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

Frequency 2: Large among the critics

On 4 June 1937, Wireless World carried a review of ‘An Efficient Three-Waveband Superheterodyne Chassis’ made by London manufacturer McCarthy. The review was moderately positive, citing ‘an efficient performance…provided without unnecessary frills’ (p 534). The wireless snob, perhaps, would not be satisfied; a final piece of faint praise was delivered in the judgement that ‘the set will look well in any cabinet which the purchaser may choose for it’. Archibald Low sneered similarly in 1924: ‘do not forget we must have our cabinet with a fern upon it…if we are to be successful. Business always leads science, as we know’ (p 18). Aesthetic value was not something that the robustly masculine Wireless World generally highlighted; here, then, was a set for the consumer, the family: a room in which women sat.

McCarthy was a regular advertiser in the paper during this period (indeed, perhaps the most regular in the period 1936–8) and two weeks later (18 June 1937, p 589; Figure 3) the firm capitalised on its review by beginning a run of advertisements for the model. The second most expensive in their range (£10 17s 6d, very roughly £500 in today’s money), it was pitched in exactly Large’s phrase: the ‘NEW 7-VALVE ALL-WAVE SUPERHET’. ‘Superhet’ was a term much bandied about in advertisements, though it is not clear that ordinary consumers had any idea what it meant. In long form (super heterodyne) it spoke of science; as a portmanteau term, of the even more modernist science fiction. Occasionally it was rendered as ‘supersonic heterodyne’ (Wireless World, 17 January 1936, p 63), a term that was even more impressive but made little sense since the different (hetero) frequencies that are combined are not in the auditory (sonic) range. A reader of Wireless World lamented its verbal allure: ‘My deep regret is that the public permitted themselves to be swept off their feet with the term “superhet”’ (28 May 1937, p 525).

Figure 3

Newspaper advertisement for a 7 valve all wave superhet radio receiver

Advertisement from Wireless World, 18 June 1937, p 589

Dawn in Andromeda is packed with questions of naming. The first invention of the colonists is, in fact, the name – names being amongst the chaff that God has stripped away from them in their transition from Earth. The names that they choose are portmanteau terms (like ‘superhet’, ‘fanmag’ or ‘scientifiction’), drawn from the spines of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which the scientist remembers from his days on Earth. He bestows their names from these memories (Sars Sorc, Mary Mus, and so on), an uncomfortable indication that he will not be able to shake free of earthly knowledge; for all its failings, he remains in thrall to book learning.

Indeed, the scientist’s own name speaks of this tendency:

The young scientist, who had thought of these names, smiled upon his work and found it good. He chose ‘Sord Text’ for himself, as he saw that he was going to be the first honorary scribe and registrar of the new community, and as the other names in his selection were claimed one by one, by those they suited best, he ticked them off on his stone (Large, 1956, pp 16–17).

Sord Text’s name balances the violence of science – s(w)ord – with the necessity of textual inscription to make it ‘real’. Having power over words is essential to him, as we see from his unnecessary marking of names upon the stone (as though one person would not notice if another were given the same name). Sord Text later argues with his partner Annu Balt over how (that is, by whom) her botanical collection should be named (pp 138–9). Ironically, he is being for once insufficiently scientific about the matter. Her insistence on the precise labelling of variants and hybrids is the key to success in her genetic experiments; his casual, anecdotal naming threatens to ruin it all.

The number of valves in Large’s set – seven – is also significant. It is a magical number, of course; and in general, a higher number sounded more impressive (much like the number of cylinders in a car engine). In technical terms, the function of multiple valves was unclear to the casual consumer. Perhaps seven almost sounded too good for some consumers to aspire to; McCarthy continued to focus on marketing its slightly cheaper ‘Super 6’ in the months after the 7-valve model was made. Valves wore out after a few years, and some consumers were cautious of the replacement cost entailed by having a large number. Like the introduction of the superhet, increasing the number of valves increased the obsolescence of sets, and only the enthusiast was able to replace them.

The technical obscurantism implied by the seven valves – and other aspects of the set – comes in for criticism in Dawn in Andromeda. The first mention of the colonists’ goal, the wireless, is amidst mystification and drunkenness. It comes after members of the party have been dancing round the fire in the cave, casting their shadows upon the walls. Afterwards, they are exhausted and Jere Libe offers to entertain them by drawing something for them on the wall. For the subject of Andromeda’s first, primitive cave art she chooses not a beast or a human or even a spear, but – bathetically – a wireless set (p 77). The setting of the scene, with its invocation of Plato’s ignorant cave-dwellers, makes the action ominous. The image of the wireless, it implies, is far from the reality. A sort of shrine or ‘altar’ is then set up in the cave, beside the stove and under the image of the wireless ‘that no one had dared rub out’ (p 83). Here, Sord and Plan leave their ‘ostracon, covered with fine scratched lines and strange symbols’ (p 83). The science follows after the image; their inscription of a circuit diagram, too, has elements of magic and mystery.

Sord Text’s constant temptation to put science in writing – that is, to remove it from the realm of practical know-how – is frequently mocked by Jere. Jere is at once the most iconoclastic and yet spiritually-inclined member of the group. She is often one step ahead of the men in their ‘discoveries’, through undisclosed methods. Jere, more than anyone else, sees how science shades into religion, even though Sord and the others claim to despise it. She teaches the children her particular version of animism, stating that ‘she was liberating [them from the dogmas and doctrines of an earthic religion called “Science”’ (p 158). On other occasions, her religious ceremonies turn out to have good purpose, such as her rituals for sexual relationships which actually prevent accidental in-breeding in later generations. And, indeed, a turn towards religion is necessary before the all-wave, seven-valve superhet can be constructed. This turn occurs in the mind of Neon, a prodigious member of the second generation. It is his mystical leanings which inspire his research, enabling the eventual construction of the set:

For Neon a new link between the world of thought and the world of the senses was established [by the wireless]. He knew now that he lived in a conceptual universe whose basic stuff was thought (p 212).

His non-material world, inspired by radio, is reminiscent of the ontologies dreamed by Oliver Lodge, and later science fiction. Neon’s enthusiasm for the principles of radio allows him to be persuaded to go on the ill-fated voyage of the Expedient, the colonists’ equivalent of the early modern voyages of discovery, and the occasion for the emergence of treachery amongst their hitherto utopian organisation. He is bribed by being told that he can be the wireless operator. ‘It was unfortunate’, as Large dryly puts it, that the expedition’s wireless was only a receiver. The party’s fatal communicational isolation from base camp is the source of disaster. All they can do is receive bland news from home, of babies born and potatoes harvested. For some wireless enthusiasts of the 1930s, this was the curse of the superhet. Its complexity in comparison to the ‘straight set’ had put off home constructors and experimenters (25 June 1937, p 615). Even as it improved reception, the superhet made wireless users ever more passive.

Eventually, the receiving set of the Expedient is smashed. Back at base, Jere guesses why: the frustration that it must have caused:

I know what it is to live with a wireless set that will receive but not transmit. I have come from a world that was full of one-way sets. It was always ‘their’ news, ‘their’ parlour games, ‘their’ smug chatter, ‘their’ ethics and ‘their’ morality. Always ‘their’ idea of what was good for me. They flaunted their science and their marvellous technology, but they couldn’t fit our sets with so much as a button that we could press when we liked a programme, or refrain from pressing when we didn’t (p 223).

A deeper frustration concerning wireless, and epitomised by the all-wave superhet, then, had to do with the socio-technical system that contained it. The multiplicity of stations available to owners of a 1930s all-wave set sat uncomfortably with the paucity of stations available from the BBC. Salt was rubbed in the wound by the continued obligation to pay the corporation’s licence fee. Wireless World carried frequent complaints in this regard from its columnists (notably ‘Free Grid’) and its readers (see, for example, 26 February 1937, p 196). A good number of historians have recounted the BBC’s complicated relationship with its listeners’ opinions (Briggs, 1965; Crisell, 2005; Anthony, 2012). Most pithily, Robert Silvery, former employee of the department of Audience Research described its name as ‘…an elaborate façade to foster the delusion that the BBC took cognisance of its public’ (Silvery, 2016, p 1). Users were passive not only as (non-) constructors, but also as listeners.

Dawn in Andromeda makes several jibes about the BBC. A tediously prating character ‘sounds like the third programme’ (p 66). Jere mimics the broadcaster, ‘bitterly exact’:

She was Dr Pangloss and Queen Victoria and Mrs Grundy all in one. She was one of ‘them’ administering cultural cod-liver-oil-and-malt for the good of ‘their’ world (p 165).

As far back as 1924, Archibald Low had perceived the trend towards the voice of ‘them’, not ‘us’ on the wireless, placing the onus upon administrators of the technical system to make sure that it could respond to any and all frequencies of speech:

It has been said that, at present, those in authority find it necessary to choose special voices for the wireless broadcast-delivering. What an idea! The public want to hear everybody. […] They do not want a perfect voice, they want a perfect personality, and it is rather the wireless that must be altered to take any reception than the human voice whose very characteristics delight us (pp 38–9).

Large, like many of his readers in fandom, was particularly critical of the patriotic slant of the BBC in the lead up to the Second World War (c.f. Nicholas, 1996; Dinsman, 2015). In an article for the New English Weekly he mused on the results of an experiment in which he replaced all the patriotic words he heard (such as ‘Mother Country’ or ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’) with ‘blab’. But he found that simply getting rid of his set was more effective:

I have applied my technique [‘blab’] with outstanding success to BBC talk and ‘news’. By selling my wireless set I have not only raised the level of intellectual honesty and purity of speech in my home, but I have got a few pounds in cash, and shall save ten shillings a year on the licence (Large, 1938b, p 60).

However, this seems to be an example of where the writerly self diverges from the bodily variety; a manuscript of 1939 indicates that he still possessed a wireless (p 70).

By the time Dawn in Andromeda was published and read, the Cold War was underway. Literature of this era of course featured apocalypse, alien invasion, espionage, ideology and betrayal (see Hammond, 2013), and as Haynes has memorably sketched (pp 167–294) was also a period in which professional ‘big’ science came under suspicion. Beyond this, or perhaps as a part of it, some writing examined public credulity as a fault analogous, or complementary, to the destructive hubris of science. Bred in wartime (or the classroom), unthinking discipline was liable to break down disastrously in conditions of freedom, liberating dangerous impulses that had previously been kept in check. Lord of the Flies (1954) is a foundational text of this type, and in its basic plotting – a hopeful new community gone wrong – it has a great deal in common with Dawn in Andromeda. Golding’s novel was adapted for radio by a talented dramatist named Giles Cooper, who amongst his many plays for the BBC also wrote Mathry Beacon (Cooper, 1966, pp 14–82). This play, often regarded as Cooper’s greatest, was first broadcast in 1956 and like Large’s novel of that year also features an isolated community in hopeless thrall to a communications-technological idol. The ‘Watling Deflector’, to which Cooper’s Second World War characters have been assigned as guards, is some sort of radar-related device. Its nonsensical nature is never scrutinised by them, thanks to the culture of unquestioning military obedience. Indeed, the Deflector metaphorises a propagandistic wartime discipline – military and domestic – that obviates the inconvenience of thinking for oneself. ‘If this old Deflector didn’t go on making that noise I don’t know where we’d be’ (p 63). Under the constant hum of the device, the guards develop a sort of sexual commune that would be ‘a Sunday Paper Nasty’ in the quiet scrutiny of civilisation, and fall back into farming ways that are presumably far from their usual urban existence. The revelation that the war is, in fact, long over, and that they have been posted in vain, does not bring about a happy ending – for when the Deflector stops they no longer know what to do.

Large’s patriotic ‘blab’ was intermingled with ‘blab’ of the religious kind, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ mixed in amongst the wartime admonitions (p 70). A parson is included amongst the people transported to Andromeda, but is ill-fitted to its exigencies and dies almost immediately (and comically). Before he goes, however, he reveals himself – black crime – as the kind of person likely to be on the wireless. ‘He spoke as though keeping his eye on the clock in a broadcasting studio’ (p 20), that is, timing his rhetoric and emotion to exploit the constraints of the broadcast medium.

Science was not exempt from the lure of priesthood. Sord, when he ‘smiled upon his work [of naming] and found it good’, reveals his pretensions to be God-like (Genesis 1:31). The connection of naming and God’s power over creation (devolved to Adam) is a well-established theme in European science and literature (Bennett and Mandelbrote, 1998), but needless to say, for Large this is not a happy state of affairs (see Large, 1938c, pp 52–54). And yet Large, as narrator, withdrew in this novel from the playful interleaving of author, narrator and protagonist that marked his first two novels and the writings of the fans. He has become, in effect, the God figure who sets the characters up on their quest. Large could not beat the BBC, so he retreated to a narrative form where he could join them.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170802/003