The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
A HUNDRED YEARS HENCE
For centuries, the lack of suitable preservation technology made the transportation of fresh food from areas of surplus to those of need an impossibility. The English were just beginning to cope with this problem. London, like most cities, got its milk supply from herds of cows kept right in town so that the milk could be rushed to its customers. When cattle plagues in 1865 and 1866 decimated the city stock, George Burham took the capillary cooler brewers used in beer-making and adapted them so that more and fresher milk could be brought in by rail from the surrounding countryside. Overcoming time and distance is perpetually a problem that attracts many of the best minds.
Refrigerating entire sailing ships was beyond 1860s technology. Yet in countries like Uruguay and Argentina, the pampas overflowed with cattle whose flesh was tossed aside when they were slaughtered for their hides. All that flesh tempted one of the leading food chemists in Europe, the German Justus von Liebig. He had been experimenting with concentrating meat for decades and now saw an opportunity to turn his erudition into money. With backing from the Victorian equivalent of venture capitalists, he set up a plant in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. According to food historian Walter Gratzer:
The meat was crushed between rollers, and the pulp was steam-heated for one hour and strained. The fat was separated and the fluid was concentrated by heating for some hours. The dark brown, viscous liquid was filtered and sealed in a sterile state in tins. This extractum carnis Liebig took Europe by storm, initially as an additive to give savour to the dishes of the rich.
Gratzer goes on to say that while “Liebig’s beef extract exercised a mesmeric effect on the healing professions and many believed it to be something of a panacea for all matter of ills,” other independent scientists at the time, and, in a crushing blow, Liebig’s former assistant Carl von Voit, analyzed the ugly black spread and saw that it had no nutritional value at all. All the fat and protein was carefully removed by the concentrating process. No matter. Liebig’s extract went to hospitals to bolster the ailing. The military seized upon it as a lightweight food supplement. Massive advertising made the notion of beef tea a necessity in the every British home. The Oxo brand, as integral to English society as Coca-Cola is to American, grew from a later version of Liebig’s formula. Liebig had invented the warm, tasty, soothing placebo.
A society-changing success is ripe for satire; a fraud even more so. Enter the indefatigable British writer James Payn. He published verses before he entered Cambridge at the age of 17 and seemed never to have set his pen down for the next 60 years. In additional to a novel a year, he produced books of essays, poems, and travel writing and edited the leading Scottish magazine, Chambers’s Journal, for 15 years. For it he wrote Lost Sir Massingberd, possibly the first true mystery novel to be published in book form when it appeared in 1864. Little in life can contribute to a more jaundiced view of humanity than being an editor, so it may not be a surprise that he followed that stint with a long series of sharply satiric short pieces for Belgravia, A London Magazine, edited by the novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon. To give you an idea of how major a venue that was, the previous issue had included Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. Collected in three volumes in 1879 under the name High Spirits, Being Certain Stories Written in Them, Payn's stories were buried under the weight of his enormous output.
The longest story in the collection is “The Fatal Curiosity; or, A Hundred Years Hence,” which lays into every failing and inadequacy of upper class British society with the steady thuds of a sledgehammer. An early example of what would become a familiar style, dissecting the world of the present by imaging how primitive and ignorant it appears from a future perspective, Payn lards the background of his future world with the full panoply of marvels of technology. Twice-daily air-mail from Australia, music and sermons piped in through tubes, gauges and dials to relieve the tedious necessity of walking to the window to observe the weather, and sleepers refreshed by bottled air of various altitudes around the world (see Predictions - The First Look Back for a cartoonist who had exactly the same idea) are among the riches. Food was also far advanced. The puns maybe less so. Since this was the Christmas issue for 1877, the story is set naturally in 1977 at a Christmas gathering, with a result that makes comparisons with Stephen Leacock's "The New Food" inevitable. It's impossible to trace who read what and Robert Mankoff's books on New Yorker cartoons will convince anyone that minds looking for humor will stumble across identical punch lines totally independently. Just because we've totally forgotten Payn doesn't mean that the generation following did, though. He may have been the progenitor for all modern SF that wasn't stolen from Verne.
The story runs at least 15,000 words, far too long to type out. Below are a paragraph of set-up for the air-waggon in which they ride, powered by the hot air of meaningless conversation, plus the food pill scene. And something I just realized. The pill gives one of the characters superpowers! Is this the very earliest example? Payn is a forgotten genius.
The Fatal Curiosity; or, A Hundred Years Hence
by James Payn
The wind-waggon at Mellingtonhall was a most comfortable conveyance, and carried off the palm from all the other carriages in the county; the wheels of its air-fans were tireless (whereby a great obstacle to progression was avoided), and were rotated by the conversation of the passengers; so that they went to-day at a fine rate, in spite of the presence of Sir Rupert, who was given to argue in a vicious circle, and thereby diminished the speed.
“To pronounce a thing impossible is a sure means of making it so; [said Mr. Raymond] and yet that was the generation of our ancestors who resented Darwin's theory that they were descended from the ape! I think we have much more cause to resent being descended from Darwin. Why, in those days they had not even discovered the art of preserving the surplus food in one country to supply the lack of another. Waste ruled in Australia and Want in England. The art of concentration was almost unknown.”
"People are a little longwinded even now, when they get upon their favorite topics," observed Sir Rupert slily.
"I was referring to the concentration of food, sir."
"Oh, I beg your pardon. Well, that has not proved an inevitable success, as I understand from Mrs. Raymond," observed the Knight still more slily than before.
"You are referring to that ridiculous story of the sheep's lozenge, I suppose," said Mr. Raymond, looking just a trifle sheepish himself."
"What was that?" inquired Lotty mischievously.
"Well, it was a little mistake of my dear husband," answered Mrs. Raymond. "As soon as the lozenges were advertized, he ordered a box for the parish poor, and before issuing them he was so rash as to venture upon one himself. Moreover, he actually took a whole one, as though it had been a cough lozenge."
A roar of laughter broke through the occupants of the air-waggon, causing a tremendous acceleration of speed.
"He forgot, you see, that each lozenge was the concentration of an entire sheep (with the trifling exception of the wool and teeth), and the consequence was he became so enormously strong that he was positively dangerous. Poor Lord Raby happened to call that morning, and got his arm broken through shaking hands with my husband; and the destruction that took place in our furniture was something awful: if he laid his finger on what he thought to be a flaw in an argument, it went to pieces whether it was a flaw or not; and he cast such sheep's eyes at the maids that I should have been very much annoyed if I had not known them (I mean the eyes) to have been irresponsible agents."
“Well, well,” it might have been worse,” observed Mr. Raymond complacently; “suppose one had taken a pork lozenge, for example, and gone the whole hog.”