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Medium Cool » Blog Archive » The Scientific Adventures of Baron Mnchausen

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: grant wythoff | Filed under: science fiction | Tags: gadgetry, gernsback, mars, narrative, SF | 2 Comments »

Four years after publishing Ralph 124C 41+ in the pages of his pop technology magazine Modern Electrics, Hugo Gernsback published a second, far less studied work in his second imprint, The Electrical Experimenter. This novel, The Scientific Adventures of Baron Mnchausen, ran from May 1915 to February 1917.

As a work of fiction, the novel is insufferable. It reads as a series of lectures on physics, chemistry, and astronomy, all situated within a stock fantastic setting and strung together with the thinnest of narrative expositions. But because this is a budding work of “scientifiction,” and beholden to the Gernsbackian tenets of scientific rationality, the narrative has to explain exactly how these lectures are transmitted from locations such as the Moon or Mars.

And here’s where things get interesting. Mnchausen, before leaving for Mars, sets up a relay station on the Moon capable of receiving his long distance audio transmissions and amplifying them for reception by the novel’s narrator, I.M. Alier, on Earth. Gernsback selects the obscure recording device known as the telegraphone, patented by Valdemar Poulsen in 1898, to be the substrate on which Mnchausen’s transmissions are recorded for rebroadcast in the form of serial fiction.

The telegraphone was the first device to demonstrate the principle of magnetic recording, in this case on a spool of tightly wound wire that rotated past a recording head. The affordances of this gadget its recording capacity, its read/write ability determine the pulse of the novel. Each monthly installment begins with a “shrill, high-pitched note” or a “piercing screech in my ‘phones” and ends with “an abrupt, sharp click” or a “snapping noise and a rhythmic low sizzling.” Thinking like a magazine editor, the Baron keeps a close watch over the length of his transmission and cuts it off before it runs over his quota.

But I note by my chronometer that the time is up and in a few seconds the telegraphone wire on my radiotomatic on the moon will be to full capacity. So I must cut off short. (137)

Yes, this work is clunky as a piece of fiction. But Gernsback’s “gadget stories” use narrative (or something like it) to systematically work through the affordances of various devices, real and imagined.

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