Go back to article: ‘Not one voice speaking to many’: E C Large, wireless, and science fiction fans in the mid-twentieth century

Frequency 1: Large amongst the fans

During the 1930s a new, self-aware group emerged in Britain: science fiction fandom (Hansen, 2016; Sleigh, 2016). They were young men, even teenagers, based in industrial parts of Britain, notably Leeds, Liverpool and the Midlands. Galvanised by the imported American pulps, they gathered together to discuss science fiction, and to publish their thoughts upon it and sundry related matters. These young men, moderately educated, and from a variety of class backgrounds, created eddies in the historical mainstream of twentieth-century scientific media. Their magazines (‘fanmags’) were produced domestically or on the sly at work; with their hand-cranked duplicators they attempted to participate in the overlapping worlds of science and the published word.

There is, alas, no evidence of Large ever having engaged on a personal level with the science fiction fans; he did not, so far as anyone knows, attend the earliest science fiction conventions of the late 1930s. However, his name was noted amongst the fans. His first novel in particular (Sugar in the Air, 1937) was known by them for its excellence. Douglas F Mayer’s editorial in Tomorrow (1937, p 3) gave thanks for 1937 as an annus mirabilis of science fiction, with Large’s novel, alongside H G Wells’ Star Begotten and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker ‘a gift from the gods’. Sugar in the Air was, apparently, the nation’s second-best seller for one week, just behind Wells (Hanson, 1937, p 13). Serious-minded readers connected Sugar in the Air, a cautionary tale treating the brutal triumph of commerce over the idealism of the scientist, with real-world attempts by Ritchie Calder and others to integrate science into the solution of social problems (Anon, 1938, p 12).

Large’s success with the fans was due in large part to his interleaving of the real world and fiction, of science and text, in a way that spoke powerfully to their ambitions. For the fans, participation in science was conducted through the written word. Frederik Pohl (2013) has captured the fannish will to publish in his recollections:

My…friend…and I had long before decided that that year [1938], or one nearby, would be the time when both he and I cast off our fannish plumage and revealed ourselves as SF pros assoluto [sic]. ‘Writer’ had a lilting beauty as descriptor of our futures. ‘Editor’ conveyed…a certain majesty. ‘Publisher’ was more majestic still… (Pohl, 2013, p 4).

Fans were able to play at all these roles in the production of their home-made magazines (Sleigh, 2016), and indeed discussion of their publishing activities often came to dominate in those magazines over and above their notional subject matter, science fiction. Large’s writing life gave the fans, perhaps, grounds for hope, since Sugar in the Air drew on his life as a bona fide research chemist. The fan Denny Jacques attempted something similar, using his knowledge of organic chemistry to create his earnest three-part series ‘Coal-Tar Cosmos’ for readers of the fanmag Novae Terrae.[2]

Made redundant by the failure of the chemical factory at which he worked (Large, 1973, p 2), and wishing to try his luck at professional writing, Large created a fictional double, C R Pry, a scientist who wishes to be a writer. Sugar in the Air relates, as a corollary to Pry’s/Large’s failure as a scientist, the means by which he succeeds as a writer. The follow-up was even more complex in its authoriality (on authoriality see Sleigh, 2010). As Stuart Bailey puts it, Asleep in the Afternoon (Large, 1938a) is a ‘meta-sequel’ that picks up where the first novel left off; it ‘proceeds to continue, duplicate and mirror it all at once’ (Bailey, 2008, p 87). It follows Pry’s subsequent efforts to write a novel, Asleep in the Afternoon, whose substance is the substance of Large’s own novel, Asleep in the Afternoon. Large’s first two novels thus formed their own reality in just the way the fans, albeit with less finesse, dreamed of doing: ‘abstract form of text-as-thought and physical form of book-as-object’ (Bailey, 2008, p 87). Towards the end of his life, Large had recomposed his autobiography as being the path of a novelist trying his luck with science: to ‘show the high and mighty Professors of Plant Pathology that I, an insignificant novelist, could…tell the whole history of plant pathology a great deal better than could they themselves’ (pp 78–9).

As Robin Kinross observes, in Large’s writing ‘we feel the writer is watching himself write’ (Bailey and Kinross, 2008, p 10).[3] This is a perfect description of the fans’ writing also, albeit in less skilful form. Denny Jacques concluded his first essay on the ‘Coal-Tar Cosmos’ with his own reflections on organic chemistry as a source of sweetness: ‘Another interesting product is saccharin... It is termed the “sweetest thing on earth” (cf. the beautiful girl in many science fiction stories).’ With sophomoric clumsiness, he concluded: ‘On this note of levity the present article must end’ (Jacques, 1936, p 6). As for Large’s writing, so for his reading: the world and the text were interleaved. Large described his own mode of reading (no doubt mischievously) as one of ignoring the argument, but rather an exercise in trying to reconstruct the author as a character in his mind (Large, 1938b). With such complexities afoot, it is no surprise that in Large’s novels fans found a particularly talented creation of the science/text hall of mirrors that they commonly inhabited (Sleigh, 2016).

As Peter Bowler has shown (2009), the world of science fiction overlapped considerably with that of wireless enthusiasm (see Figure 1). Arthur C Clarke (1996), photographed as a child with his home-made set, is a particularly well-known example. Leonard Kippin, co-founder of the first fan club, was a radio buff, and Douglas Mayer’s precociously-named Institute of Scientific Research in Leeds incorporated two pre-existing radio clubs. There was, moreover, an overlap between magazines treating radio-related topics and those dealing in both non-fictional futurism and scientifiction. The publisher Hugo Gernsback was in one way or another involved with a dozen separate radio magazines, along with other science and mechanics titles. Archibald Low, a contributor to science fiction fanmags and first president of the British Science Fiction Association, was emblematic of the crossover in Britain. His own publications catered to young, often male, science fans, while his industrial research covered topics in sound and wireless communication and control. Home-made sets were on the decline by the 1930s, but the lure of the crystal still drew a good number of children – mostly boys – into the world of science and communication. (Wireless World ran occasional features on the construction of crystal sets into the 1930s.) Had Dawn in Andromeda been written at the same time as Large’s first two novels, that is, the late 1930s, his selection of the wireless set as acme of scientific civilisation would have been a fond, witty and plausible choice for his fans.

Figure 1

Painted illustration of a sleeping woman next to an audio device with the caption the Hypnotone puts you to sleep

Everyday Science and Mechanics was an example of a wireless-orientated magazine published by science fiction entrepreneur Hugo Gernsback, examplifying a crossover in the two markets. The cover invention for this issue, ‘the Hypnotone’, invokes, perhaps accidently, Large’s novel Asleep in the Afternoon.

More specifically than this, the superhet was an appropriate choice too. Amongst fans and consumers, the superheterodyne, or superhet, wireless receiver set had come to dominate by the 1930s. As radio stations increased in number, crowding the bandwidth, the superhet provided one way to tune in accurately to a station occupying a small part of the spectrum. It did so by imposing an intermediate frequency (IF) upon the carrier signal (RF), thus creating an emergent, third wave, whose amplitude modulations could be translated by the receiver into sound. Historian Keith Geddes puts it beautifully: ‘In effect, the waveband is shifted across the receiver, rather than vice versa’ (1991, p 103). The story is of course more complicated; as Bussey describes (1990, pp 18–19), the first superhets (see Figure 2) actually caused problems in precisely the technical aspects that retrospective histories claimed they solved. However, in the 1930s a second generation of superhet became the standard basis of pre-assembled wireless sets, enabling selective and accurate tuning in a crowded spectrum.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of a heterodyne radio receiver from 1924

Western Electric 7-valve ‘superhet’ heterodyne radio receiver, 1924. This example of a superhet comes from the earlier, less successful generation than that which was incorporated into sets of the 1930s.

For readers of Wireless World, ease of tuning to multiple stations via the superhet was a big draw. The journal published monthly lists of the frequencies of European stations, and there was frequent discussion of what could be heard on them. The ‘all-wave’ aspect of a set referred to its ability to pick up short wave signals in addition to the medium waves that conducted signals from Europe. Again, Wireless World obliged with the list of stations – on this frequency, worldwide – that could be found across the dial. The magazine explained the doubling of membership in the Radio Society of Great Britain between 1931 and 1937 as being due, largely, to an increasing interest in short wave reception (5 February 1937, p 124). For a period, all-wave wireless seemed to be opening up the world.

Wireless, like writing and publishing, was a way to participate in science. For one thing, readers of Wireless World were quick to write in with their opinions about policy, regulation and planning of wireless transmission. Judging by the letters pages, its regular columnists did a good job of voicing many of the hopes and frustrations of readers, too. Moreover, wireless technology provided a forum in which enthusiasts could experiment on principles that blurred the boundary between technical and fundamental:

In well-equipped laboratories experimenting is dignified with the title of RESEARCH (with a capital ‘R’); in the home it is generally called ‘tinkering about in the workshop’. Sooner or later we all come to it. The home-constructor of The Wireless World sets tries a valve or component different from that given in the published design…and at the moment that a written note or record of a result is made, such ‘tinkering’ is entitled to the status of Experimenting, no less than the work in the research laboratories… (Wireless World, 4 June 1937, p 542).

In the fan magazines, tinkering was generally restricted to theoretical calculations about space travel; in wireless, it could be done for real. It is exactly this kind of tinkering that Large uses to reconstruct the history of science in Dawn in Andromeda. Discoveries are entirely practical, and the emphasis is always on the materiality and sheer hard graft of the process. The methods by which the group tries to make are an early example in the book, described with careful detail (pp 21–33). Large had made his family try them out too, tinkering for themselves so that he could write about them with real know-how (Large’s daughter: personal communication). Here, Large’s characters calculate how to obtain sufficient friction to make fire:

‘The mechanical equivalent of heat, on earth,’ said Plan Raym, ‘used to be 778 foot-pounds per British Thermal Unit […] That means the amount of work I’d have to do to haul…you up to the top of these cliffs…would be just about enough to raise one ounce of wood to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, at which temperature it might ignite’ (p 21).

Plan is forced to concede that the absence of something as simple as rope makes this impossible. Eventually, the colonists construct an ingenious ‘fire-making machine’, ‘primitive’ but also ‘very powerful’, described in impressive and convincing detail. In the end, however, the machine counts for nothing; it is the sheer doggedness of the blacksmith, Sars, using a simple stick in his hands, that wins out:

It wasn’t the special stick that made the fire. And it wasn’t science. Science would only come lumbering along afterwards, explaining things. It was faith that made the fire. It was Sars’ dumb faith in himself. It had never once occurred to Sars that he, a blacksmith, could not make a fire. So he had kept on, just that little bit longer, after any of the others would have tired (p 33).

The description of science ‘lumbering along afterwards’ is shortly proved correct, with Sord, the party’s scientist, explaining – almost explaining away – the achievement of the bloody-palmed Sars by reference to the special properties of the wood that he used (p 33). Large’s mission, to recreate the history of science through the hard work of the hand and the tinkering mind-set of the engineer, extends through the refinement of iron, the search for rare earth metals, and many more feats in the novel. In respect of its scale it recalls Wells’ various excursions into the ‘outline’ of history, except that Large’s account is by no means as positivist as Wells’. ‘History is no exception amongst the sciences…the clustering multitude of details dissolves into general laws’, writes Wells (1921, p vi), but nothing could be further from Large’s vision. Large’s reader must be impressed not by general laws but by a realisation of the sheer materiality that enables the transmission and reception of radio waves: the metals, the vacuums, the glassware – not to mention such basics as measurement of time and space.[4] The wireless circuit diagram, scratched out in early days ‘before they forgot’ (p 83), is really the least of it. A discussion between the men of the party examines the theme. Scientist Sord remarks: ‘Do you realize that if we were to forget to write down the binomial theorem it would be lost for ever?’ (p 90; ibid for remainder of paragraph). The remark smacks of hubris, and is faintly ridiculous, uttered as it is beside a campfire and the remains of a roasted pig. Gun, the doctor, proposes an alternative method: ‘…don’t bother about that [i.e. writing it down]. It’s much easier to do it biologically.’ Prompted to explain, he advances the notion of continuing what they have begun: ‘begetting a lot of children as quickly as possible, and leaving it for them to pick up and carry forward.’ In other words, it is a question of training up the next generation. Verbs – actions – predominate: beget, leave, pick, carry. His euphemised pity for the next generation – ‘poor little baskets’ – repeats the theme; the emphasis is not on the abstracted knowledge that must be carried, but on the physical acts of carrying – the ‘doing’ approach of the engineer.

In this scene, the conversation then turns to the wireless as exemplar. Sord asks the doctor whether he ever made a wireless set in his previous life on Earth, indicating that he himself did: ‘It was pretty interesting: the making and the theory of it’ (p 90; ibid for remainder of paragraph). Somewhat to Sord’s surprise, Gun says that he did too, even bettering him by having constructed ‘a sort of time-base for a television tube’ (as mid-1930s readers of Wireless World might have done). The wireless is the shared point of origin for their subsequent development: the one as a scientist, the other as a doctor. But Gun puts the wireless firmly in its place as a juvenile activity; his enthusiasm came ‘just after the stage when I wanted to be an engine-driver’.[5] Finding ‘there was nothing much in it – just some valves and a few tuned circuits’, his attentions turned to biology. Indicating the gnats dancing around the fire, Gun comments: ‘On one sip of plant-sap it can buzz for hours. You make me an engine like that, and I’ll begin to admire your science….’ Here again is a sort of theory – almost Spencerian – about the internalisation and carriage of knowledge in humans qua biological agents.

Notwithstanding this final step from wireless to biology, a clear picture of science emerges in Dawn in Andromeda. It is the kind of science that fans of the 1930s endorsed: practical, tinkering, collaborative, entrepreneurial. It was the science of the wireless: one science in which fans and amateurs could plausibly participate.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170802/002