknown and unsuspected ancient civilization of which all other relic has disappeared. It was curious to reflect, for example upon the remarkable legend of the philosopher's stone, one of the oldest and most universal beliefs, the origin of which, however far back we penetrate into the records of the past, we do not seem to be able to trace to its source. The philosopher's stone was accredited the power not only of transmuting the metals, but of acting as the elixir of life. Now whatever the origin of this apparently meaningless jumble of ideas may have been, it is really a perfect and but very slightly allegorical expression of the actual present views we hold today. It does not require much effort of the imagination to see in energy the life of the physical universe, and the key to the primary fountains of the physical life of the universe today is known to be transmutation. Was then this old association of the power of transmutation with the elixir of life merely a coincidence? I prefer to believe it may be an echo from one of many previous epochs in the unrecorded history of the world, of an age of men which have trod before the road we are treading today, in a past possibly so remote that even the very atoms of its civilization literally have had time to disintegrate.

Let us give the imagination a moment's further free scope in this direction, however, before closing. What if this point of view that has now suggested itself is true, and we may trust ourselves to the slender foundation afforded by the traditions and superstitions which have been handed down to us from a prehistoric time? Can we not read into them some justification for the belief that some former forgotten race of men attained not only to the knowledge we have so recently won, but also to the power that is not yet ours? Science has reconstructed the story of the past as one of a continuous Ascent of Man to the present-day level of his powers. In face of the circumstantial evidence existing of this steady upward progress of the race, the traditional view of the Fall of Man from a higher former state has come to be more and more difficult to understand. From our new standpoint the two points of view are by no means so irreconcilable as they appeared. A race which could transmute matter would have little need to earn its bread by the sweat of its brow. If we can judge from what our engineers accomplish with their comparatively restricted supplies of energy, such a race could transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden. Possibly they could explore the outer realms of space, emigrating to more favorable worlds as the superfluous today emigrate to more favorable continents. One can see also that such dominance may well have been short-lived. By single mistake, the relative positions of Nature and man as servant and master would, as now, become reversed, but with infinitely more disastrous consequences, so that even the whole world might be plunged back again under the undisputed sway of Nature, to begin once more its upward toilsome journey through the ages. The legend of the Fall of Man possibly may indeed be the story of such a past calamity.

One mind that was to be sparked by Soddy's talks was the incredible H.G. Wells, but not until these lectures were published the following year. In 1908 Wells was generating sparks of his own by publishing "The War in the Air" which anticipates aerial bombing and the breakdown of defensible boundaries:

And in the air are no streets, no channels, no point where one can say of an antagonist, "If he wants to reach my capital he must come by here. In the air all directions lead everywhere.

--as well as global war:

It was only very slowly that Bert got hold of this idea that the whole world was at war, . . . . He was not used to thinking of the world as a whole, but as a limitless hinterland of happening beyond the range of his immediate vision. War in his imagination was something, a source of news and emotion, that happened in a restricted area called the Seat of War. But now the whole atmosphere was the Seat of War, and every land a cockpit.

The United States War Department awards inventor Orville Wright a contract to build the first military airplane. Two years later, in 1910, the U.S. Government conducts the first experiments in aerial bombing.

October 1, 1908 the first "Model T" rolls off the assembly line; mass production has arrived--the metamorphosis is quickened.

Earlier (during the summer) Lee deForest was demonstrating from the Eiffel Tower a genie he had put in vitro--the control grid. This small element placed between the emitter and collector of electrons in a vacuum tube made possible the fine control of a large current by a small one--in other words amplification of an electronic signal.

Carneal records the event as follows:

"When the night for the big test arrived, having learned that he would be allowed to use the main antenna which ran almost to the top of the Tower for experiments, deForest and his assistants, chief among whom was his wife, stayed at the transmitter all evening, feeding records to the Pathe talking machine which was modulating the carrier current. All night long they stayed at the Tower, returning to their hotel in the early morning to await results. The stations had all received the program. But deForest's success went deeper. A letter postmarked Marseilles written by an engineer who had listened in exactly five hundred miles away, told of the complete reception of the program.

Our voice and music was no longer confined by the mechanics of the atmosphere or the distribution of wires. We are being brought together without moving--so on goes the metamorphosis.


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