The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
BAUM'S MAGIC PILLS
What's a man to do? You're the most famous author of fantasy in America. Your recent books, Mother Goose in Prose and Father Goose, His Book, were the bestselling children's books of the year. You just finished writing an original fantasy that you're hoping will take the world by storm.
Does your son, Rob, care? No, he's 15 years old and infatuated with technology like all the other 15-year-old boys of his time. Right now he has the house filled with batteries, circuits, telephones, crystals, and motors, all wired together so that he can track any movement. You can't walk through your own house without treading carefully and lifting your feet. A bell rings anytime anybody approaches the front door. Not a moment's peace. Your wife is demanding that he scrap it all; not a bad idea since those lead-acid batteries he's playing with are literal deathtraps.
But you're the indulgent father. This new technology of electricity is fascinating stuff. Look at all that electricity can do. Heck, what couldn't it do? It's practically the stuff of fantasy sitting right there in your drawing room, staring back every time you lift your head.
You need an idea for a new book, after all. The stage version of your fantasy, a musical, never got off the ground. Besides, that book was for girls. Boys need books, too. As usual, you need the money. You'll pump out 40 more books in the next 20 years chasing cash. There's a book in Rob; all that's necessary is to start with your daily problems and apply some auctorial magic. Page one practically writes itself:
When Rob became interested in electricity his clear-headed father considered the boy's fancy to be instructive as well as amusing; so he heartily encouraged his son, and Rob never lacked batteries, motors or supplies of any sort that his experiments might require.
He fitted up the little back room in the attic as his workshop, and from thence a net-work of wires soon ran throughout the house. Not only had every outside door its electric bell, but every window was fitted with a burglar alarm; moreover no one could cross the threshold of any interior room without registering the fact in Rob's workshop. The gas was lighted by an electric fob; a chime, connected with an erratic clock in the boy's room, woke the servants at all hours of the night and caused the cook to give warning; a bell rang whenever the postman dropped a letter into the box; there were bells, bells, bells everywhere, ringing at the right time, the wrong time and all the time. And there were telephones in the different rooms, too, through which Rob could call up the different members of the family just when they did not wish to be disturbed.
His mother and sisters soon came to vote the boy's scientific craze a nuisance; but his father was delighted with these evidences of Rob's skill as an electrician, and insisted that he be allowed perfect freedom in carrying out his ideas.
"Electricity," said the old gentleman, sagely, "is destined to become the motive power of the world. The future advance of civilization will be along electrical lines. Our boy may become a great inventor and astonish the world with his wonderful creations."
"And in the meantime," said the mother, despairingly, "we shall all be electrocuted, or the house burned down by crossed wires, or we shall be blown into eternity by an explosion of chemicals!"
"Nonsense!" ejaculated the proud father. "Rob's storage batteries are not powerful enough to electrocute one or set the house on fire. Do give the boy a chance, Belinda."
The name of the book would become The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, with the subtile: Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees. It Was Written for Boys but Others May Read It. Others didn't. Boys didn't either. Nobody did. You've probably never heard of its existence unless you are a deep-dyed L. Frank Baum devotee. It doesn't even rate a mention in the text of Baum's Wikipedia page. Historically, though, The Master Key is perhaps the most significant work of boy's fiction of its era. Nothing comes close to replicating the aura of true magic that electricity held for those fortunate enough to be exposed to its transformative nature. Maybe that's why the book failed; no more than 2-3% of American homes were wired for electricity in 1900. More likely the sad answer is that Baum was a hack writer who lucked into one resonating idea with The Wizard of Oz and never came close to replicating its success. The "old gentleman" was all of 45 at the time, by the way.
Baum wastes no time getting into the plot. A page later Rob drops himself practically into the middle of a Stan Lee/Marvel Comics superhero origin story.
One day when he had locked himself in to avoid interruption while he planned the electrical illumination of a gorgeous pasteboard palace, he really became confused over the network of wires. He had a "switchboard," to be sure, where he could make and break connections as he chose; but the wires had somehow become mixed, and he could not tell what combinations to use to throw the power on to his miniature electric lights.
So he experimented in a rather haphazard fashion, connecting this and that wire blindly and by guesswork, in the hope that he would strike the right combination. Then he thought the combination might be right and there was a lack of power; so he added other lines of wire to his connections, and still others, until he had employed almost every wire in the room.
Yet it would not work; and after pausing a moment to try to think what was wrong he went at it again, putting this and that line into connection, adding another here and another there, until suddenly, as he made a last change, a quick flash of light almost blinded him, and the switch-board crackled ominously, as if struggling to carry a powerful current.
Rob covered his face at the flash, but finding himself unhurt he took away his hands and with blinking eyes attempted to look at a wonderful radiance which seemed to fill the room, making it many times brighter than the brightest day.
Although at first completely dazzled, he peered before him until he discovered that the light was concentrated near one spot, from which all the glorious rays seemed to scintillate.
He closed his eyes a moment to rest them; then re-opening them and shading them somewhat with his hands, he made out the form of a curious Being standing with majesty and composure in the center of the magnificent radiance and looking down upon him!
Rob, in this thorougly unrepeatable manner, has "touched the Master Key of Electricity" and called up its slave, the Demon of Electricity. The Demon manifests itself in gaudy raiment:
His jacket was a wavering mass of white light, edged with braid of red flames that shot little tongues in all directions. The buttons blazed in golden fire. His trousers had a bluish, incandescent color, with glowing stripes of crimson braid. His vest was gorgeous with all the colors of the rainbow blended into a flashing, resplendent mass.
[There's some glorious historic synchronicity here. The 1900 Paris World's Fair, the Exposition Universelle, attracted millions even as Baum typed, lured by the greatest concentration of electric lights in world history at a Fair whose theme was the the wonderment of electricity. And the hit of the Fair, more so than any of the exhibits, was the American dancer Loie Fuller who dazzled Parisians as "la fée éléctricité," the Spirit of Electricity. Moreover she did so by dancing in a frame of gauzy white muslin cloth on which stagehands trained a multitude of colored lights, an ever-changing rainbow projected on her living screen. Baum may have read a report on her; far more likely that two lively visual minds arrived at similar conclusions independently.]
The Demon knows everything about electricity, naturally, and he sneers at the feeble, primitive strivings of Thomas Edison and Nicolas Tesla, the latter of whom had been showing signs of his future madness by claiming to converse with Martians. The Demon will have none of that nonsense.
"Now I happen to know all about Mars, because I can traverse all space and have had ample leisure to investigate the different planets. Mars is not peopled at all, nor is any other of the planets you recognize in the heavens. Some contain low orders of beasts, to be sure, but Earth alone has an intelligent, thinking, reasoning population, and your scientists and novelists would do better trying to comprehend their own planet than in groping through space to unravel the mysteries of barren and unimportant worlds."
After more such banter, Baum remembers the plot. Like any good genie, the Demon offers Rob three wishes, provided that they can be granted by the power of electricity. Rob, not the deepest thinker, hasn't a clue what to ask for so he lets the Demon decide on the gifts. Since this is a children's story and not Faust, the Demon has some great suggestions. Guess what the first one is.
"The thing most necessary to man is food to nourish his body. He passes a considerable part of his life in the struggle to procure food, to prepare it properly, and in the act of eating. This is not right. Your body can not be very valuable to you if all your time is required to feed it. I shall, therefore, present you, as my first gift, this box of tablets. Within each tablet are stored certain elements of electricity which are capable of nourishing a human body for a full day. All you need do is to toss one into your mouth each day and swallow it. It will nourish you, satisfy your hunger and build up your health and strength. The ordinary food of mankind is more or less injurious; this is entirely beneficial. Moreover, you may carry enough tablets in your pocket to last for months." ...
[Rob] was feeling quite hungry at that moment, for he had a boy's ravenous appetite; but, taking the silver box from his pocket, he swallowed a tablet and at once felt his hunger as fully satisfied as if he had partaken of a hearty meal, while at the same time he experienced an exhilarating glow throughout his body and a clearness of brain and gaiety of spirits which filled him with intense gratification.
The other two presumably lesser gifts are an electric stun gun for defense and an anti-gravity watch for traveling the globe. Food pills come before the power of flight for probably the first and last time in all fantasy literature.
Rob travels to Africa, Europe, and Japan for a series of harrowing adventures and displays of American know-how, abetted by those and additional marvelous electrical gadgets bestowed by the Demon. Even though the pills - tablets: food pills are never called pills until much later - save him from starvation more than once, by the end of the book he refuses any more of such a two-way gift.
"I've only enjoyed one square meal since you gave them to me. They're all right to preserve life, of course, and answer the purpose for which they were made; but I don't believe nature ever intended us to exist upon such things, or we wouldn't have the sense of taste, which enables us to enjoy natural food. As long as I'm a human being I'm going to eat like a human being, so I've consumed my last Electrical Concentrated Food Tablet--and don't you forget it!"
There it is: the birth and death of the food pill, all in one short volume. Taste always triumphs.
[Off topic, but deeply ironic today: Rob also rejects another of the Demon's gifts:
"And there's another of your unnatural devices," said Rob, putting the Automatic Record of Events upon the table beside the other things. "What right have you to capture vibrations that radiate from private and secret actions and discover them to others who have no business to know them? This would be a fine world if every body could peep into every one else's affairs, wouldn't it?
Trying to sort out the utopias from the dystopias will keep us all busy for the next century as well.]
Baum couldn’t forget such a handy invention, especially since The Master Key was ignored by a public that wanted Oz and more Oz. In 1913 he resurrected the pills , sometimes called Square-Meal Tablets, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and in several other tales, making them an invention of the Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated Professor Woggle-bug. Yet the objections remained the same.
[H]e took a bottle from his pocket and shook from it a tablet about the size of one of Ojo's finger-nails.
"That," announced the Shaggy Man, "is a square meal, in condensed form. Invention of the great Professor Woggle-Bug, of the Royal College of Athletics. It contains soup, fish, roast meat, salad, apple-dumplings, ice cream and chocolate-drops, all boiled down to this small size, so it can be conveniently carried and swallowed when you are hungry and need a square meal."
"I'm square," said the Woozy. "Give me one, please."
So the Shaggy Man gave the Woozy a tablet from his bottle and the beast ate it in a twinkling.
"You have now had a six course dinner," declared the Shaggy Man.
"Pshaw!" said the Woozy, ungratefully, "I want to taste something. There's no fun in that sort of eating."
Not then, not ever.