L. Frank Baum’s Cautionary Yarn About the Gifts of Electrical energy

The American writer L. Frank Baum is best known for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels. In those books and numerous other works, he wove together magic, adventure, and nature into fantastic tales that were beloved of children and adults alike. Occasionally, Baum also drew inspiration from technology. Nowhere is that more…
L. Frank Baum’s Cautionary Yarn About the Gifts of Electrical energy

The American author L. Frank Baum is extra healthy known for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels. In those books and lots of works, he wove together magic, adventure, and nature into impossible tales that had been cherished of young folks and adults alike. Every so continually, Baum also drew inspiration from technology. Nowhere is that extra evident than in his 1901 new The Grasp Key: An Electrical Fairy Yarn, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electrical energy and the Optimism of Its Devotees.

 Historical black-and-white image of a mustachioed man in a hat sitting at a typewriter at a table outside.L. Frank Baum is remembered as of late for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels.UtCon Series/Alamy

The e book performs up both the promise and the perils of what used to be aloof a extraordinarily unique technology. The protagonist is a young boy named Purchase Joslyn, who used to be loosely primarily primarily based on Baum’s 15-year-worn son, Robert. Both boys, staunch and fictional, had been enthusiastic electrical experimenters. And Baum himself, who used to be 45 years worn when the e book used to be printed, had witnessed the break of day of the sizable electrification of The US. Born in 1856, Baum used to be raised in upstate New York, in homes lit by candles and gaslight. As an grownup, he and his partner, Maud, and their young young folks lived temporarily within the drought-stricken Dakota Territory, in Aberdeen, before they settled in Chicago in 1891.


It used to be an thrilling time to be in The US’s 2nd greatest city, a space reputedly fueled by ambition and heroic dreams. Twenty years after the Gargantuan Chicago Fire destroyed most of the city, it used to be getting ready to host the World’s Columbian Exposition. On 1 Can also simply 1893, U.S. president Grover Cleveland officially opened the extravaganza by pressing a golden telegraph key that symbolically switched on 100,000 colorful lights. Amongst the assorted electrical inventions on present had been sizzling plates, fans, bells, bed warmers, radiators, and a total mannequin electrical kitchen, per Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1893 Guide of the Magnificent.

Colored lithographic postcard labeled On the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, the lots of wondrous makes use of of electrical energy had been highlighted.Library of Congress

And so the Baums witnessed the electrical transformation of Chicago. Frank Baum used to be setting up himself as a favored author and moved his family into a recent home. There, his son Robert used to be allowed to paddle wires by intention of the partitions and experiment with electrical energy.

In The Grasp Key, Purchase Joslyn does likewise. He fits every door in his family’s home with electrical bells and buzzers, including one on the mailbox to declare the arrival of a letter. (That latter innovation, the electrical mailbox, used to be occurring for staunch around that time.) Purchase’s father encourages his son’s ardour, seeing electrical energy because the come forward for civilization. His mother frets that he might burn the home down with all his crossed wires.

Baum might need viewed some truth in both folks’ perspectives, for within the e book, the tangled mess of wires is what jump-starts the build. A technique or the opposite, in his random connections, Purchase by likelihood strikes the “master key of electrical energy,” thereby calling forth the Demon of Electrical energy. An resembling the genie stuck in Aladdin’s lamp, the demon is slave to the master key, compelled to obey the instructions of anybody who unlocks its power.

For years, the reader learns, the demon has silently scorned the works of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla for their trifling inventions and their unhappy exhaust of the functionality of electrical energy. Even though the demon hoped that a “wise and valorous man” would summon him forth so that he could direct his wisdom, he obtained Purchase.

The demon is obligated to supply Purchase his frequent deal: three needs per week for a interval of three weeks. Purchase can’t hang something else to need for—critically, nothing? I found that build point laborious to have faith. As an quite various, the demon offers to win three gifts for him per week. Adventure and stop to-difficulty ensue.

Wondrous gifts of electrical energy foreshadow staunch-existence inventions

The demon’s gifts must delight in gave the impact extra magical than electrical to readers of the day. But now now not lower than a few of them are now now not too some distance some distance flung from precise contemporary-day devices.

Even handed one of many first gifts Purchase receives is a wristwatch transportation instrument, called the indicator, that lets in its wearer to commute by intention of the air in any path quick and simply. The instrument clearly belongs within the arena of fantasy because it would now not obey the authorized guidelines of physics. Baum injects a designate of realism by making the machine at wretchedness of breaking when dropped. It be as if he anticipated my sadly frequent experience with cellphones. Purchase, though, is a unusual tinkerer, and he manages to repair the indicator, if imperfectly. At events, he can most attention-grabbing cruise brief distances. At other events, he lands within the nasty space.

Baum thought this unmediated win entry to to information used to be extra honest and legit than the interpretation of events by intention of newspapers.

Another reward is an electrical tube that shoots a present and renders an enemy unconscious for one hour, with no lingering ill effects excluding a tiny headache. It be a extra or less Taser, in other words. (The explicit Taser attracts its title from a a bit later juvenile fiction adventure e book: Tom Swift and his Electrical Rifle.) The demon offers this invention as a change to guns, which, he tells Purchase, are nasty because folk haven’t any correct to scheme stop a existence, even in self-protection. But the demon acknowledges that now now not every person shares his aversion to killing, because he also bestows on Purchase a Garment of Security, an electrically powered shirt that repels bullets, swords, and bodily assaults.

I used to be surely taken by the demon’s reward of a Legend of Events, a small field all the intention in which by intention of which the viewer can look any match for the time being occurring anyplace within the arena. Baum had predicted dwell streaming but with a higher person interface than something else I even delight in ever viewed. “It be—or now now not it’s love shining all the issues,” murmurs Purchase. The Legend also records any predominant match that took place within the last 24 hours for later viewing. In step with Baum biographer Katharine M. Rogers, this used to be a technological theory that confirmed up in other locations within the author’s work as Ozma’s Magic Image and Glinda’s Guide of Recordsdata. Baum thought this unmediated win entry to to information used to be extra honest and legit than the interpretation of events by intention of newspapers.

The last reward Purchase receives is a Personality Marker, a pair of spectacles that reveals to the wearer the innate qualities of anybody in look: highest or immoral, wise or foolish, form or cruel. It does this by projecting letters onto the person’s forehead. Historian Jeremy M. Norman considers the Personality Marker an early foreshadowing of augmented-actuality devices, and it with out a doubt appears to be like love a low-tech model of Google Glass or the unique Fb-backed Ray-Ban Tales. Purchase refrains from the utilization of the glasses to head making an are trying to seek out the characters of his family, and he also stops the president of France from the utilization of them to cloak the letters on Purchase’s have forehead. The demon could simply scheme stop into consideration Purchase a foolish boy, but he occasionally displays some staunch wisdom.

The Grasp Key’s subtext: Tech has penalties

After bestowing his gifts per week, the demon disappears, and Purchase is left to his have devices, because it had been. He makes use of the wristwatch to commute to a diversity of locations, most attention-grabbing a few of that are deliberate: Boston, a pirate ship someplace within the Atlantic, England, Yarkand (which as of late is a predominantly Uyghur settlement in China).

In every space, something ceaselessly goes terribly nasty, and Baum most ceaselessly leans on low stereotypes of foreigners and “others” to develop issues even worse. In that sense, he used to be very mighty a White man of his time. Sooner than he became a bestselling author, Baum used to be a newspaperman, and he wrote editorials for The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, calling for the extermination of all indigenous folks in North The US. The Grasp Key stops brief of suggesting such inhumanity, but contemporary-day readers aloof could simply bristle at the e book’s racism and cultural caricatures.

When Purchase decides to commute to Havana, for event, he by some potential ends in Brava, the smallest inhabitable island of the Cape Verde archipelago. In Baum’s telling, the inhabitants are barbarous, virtually naked cannibals, with shark teeth piercing their ears and noses and long hair tied up Pebbles Flintstone–vogue with bones. Purchase is quick taken captive and crawl with ropes.

A couple of of the e book’s color illustrations have a tendency to add to the stereotypes, while others are lawful quietly absurd and delectable. Drawn by the renowned illustrator Fanny Young Cory correct first and predominant build of her profession, they had been a stylistic departure from her old work, which featured cherubic kids. Cory also supplied the gentle line drawings first and predominant build and ends of most of The Grasp Key‘s chapters. (The illustration below moreover the e book duvet at high are from a first edition at the Bakken Museum, in Minneapolis.) She went on for instance lots of extra books and brief tales for Baum. In the 1920s, Cory became one in every of The US’s first female syndicated cartoonists with the one-panel Sonnysayings, followed by the Dinky Miss Muffet strips, which she never surely enjoyed, because Miss Muffet’s adventures had been never as thrilling because the teach that boys love Purchase Joslyn obtained into.

Color illustration from the book shows an older man with a thin mustache gripping the edge of a cobbled roof. A pair of pants and shoes at the top left indicate a person in the air. The text says u201cThe eyes of the Frenchman were actually protruding from their sockets.u201dFanny Young Cory created The Grasp Key’s whimsical illustrations, including this one in every of the protagonist making an airborne win away.Collections of the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

No matter getting a female illustrator, the e book would now not in another case wreck unique ground by come of the portrayal of girls and girls. All we ever score out about Purchase’s sister and mother is that they develop now now not see the purpose in progress by intention of electrical energy; they’re in another case peripheral to the memoir. That’s a little bit puzzling, because in Baum’s have existence, he championed girls’s rights. Baum’s partner used to be the daughter of Matilda Josyln Gage, who spent her existence advocating for girls, Native Americans, and folks of African descent (both enslaved and free). For the length of his newspaper profession, Baum wrote lots of editorial s supporting girls’s suffrage. And within the Oz.series, he creates a entire world ruled by girls. Likely he used to be simply extra happy imagining girls in power in magical kingdoms than in Earthly ones.

Aid to Brava: Purchase manages to minimize his ropes and win some distance flung from the cannibals. (It can come as no surprise that he survives all of his misadventures.) And as Purchase continues to hop across the globe, he finally ends up advising the king of England and the president of France, getting entangled in ethnic conflicts in Asia, and even encountering a legendary chook the scale of a horse with talons extra famous than a tiger’s claws. He lands in pains, even when he is desperately making an are trying to lead certain of it, but most ceaselessly his root goodness displays by intention of, resembling when he rescues two shipwrecked sailors and conveys them from a deserted island to the Oregon cruise. For the length of his budge, Purchase meets unscrupulous males who would love to desire or snatch the demon’s inventions, but he manages to take care of them safe. Young as he is, Purchase can see that the technology would be corrupted within the palms of any individual with ill intent.

At one point, the Demon of Electrical energy becomes offended about Purchase’s misadventures and admonishes the boy for his foolishness. After all, the demon had lofty ambitions for Purchase and the relaxation of mankind. But Purchase Joslyn is now now not a hero. He’s an identical outdated American boy of average intelligence who is enthusiastic, reckless, and unworldly. He would now not delight in sufficient existence experience to develop sound alternate alternate choices. And who could blame him? The electrical gifts are up to now some distance flung from the technology of that technology, and the demon never bothers to remark him of their highest use. It be a surprise that Purchase would now not now stay awake doing extra peril, to himself and to others.

At last, Purchase realizes that he’s out of his depth, for when the demon displays up first and predominant build of the third week, Purchase in a smartly mannered come but firmly refuses to goal fetch his gifts. And there the e book ends.

The Magic Key used to be smartly got. It had now now not lower than two printings all over its first two years and remained accepted for some time after that. Baum regretted now now not leaving room for a sequel. We can most attention-grabbing surprise what other feats of electrical energy he might need explored. In the preface to The Grasp Key, Baum speculates that in due path, one or two of the demon’s inventions might genuinely come to be. And yet he appears to be like to see that his world used to be now now not ready for this futuristic technology. Are we ready now?

Segment of a continuing series photos of historical artifacts that embody the boundless doable of technology.

An abridged model of this text appears to be like within the November 2021 print field as “Electrical energy’s Dangerous Account Arc.”

Read Extra

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts