Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Four-Score (and Ten) Wednesday: Electrical Experimenter, March 1920

Electrical Experimenter, Volume 7, Number 11, March 1920. Publisht February 15, 1920.

Hugo Gernsback is known today pretty much solely as the father of the specialty science fiction magazine, but science fiction was only one of his interests. In fact, that grew out of his interest in science, especially of the technological tinkering variety. And he only produced science fiction magazines for a comparatively brief portion of his long publishing career.

Check out Wikipedia's page on Gernsback, and you'll see just what a small part of his output the science fiction magazines were.

The Electrical Experimenter is something of a crossover point. This magazine, which formally changed its title to Science and Invention in June 1920 (although, as you can see, it was a gradual process on the cover), was the one which convinced Gernsback that a specialty science fiction magazine might be successful. He started publishing what was then called scientific fiction in his Modern Electrics in 1911, but it only became a fairly regular feature in this magazine. In fact, such stories continued there past the advent of Amazing Stories in 1926, until Gernsback lost control of his original company in early 1929. (This led him to create a new company with a new group of magazines, including Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories.)

This week, instead of just giving you the cover, I've made a pdf file including twelve of the interior pages as well. They give some idea of how extensively illustrated the magazine was, and a little taste of the age in which it was produced. For instance, the cover story concludes triumphantly, "were it but even a promise it would mean another step towards the final mastery of all matter by man."

Maybe the most characteristic of its time is a two-page article on "Radium--The Wonder-Substance." In his blog, Joshua Glenn dubbed the era before the Golden Age of Science Fiction the "Radium Age." I'd debate his dating (he considers it 1904-33), but there's no doubting that the term is apposite. During the 1920s and '30s, science fiction was as overflowing with radium this and radium that as today's is with nano-this and nano-that. As you can see from this article, radium was, so to speak (fortunately), in the air.

Not included in the pdf is Gernsback's editorial, since much of that page in my copy fed long-passed generations of insects. The editorial itself is complete, however, and I present it here to show how far ahead Gernsback was looking. And unlike what I usually do with the Sunday Scientifiction stories from this period, I give it to you with the simplified/modernized spelling that he used in the magazine intact. (His publishing statement that the magazine was "publisht on the 15th of each month" inspired me to spell the word likewise at the top of this article.)

The Moon Rocket

In our February issue we discust the Goddard Moon Rocket minutely, presenting the entire problem as laid down by the inventor. Right here it should again be pointed out, as already mentioned in the original account, that Dr. Goddard did not primarily invent his rocket to travel from the earth to the moon. This was only a secondary consideration.

Once a rocket has gone up for 400 or 500 miles into the atmosphere, it would be impossible to prove by any means that it had actually reached this great heighth. A minute's reflection will show that no barograph or other recording instrument would be of any value because at this heighth there is no air.

While we know that the temperature in free space is -459° Fahrenheit, we could of course employ some sort of a recording instrument which would show that the rocket had actually past into free space. This could be verified if the temperature recorded was -459°. However, the trouble is that the rocket could go on for a thousand miles higher and still the temperature would remain just exactly the same, viz. -459°.

Dr. Goddard conceived the idea to make the rocket big enough so that it would actually propel itself on to the dark side of the moon and there explode a magnesium flash charge; the proof of its landing upon the moon would be conclusive if our astronomers actually saw the flash upon the dark side of the moon.

Theoretically the scheme of firing a rocket to the moon is feasible; practically, we are much afraid it is not. We do not deny the possibility of building an enormous gun à la Jules Verne and fire a projectile which could reach the moon. It would only be a consideration of making the gun large enough and using enough high explosive. If the gun were trained at the correct point in the heavens, there is little doubt that such a missile would, after some hours flight, alight on the moon. But in the case of a rocket this becomes a vastly different problem.

In the first place, it should be borne in mind that at the time when a rocket or even a shell is fired, it is of course not fired at the moon at all. The reason is that it takes many hours or even days for the projectile to land upon our satellite. For that reason when we fire the gun or the rocket, it becomes evident that it is fired direct into space with no moon anywhere in sight. In other words, the gun is trained on a certain point in space, accurately calculated by astronomers, the calculation being such that we will know the length of time it will take the projectile to traverse the space between the earth and the moon. The latter during this period will have moved to the point where it will intercept the flight of the projectile. As to the Goddard Rocket, it has been calculated that it would take about 100 hours to traverse this space of 220,000 miles.

Granted that we had fired the Rocket on a very calm day when there was no breath of air stirring, so as not to deviate the path of the rocket even an inch (and this condition alone is almost impossible), we now come to the next consideration. A rocket which propels itself in a vacuum will not move in an absolute straight line. The reason is that the explosions acting upon the body of the rocket will not project the rocket exactly along its axis.

It should be remembered that it has to traverse 220,000 miles to hit an object 2,164 miles in diameter. Consequently, it can be readily seen that a deflection of a small fraction of an inch to either side at the start would prevent the rocket from making a successful landing upon the moon.

Even if meteorites never actually hit the rocket, many, however, would certainly come near enough to the rocket to draw it slightly out of its path, due to gravitational attraction.

If a rocket is ever used, it would be necessary to have it carry with it some human beings, who could correct these influences along the way.

                                                                                                       H. GERNSBACK.

Of course, it's easy to look askance at a couple of odd ideas, such as that meteorites exist in such bulk between the Earth and the Moon that they would actually have a measurable gravitational influence, but Gernsback did seem to have a grip on the technological hurdles in the way of space travel.

Another thing that I decided not to include in the pdf is the issue's piece of scientific fiction, "Whispering Ether," by Charles S. Wolfe. That's because (and you're probably ahead of me) it's this week's Sunday Scientifiction.

(Click on the image of the cover to read the pdf in your web browser. Download and share the intact file all you like; that's what it's there for.)

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