X-RAYS - EXPOSING THE UNKNOWN!

Shortly after World War II ended, General Electric took advantage of the lifting of paper shortages to start producing a series of educational comic books. As promotional items for the products and image of GE they were distributed literally by the millions to schools and other strategic vendors. One source says 20,000,000 were produced. Another quotes a figure of 68,000,000. This ad for a Delaware utility is a good example of how heavily they were pushed.

[Wilmington, DE] Morning News, March 5, 1946 adventures in electricty ad

Those astounding numbers are believable because various titles kept popping up until the 1970s. I haven't been able to find a comprehensive listing and dates are not consistent on different sites, nor is a particular title's assignment to the two or possibly three series GE issued. Adventures in Electricity (7 issues 1946-1950) is fairly clear. Adventures in Science sprawled over a number of subjects and titles. AtomicAvenue.com seems to have the best listing. Adventures Into the Future (#1 1952), Engineering in Your Future (variant title of #1 1957), Land of Plenty (#2 1952), Network of Power (#3 1953), Adventures in Jet Power (#4 1950, 1955, 1958), Adventures Inside the Atom (#5 1948), Adventure Into the Past (#6 1949), The Story of Light (#7 1954, 1957), Adventures in Electronics (#8 1955), Electricity Around Us (#9 1953), Man Made Magic (#10 1953), Science in Your Future (#11 1956), and Our Place in Space (#12 1959). While this listing is helpful, the numbering is not chronological and therefore probably not consistent with actual series numbering, if there were any. It's also not clear whether the titles with multiple dates were reissues, slight revisions, or completely new. Additionally, other titles are known that need to be fitted into the sequence: Adventures in Jet Propulsion (1947), Conquerors of Space (1961), More Power to America (1950), and Quincy Looks Into the Future (1973). Some titles have additional printing dates as well. Some comic expert has a chance to perform a true service by clearing up this confusion.

With GE's money and its prestige riding on the comics, it's not surprising that the results were first class. The writers were anonymous but, in the books I read, the science background is done so well, and simplified in such visual yet illuminating ways, that they must have been taken from on-site experts and buffed to a high polish by the PR department before being given to the artists. The artwork was also first class by the standards of the day, straightforward yet perfectly detailed and varied with a variety of cinematic techniques. A majority of the titles were drawn by George Roussos, who had a life-long career in comics, from Timely and DC in the 40s to Marvel in the 60s (where he was known as George Bell) and on to a dozen other firms after that. Uniquely, we have a quote from him on the GE books, taken from The Art and Life of George Roussos: 1915-2000, on www.meskin.net.

Through DC, Roussos also produced a series of 16 comics for General Electric in the early 40s; he told Bill Cain, "These pamphlets were distributed in schools throughout the country and South America, Europe and India. I received an extension from the local draft board in order to complete this publication. When the work was over, the bomb ended the draft. This is a good thing for the Army… they might have lost the war!" There were 68 million of the pamphlets distributed, according to an article in the New York Daily News.

One small problem: none of those dates can possibly be correct. Every site agrees that the very first comic, Adventures in Electricity #1, was copyright 1946. The ad shown above, from the March 9, 1946 Wilmington DE Morning News, is the very first mention I can find of the series. They must have been a post-war phenomena. So much for first-person memory.

The series got serious attention, especially in the comic book hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The GE comics were held up as exemplars of what comics could be. In 1948 a Berkshire MA school audio-visual education supervisor said that "formation of a child's character depends largely upon what he sees and reads and therefore we should keep the right book within reach." The Adventures in Science booklets were ones he made available to students. A syndicated Sylvia Porter column from 1949 said that "A half-dozen of the booklets are on my desk now. I've studied them; they're superb."

I agree, but see for yourself. I've selected Adventures in Electricity #4, copyrighted right at the end of 1947, as my example because it's all about rays, X-rays to be precise. You will never find a more white-bread small-town American atmosphere; the houses even have white picket fences. Our youthful hero is named Johnny Powers - how did Stan Lee not steal that for a character - and the first thing we see is him climbing a tree to rescue his sister's cat. Girls, you may swoon now. The bough breaks and the cradle, er, Johnny, does fall so big brother Ed - short for Edison no doubt - takes Johnny and sister Jane to the doctor's office (not a hospital: going to the emergency department was not common for decades to come) for an x-ray. Intriguingly, a very prominent and unnecessary signpost delineates the corner of George Blvd. and Wright Ave. Could that be a hint that the writer was a George Wright? Intriguingly again, an electrical engineer named George Wright worked his entire career for GE. According to his obituary, though, he was getting his master's at MIT in 1947. To quote Thomas Huxley: "The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." (It's not the address of the General Electric plant either, to shoot that one down.)

To get Johnny's mind off his pain, Ed starts with a history of x-rays, a form of compassion only a big brother could come up with. Roentgen's discovery of x-rays in 1895 and its aftermath is given more than a page, and includes some of the true horrified reactions, including a scandalized woman stating that they'll have to wear x-ray proof clothing to protect themselves. This was more a century before TSA screeners, but the bare possibility shocked and titillated. See my article on the 1897 movie The X-Ray Fiend. Even more attention is paid to William David Coolidge, far less known but a major scientist who happened to work for GE. In fact he became director of the General Electric Research Laboratory and a vice-president of the corporation. He also won a long list of medals and awards for his achievements, including election to the National Inventors Hall of Fame shortly before he died at the age of 101. That might be GE patting itself on the back but Coolidge was a superlatively worthy name to get to the attention of the public.

The Adventures in Electricity series never seem to have had their copyrights renewed, putting them into the public domain and fair to reprint.

EK

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