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The World Set Free by H.G. Wells [Herbert George Wells]

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The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
Scanned by Charles Keller with OmniPage Professional OCR software







THE WORLD SET FREE was written in 1913 and published early in
1914, and it is the latest of a series of three fantasias of
possibility, stories which all turn on the possible developments
in the future of some contemporary force or group of forces. The
World Set Free was written under the immediate shadow of the
Great War. Every intelligent person in the world felt that
disaster was impending and knew no way of averting it, but few of
us realised in the earlier half of 1914 how near the crash was to
us. The reader will be amused to find that here it is put off
until the year 1956. He may naturally want to know the reason
for what will seem now a quite extraordinary delay. As a
prophet, the author must confess he has always been inclined to
be rather a slow prophet. The war aeroplane in the world of
reality, for example, beat the forecast in Anticipations by about
twenty years or so. I suppose a desire not to shock the sceptical
reader's sense of use and wont and perhaps a less creditable
disposition to hedge, have something to do with this dating
forward of one's main events, but in the particular case of The
World Set Free there was, I think, another motive in holding the
Great War back, and that was to allow the chemist to get well
forward with his discovery of the release of atomic energy.
1956--or for that matter 2056--may be none too late for that
crowning revolution in human potentialities. And apart from this
procrastination of over forty years, the guess at the opening
phase of the war was fairly lucky; the forecast of an alliance of
the Central Empires, the opening campaign through the
Netherlands, and the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force
were all justified before the book had been published six months.
And the opening section of Chapter the Second remains now, after
the reality has happened, a fairly adequate diagnosis of the
essentials of the matter. One happy hit (in Chapter the Second,
Section 2), on which the writer may congratulate himself, is the
forecast that under modern conditions it would be quite
impossible for any great general to emerge to supremacy and
concentrate the enthusiasm of the armies of either side. There
could be no Alexanders or Napoleons. And we soon heard the
scientific corps muttering, 'These old fools,' exactly as it is
here foretold.

These, however, are small details, and the misses in the story
far outnumber the hits. It is the main thesis which is still of
interest now; the thesis that because of the development of
scientific knowledge, separate sovereign states and separate
sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to
attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon
disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.
The remaining interest of this book now is the sustained validity
of this thesis and the discussion of the possible ending of war
on the earth. I have supposed a sort of epidemic of sanity to
break out among the rulers of states and the leaders of mankind.
I have represented the native common sense of the French mind and
of the English mind--for manifestly King Egbert is meant to be
'God's Englishman'--leading mankind towards a bold and resolute
effort of salvage and reconstruction. Instead of which, as the
school book footnotes say, compare to-day's newspaper. Instead
of a frank and honourable gathering of leading men, Englishman
meeting German and Frenchman Russian, brothers in their offences
and in their disaster, upon the hills of Brissago, beheld in
Geneva at the other end of Switzerland a poor little League of
(Allied) Nations (excluding the United States, Russia, and most
of the 'subject peoples' of the world), meeting obscurely amidst
a world-wide disregard to make impotent gestures at the leading
problems of the debacle. Either the disaster has not been vast
enough yet or it has not been swift enough to inflict the
necessary moral shock and achieve the necessary moral revulsion.
Just as the world of 1913 was used to an increasing prosperity
and thought that increase would go on for ever, so now it would
seem the world is growing accustomed to a steady glide towards
social disintegration, and thinks that that too can go on
continually and never come to a final bump. So soon do use and
wont establish themselves, and the most flaming and thunderous of
lessons pale into disregard.

The question whether a Leblanc is still possible, the question
whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of
creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to
destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world. It is
clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that
there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees
few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness
of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs
demands. The inertia of dead ideas and old institutions carries
us on towards the rapids. Only in one direction is there any
plain recognition of the idea of a human commonweal as something
overriding any national and patriotic consideration, and that is
in the working class movement throughout the world. And labour
internationalism is closely bound up with conceptions of a
profound social revolution. If world peace is to be attained
through labour internationalism, it will have to be attained at
the price of the completest social and economic reconstruction
and by passing through a phase of revolution that will certainly
be violent, that may be very bloody, which may be prolonged
through a long period, and may in the end fail to achieve
anything but social destruction. Nevertheless, the fact remains
that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that
any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far
appeared. The dream of The World Set Free, a dream of highly
educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily
setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world, has thus
far remained a dream.


DUNMOW, 1921.










Section I

THE history of mankind is the history of the attainment of
external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal. From
the outset of his terrestrial career we find him supplementing
the natural strength and bodily weapons of a beast by the heat of
burning and the rough implement of stone. So he passed beyond
the ape. From that he expands. Presently he added to himself the
power of the horse and the ox, he borrowed the carrying strength
of water and the driving force of the wind, he quickened his fire
by blowing, and his simple tools, pointed first with copper and
then with iron, increased and varied and became more elaborate
and efficient. He sheltered his heat in houses and made his way
easier by paths and roads. He complicated his social
relationships and increased his efficiency by the division of
labour. He began to store up knowledge. Contrivance followed
contrivance, each making it possible for a man to do more.
Always down the lengthening record, save for a set-back ever and
again, he is doing more.... A quarter of a million years ago the
utmost man was a savage, a being scarcely articulate, sheltering
in holes in the rocks, armed with a rough-hewn flint or a
fire-pointed stick, naked, living in small family groups, killed
by some younger man so soon as his first virile activity
declined. Over most of the great wildernesses of earth you would
have sought him in vain; only in a few temperate and sub-tropical
river valleys would you have found the squatting lairs of his
little herds, a male, a few females, a child or so.

He knew no future then, no kind of life except the life he led.
He fled the cave-bear over the rocks full of iron ore and the
promise of sword and spear; he froze to death upon a ledge of
coal; he drank water muddy with the clay that would one day make
cups of porcelain; he chewed the ear of wild wheat he had plucked
and gazed with a dim speculation in his eyes at the birds that
soared beyond his reach. Or suddenly he became aware of the scent
of another male and rose up roaring, his roars the formless
precursors of moral admonitions. For he was a great
individualist, that original, he suffered none other than

So through the long generations, this heavy precursor, this
ancestor of all of us, fought and bred and perished, changing
almost imperceptibly.

Yet he changed. That keen chisel of necessity which sharpened
the tiger's claw age by age and fined down the clumsy Orchippus
to the swift grace of the horse, was at work upon him--is at work
upon him still. The clumsier and more stupidly fierce among him
were killed soonest and oftenest; the finer hand, the quicker
eye, the bigger brain, the better balanced body prevailed; age by
age, the implements were a little better made, the man a little
more delicately adjusted to his possibilities. He became more
social; his herd grew larger; no longer did each man kill or
drive out his growing sons; a system of taboos made them
tolerable to him, and they revered him alive and soon even after
he was dead, and were his allies against the beasts and the rest
of mankind. (But they were forbidden to touch the women of the
tribe, they had to go out and capture women for themselves, and
each son fled from his stepmother and hid from her lest the anger
of the Old Man should be roused. All the world over, even to this
day, these ancient inevitable taboos can be traced.) And now
instead of caves came huts and hovels, and the fire was better
tended and there were wrappings and garments; and so aided, the
creature spread into colder climates, carrying food with him,
storing food--until sometimes the neglected grass-seed sprouted
again and gave a first hint of agriculture.

And already there were the beginnings of leisure and thought.

Man began to think. There were times when he was fed, when his
lusts and his fears were all appeased, when the sun shone upon
the squatting-place and dim stirrings of speculation lit his
eyes. He scratched upon a bone and found resemblance and pursued
it and began pictorial art, moulded the soft, warm clay of the
river brink between his fingers, and found a pleasure in its
patternings and repetitions, shaped it into the form of vessels,
and found that it would hold water. He watched the streaming
river, and wondered from what bountiful breast this incessant
water came; he blinked at the sun and dreamt that perhaps he
might snare it and spear it as it went down to its resting-place
amidst the distant hills. Then he was roused to convey to his
brother that once indeed he had done so--at least that some one
had done so--he mixed that perhaps with another dream almost as
daring, that one day a mammoth had been beset; and therewith
began fiction--pointing a way to achievement--and the august
prophetic procession of tales.

For scores and hundreds of centuries, for myriads of generations
that life of our fathers went on. From the beginning to the
ripening of that phase of human life, from the first clumsy
eolith of rudely chipped flint to the first implements of
polished stone, was two or three thousand centuries, ten or
fifteen thousand generations. So slowly, by human standards, did
humanity gather itself together out of the dim intimations of the
beast. And that first glimmering of speculation, that first
story of achievement, that story-teller bright-eyed and flushed
under his matted hair, gesticulating to his gaping, incredulous
listener, gripping his wrist to keep him attentive, was the most
marvellous beginning this world has ever seen. It doomed the
mammoths, and it began the setting of that snare that shall catch
the sun.

Section 2

That dream was but a moment in a man's life, whose proper
business it seemed was to get food and kill his fellows and beget
after the manner of all that belongs to the fellowship of the
beasts. About him, hidden from him by the thinnest of veils, were
the untouched sources of Power, whose magnitude we scarcely do
more than suspect even to-day, Power that could make his every
conceivable dream come real. But the feet of the race were in
the way of it, though he died blindly unknowing.

At last, in the generous levels of warm river valleys, where food
is abundant and life very easy, the emerging human overcoming his
earlier jealousies, becoming, as necessity persecuted him less
urgently, more social and tolerant and amenable, achieved a
larger community. There began a division of labour, certain of
the older men specialised in knowledge and direction, a strong
man took the fatherly leadership in war, and priest and king
began to develop their roles in the opening drama of man's
history. The priest's solicitude was seed-time and harvest and
fertility, and the king ruled peace and war. In a hundred river
valleys about the warm, temperate zone of the earth there were
already towns and temples, a score of thousand years ago. They
flourished unrecorded, ignoring the past and unsuspicious of the
future, for as yet writing had still to begin.

Very slowly did man increase his demand upon the illimitable
wealth of Power that offered itself on every hand to him. He
tamed certain animals, he developed his primordially haphazard
agriculture into a ritual, he added first one metal to his
resources and then another, until he had copper and tin and iron
and lead and gold and silver to supplement his stone, he hewed
and carved wood, made pottery, paddled down his river until he
came to the sea, discovered the wheel and made the first roads.
But his chief activity for a hundred centuries and more, was the
subjugation of himself and others to larger and larger societies.
The history of man is not simply the conquest of external power;
it is first the conquest of those distrusts and fiercenesses,
that self-concentration and intensity of animalism, that tie his
hands from taking his inheritance. The ape in us still resents
association. From the dawn of the age of polished stone to the
achievement of the Peace of the World, man's dealings were
chiefly with himself and his fellow man, trading, bargaining,
law-making, propitiating, enslaving, conquering, exterminating,
and every little increment in Power, he turned at once and always
turns to the purposes of this confused elaborate struggle to
socialise. To incorporate and comprehend his fellow men into a
community of purpose became the last and greatest of his
instincts. Already before the last polished phase of the stone
age was over he had become a political animal. He made
astonishingly far-reaching discoveries within himself, first of
counting and then of writing and making records, and with that
his town communities began to stretch out to dominion; in the
valleys of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the great Chinese rivers,
the first empires and the first written laws had their
beginnings. Men specialised for fighting and rule as soldiers and
knights. Later, as ships grew seaworthy, the Mediterranean which
had been a barrier became a highway, and at last out of a tangle
of pirate polities came the great struggle of Carthage and Rome.
The history of Europe is the history of the victory and breaking
up of the Roman Empire. Every ascendant monarch in Europe up to
the last, aped Caesar and called himself Kaiser or Tsar or
Imperator or Kasir-i-Hind. Measured by the duration of human life
it is a vast space of time between that first dynasty in Egypt
and the coming of the aeroplane, but by the scale that looks back
to the makers of the eoliths, it is all of it a story of

Now during this period of two hundred centuries or more, this
period of the warring states, while men's minds were chiefly
preoccupied by politics and mutual aggression, their progress in
the acquirement of external Power was slow--rapid in comparison
with the progress of the old stone age, but slow in comparison
with this new age of systematic discovery in which we live. They
did not very greatly alter the weapons and tactics of warfare,
the methods of agriculture, seamanship, their knowledge of the
habitable globe, or the devices and utensils of domestic life
between the days of the early Egyptians and the days when
Christopher Columbus was a child. Of course, there were
inventions and changes, but there were also retrogressions;
things were found out and then forgotten again; it was, on the
whole, a progress, but it contained no steps; the peasant life
was the same, there were already priests and lawyers and town
craftsmen and territorial lords and rulers doctors, wise women,
soldiers and sailors in Egypt and China and Assyria and
south-eastern Europe at the beginning of that period, and they
were doing much the same things and living much the same life as
they were in Europe in A.D. 1500. The English excavators of the
year A.D. 1900 could delve into the remains of Babylon and Egypt
and disinter legal documents, domestic accounts, and family
correspondence that they could read with the completest sympathy.
There were great religious and moral changes throughout the
period, empires and republics replaced one another, Italy tried a
vast experiment in slavery, and indeed slavery was tried again
and again and failed and failed and was still to be tested again
and rejected again in the New World; Christianity and
Mohammedanism swept away a thousand more specialised cults, but
essentially these were progressive adaptations of mankind to
material conditions that must have seemed fixed for ever. The
idea of revolutionary changes in the material conditions of life
would have been entirely strange to human thought through all
that time.

Yet the dreamer, the story-teller, was there still, waiting for
his opportunity amidst the busy preoccupations, the comings and
goings, the wars and processions, the castle building and
cathedral building, the arts and loves, the small diplomacies and
incurable feuds, the crusades and trading journeys of the middle
ages. He no longer speculated with the untrammelled freedom of
the stone-age savage; authoritative explanations of everything
barred his path; but he speculated with a better brain, sat idle
and gazed at circling stars in the sky and mused upon the coin
and crystal in his hand. Whenever there was a certain leisure for
thought throughout these times, then men were to be found
dissatisfied with the appearances of things, dissatisfied with
the assurances of orthodox belief, uneasy with a sense of unread
symbols in the world about them, questioning the finality of
scholastic wisdom. Through all the ages of history there were
men to whom this whisper had come of hidden things about them.
They could no longer lead ordinary lives nor content themselves
with the common things of this world once they had heard this
voice. And mostly they believed not only that all this world was
as it were a painted curtain before things unguessed at, but that
these secrets were Power. Hitherto Power had come to men by
chance, but now there were these seekers seeking, seeking among
rare and curious and perplexing objects, sometimes finding some
odd utilisable thing, sometimes deceiving themselves with fancied
discovery, sometimes pretending to find. The world of every day
laughed at these eccentric beings, or found them annoying and
ill-treated them, or was seized with fear and made saints and
sorcerers and warlocks of them, or with covetousness and
entertained them hopefully; but for the greater part heeded them
not at all. Yet they were of the blood of him who had first
dreamt of attacking the mammoth; every one of them was of his
blood and descent; and the thing they sought, all unwittingly,
was the snare that will some day catch the sun.

Section 3

Such a man was that Leonardo da Vinci, who went about the court
of Sforza in Milan in a state of dignified abstraction. His
common-place books are full of prophetic subtlety and ingenious
anticipations of the methods of the early aviators. Durer was his
parallel and Roger Bacon--whom the Franciscans silenced--of his
kindred. Such a man again in an earlier city was Hero of
Alexandria, who knew of the power of steam nineteen hundred years
before it was first brought into use. And earlier still was
Archimedes of Syracuse, and still earlier the legendary Daedalus
of Cnossos. All up and down the record of history whenever there
was a little leisure from war and brutality the seekers appeared.
And half the alchemists were of their tribe.

When Roger Bacon blew up his first batch of gunpowder one might
have supposed that men would have gone at once to the explosive
engine. But they could see nothing of the sort. They were not
yet beginning to think of seeing things; their metallurgy was all
too poor to make such engines even had they thought of them. For
a time they could not make instruments sound enough to stand this
new force even for so rough a purpose as hurling a missile. Their
first guns had barrels of coopered timber, and the world waited
for more than five hundred years before the explosive engine

Even when the seekers found, it was at first a long journey
before the world could use their findings for any but the
roughest, most obvious purposes. If man in general was not still
as absolutely blind to the unconquered energies about him as his
paleolithic precursor, he was at best purblind.

Section 4

The latent energy of coal and the power of steam waited long on
the verge of discovery, before they began to influence human

There were no doubt many such devices as Hero's toys devised and
forgotten, time after time, in courts and palaces, but it needed
that coal should be mined and burning with plenty of iron at hand
before it dawned upon men that here was something more than a
curiosity. And it is to be remarked that the first recorded
suggestion for the use of steam was in war; there is an
Elizabethan pamphlet in which it is proposed to fire shot out of
corked iron bottles full of heated water. The mining of coal for
fuel, the smelting of iron upon a larger scale than men had ever
done before, the steam pumping engine, the steam-engine and the
steam-boat, followed one another in an order that had a kind of
logical necessity. It is the most interesting and instructive
chapter in the history of the human intelligence, the history of
steam from its beginning as a fact in human consciousness to the
perfection of the great turbine engines that preceded the
utilisation of intra-molecular power. Nearly every human being
must have seen steam, seen it incuriously for many thousands of
years; the women in particular were always heating water, boiling
it, seeing it boil away, seeing the lids of vessels dance with
its fury; millions of people at different times must have watched
steam pitching rocks out of volcanoes like cricket balls and
blowing pumice into foam, and yet you may search the whole human
record through, letters, books, inscriptions, pictures, for any
glimmer of a realisation that here was force, here was strength
to borrow and use.... Then suddenly man woke up to it, the
railways spread like a network over the globe, the ever enlarging
iron steamships began their staggering fight against wind and

Steam was the first-comer in the new powers, it was the beginning
of the Age of Energy that was to close the long history of the
Warring States.

But for a long time men did not realise the importance of this
novelty. They would not recognise, they were not able to
recognise that anything fundamental had happened to their
immemorial necessities. They called the steam-engine the 'iron
horse' and pretended that they had made the most partial of
substitutions. Steam machinery and factory production were
visibly revolutionising the conditions of industrial production,
population was streaming steadily in from the country-side and
concentrating in hitherto unthought-of masses about a few city
centres, food was coming to them over enormous distances upon a
scale that made the one sole precedent, the corn ships of
imperial Rome, a petty incident; and a huge migration of peoples
between Europe and Western Asia and America was in Progress,
and--nobody seems to have realised that something new had come
into human life, a strange swirl different altogether from any
previous circling and mutation, a swirl like the swirl when at
last the lock gates begin to open after a long phase of
accumulating water and eddying inactivity....

The sober Englishman at the close of the nineteenth century could
sit at his breakfast-table, decide between tea from Ceylon or
coffee from Brazil, devour an egg from France with some Danish
ham, or eat a New Zealand chop, wind up his breakfast with a West
Indian banana, glance at the latest telegrams from all the world,
scrutinise the prices current of his geographically distributed
investments in South Africa, Japan, and Egypt, and tell the two
children he had begotten (in the place of his father's eight)
that he thought the world changed very little. They must play
cricket, keep their hair cut, go to the old school he had gone
to, shirk the lessons he had shirked, learn a few scraps of
Horace and Virgil and Homer for the confusion of cads, and all
would be well with them....

Section 5

Electricity, though it was perhaps the earlier of the two to be
studied, invaded the common life of men a few decades after the
exploitation of steam. To electricity also, in spite of its
provocative nearness all about him, mankind had been utterly
blind for incalculable ages. Could anything be more emphatic than
the appeal of electricity for attention? It thundered at man's
ears, it signalled to him in blinding flashes, occasionally it
killed him, and he could not see it as a thing that concerned him
enough to merit study. It came into the house with the cat on any
dry day and crackled insinuatingly whenever he stroked her fur.
It rotted his metals when he put them together.... There is no
single record that any one questioned why the cat's fur crackles
or why hair is so unruly to brush on a frosty day, before the
sixteenth century. For endless years man seems to have done his
very successful best not to think about it at all; until this new
spirit of the Seeker turned itself to these things.

How often things must have been seen and dismissed as
unimportant, before the speculative eye and the moment of vision
came! It was Gilbert, Queen Elizabeth's court physician, who
first puzzled his brains with rubbed amber and bits of glass and
silk and shellac, and so began the quickening of the human mind
to the existence of this universal presence. And even then the
science of electricity remained a mere little group of curious
facts for nearly two hundred years, connected perhaps with
magnetism--a mere guess that--perhaps with the lightning. Frogs'
legs must have hung by copper hooks from iron railings and
twitched upon countless occasions before Galvani saw them.
Except for the lightning conductor, it was 250 years after
Gilbert before electricity stepped out of the cabinet of
scientific curiosities into the life of the common man.... Then
suddenly, in the half-century between 1880 and 1930, it ousted
the steam-engine and took over traction, it ousted every other
form of household heating, abolished distance with the perfected
wireless telephone and the telephotograph....

Section 6

And there was an extraordinary mental resistance to discovery and
invention for at least a hundred years after the scientific
revolution had begun. Each new thing made its way into practice
against a scepticism that amounted at times to hostility. One
writer upon these subjects gives a funny little domestic
conversation that happened, he says, in the year 1898, within ten
years, that is to say, of the time when the first aviators were
fairly on the wing. He tells us how he sat at his desk in his
study and conversed with his little boy.

His little boy was in profound trouble. He felt he had to speak
very seriously to his father, and as he was a kindly little boy
he did not want to do it too harshly.

This is what happened.

'I wish, Daddy,' he said, coming to his point, 'that you wouldn't
write all this stuff about flying. The chaps rot me.'

'Yes!' said his father.

'And old Broomie, the Head I mean, he rots me. Everybody rots

'But there is going to be flying--quite soon.'

The little boy was too well bred to say what he thought of that.
'Anyhow,' he said, 'I wish you wouldn't write about it.'

'You'll fly--lots of times--before you die,' the father assured

The little boy looked unhappy.

The father hesitated. Then he opened a drawer and took out a
blurred and under-developed photograph. 'Come and look at this,'
he said.

The little boy came round to him. The photograph showed a stream
and a meadow beyond, and some trees, and in the air a black,
pencil-like object with flat wings on either side of it. It was
the first record of the first apparatus heavier than air that
ever maintained itself in the air by mechanical force. Across the
margin was written: 'Here we go up, up, up--from S. P. Langley,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington.'

The father watched the effect of this reassuring document upon
his son. 'Well?' he said.

'That,' said the schoolboy, after reflection, 'is only a model.'

'Model to-day, man to-morrow.'

The boy seemed divided in his allegiance. Then he decided for
what he believed quite firmly to be omniscience. 'But old
Broomie,' he said, 'he told all the boys in his class only
yesterday, "no man will ever fly." No one, he says, who has ever
shot grouse or pheasants on the wing would ever believe anything
of the sort....'

Yet that boy lived to fly across the Atlantic and edit his
father's reminiscences.

Section 7

At the close of the nineteenth century as a multitude of passages
in the literature of that time witness, it was thought that the
fact that man had at last had successful and profitable dealings
with the steam that scalded him and the electricity that flashed
and banged about the sky at him, was an amazing and perhaps a
culminating exercise of his intelligence and his intellectual
courage. The air of 'Nunc Dimittis' sounds in same of these
writings. 'The great things are discovered,' wrote Gerald Brown
in his summary of the nineteenth century. 'For us there remains
little but the working out of detail.' The spirit of the seeker
was still rare in the world; education was unskilled,
unstimulating, scholarly, and but little valued, and few people
even then could have realised that Science was still but the
flimsiest of trial sketches and discovery scarcely beginning. No
one seems to have been afraid of science and its possibilities.
Yet now where there had been but a score or so of seekers, there
were many thousands, and for one needle of speculation that had
been probing the curtain of appearances in 1800, there were now
hundreds. And already Chemistry, which had been content with her
atoms and molecules for the better part of a century, was
preparing herself for that vast next stride that was to
revolutionise the whole life of man from top to bottom.

One realises how crude was the science of that time when one
considers the case of the composition of air. This was
determined by that strange genius and recluse, that man of
mystery, that disembowelled intelligence, Henry Cavendish,
towards the end of the eighteenth century. So far as he was
concerned the work was admirably done. He separated all the known
ingredients of the air with a precision altogether remarkable; he
even put it upon record that he had some doubt about the purity
of the nitrogen. For more than a hundred years his determination
was repeated by chemists all the world over, his apparatus was
treasured in London, he became, as they used to say, 'classic,'
and always, at every one of the innumerable repetitions of his
experiment, that sly element argon was hiding among the nitrogen
(and with a little helium and traces of other substances, and
indeed all the hints that might have led to the new departures of
the twentieth-century chemistry), and every time it slipped
unobserved through the professorial fingers that repeated his

Is it any wonder then with this margin of inaccuracy, that up to
the very dawn of the twentieth-century scientific discovery was
still rather a procession of happy accidents than an orderly
conquest of nature?

Yet the spirit of seeking was spreading steadily through the
world. Even the schoolmaster could not check it. For the mere
handful who grew up to feel wonder and curiosity about the
secrets of nature in the nineteenth century, there were now, at
the beginning of the twentieth, myriads escaping from the
limitations of intellectual routine and the habitual life, in
Europe, in America, North and South, in Japan, in China, and all
about the world.

It was in 1910 that the parents of young Holsten, who was to be
called by a whole generation of scientific men, 'the greatest of
European chemists,' were staying in a villa near Santo Domenico,
between Fiesole and Florence. He was then only fifteen, but he
was already distinguished as a mathematician and possessed by a
savage appetite to understand. He had been particularly attracted
by the mystery of phosphorescence and its apparent unrelatedness
to every other source of light. He was to tell afterwards in his
reminiscences how he watched the fireflies drifting and glowing
among the dark trees in the garden of the villa under the warm
blue night sky of Italy; how he caught and kept them in cages,
dissected them, first studying the general anatomy of insects
very elaborately, and how he began to experiment with the effect
of various gases and varying temperature upon their light. Then
the chance present of a little scientific toy invented by Sir
William Crookes, a toy called the spinthariscope, on which radium
particles impinge upon sulphide of zinc and make it luminous,
induced him to associate the two sets of phenomena. It was a
happy association for his inquiries. It was a rare and fortunate
thing, too, that any one with the mathematical gift should have
been taken by these curiosities.

Section 8

And while the boy Holsten was mooning over his fireflies at
Fiesole, a certain professor of physics named Rufus was giving a
course of afternoon lectures upon Radium and Radio-Activity in
Edinburgh. They were lectures that had attracted a very
considerable amount of attention. He gave them in a small
lecture-theatre that had become more and more congested as his
course proceeded. At his concluding discussion it was crowded
right up to the ceiling at the back, and there people were
standing, standing without any sense of fatigue, so fascinating
did they find his suggestions. One youngster in particular, a
chuckle-headed, scrub-haired lad from the Highlands, sat hugging
his knee with great sand-red hands and drinking in every word,
eyes aglow, cheeks flushed, and ears burning.

'And so,' said the professor, 'we see that this Radium, which
seemed at first a fantastic exception, a mad inversion of all
that was most established and fundamental in the constitution of
matter, is really at one with the rest of the elements. It does
noticeably and forcibly what probably all the other elements are
doing with an imperceptible slowness. It is like the single
voice crying aloud that betrays the silent breathing multitude in
the darkness. Radium is an element that is breaking up and flying
to pieces. But perhaps all elements are doing that at less
perceptible rates. Uranium certainly is; thorium--the stuff of
this incandescent gas mantle--certainly is; actinium. I feel
that we are but beginning the list. And we know now that the
atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible
and final and--lifeless--lifeless, is really a reservoir of
immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this
work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought
of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as
unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! these bricks are
boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This
little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to
say, about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth
about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the
atoms in this bottle there slumbers at least as much energy as we
could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a
word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here
and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if
I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it
could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no
man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff
can be made to hasten the release of its store. It does release
it, as a burn trickles. Slowly the uranium changes into radium,
the radium changes into a gas called the radium emanation, and
that again to what we call radium A, and so the process goes on,
giving out energy at every stage, until at last we reach the last
stage of all, which is, so far as we can tell at present, lead.
But we cannot hasten it.'

'I take ye, man,' whispered the chuckle-headed lad, with his red
hands tightening like a vice upon his knee. 'I take ye, man. Go
on! Oh, go on!'

The professor went on after a little pause. 'Why is the change
gradual?' he asked. 'Why does only a minute fraction of the
radium disintegrate in any particular second? Why does it dole
itself out so slowly and so exactly? Why does not all the
uranium change to radium and all the radium change to the next
lowest thing at once? Why this decay by driblets; why not a decay
en masse? . . . Suppose presently we find it is possible to
quicken that decay?'

The chuckle-headed lad nodded rapidly. The wonderful inevitable
idea was coming. He drew his knee up towards his chin and swayed
in his seat with excitement. 'Why not?' he echoed, 'why not?'

The professor lifted his forefinger.

'Given that knowledge,' he said, 'mark what we should be able to
do! We should not only be able to use this uranium and thorium;
not only should we have a source of power so potent that a man
might carry in his hand the energy to light a city for a year,
fight a fleet of battleships, or drive one of our giant liners
across the Atlantic; but we should also have a clue that would
enable us at last to quicken the process of disintegration in all
the other elements, where decay is still so slow as to escape our
finest measurements. Every scrap of solid matter in the world
would become an available reservoir of concentrated force. Do
you realise, ladies and gentlemen, what these things would mean
for us?'

The scrub head nodded. 'Oh! go on. Go on.'

'It would mean a change in human conditions that I can only
compare to the discovery of fire, that first discovery that
lifted man above the brute. We stand to-day towards
radio-activity as our ancestor stood towards fire before he had
learnt to make it. He knew it then only as a strange thing
utterly beyond his control, a flare on the crest of the volcano,
a red destruction that poured through the forest. So it is that
we know radio-activity to-day. This--this is the dawn of a new
day in human living. At the climax of that civilisation which
had its beginning in the hammered flint and the fire-stick of the
savage, just when it is becoming apparent that our
ever-increasing needs cannot be borne indefinitely by our present
sources of energy, we discover suddenly the possibility of an
entirely new civilisation. The energy we need for our very
existence, and with which Nature supplies us still so grudgingly,
is in reality locked up in inconceivable quantities all about us.
We cannot pick that lock at present, but----'

He paused. His voice sank so that everybody strained a little to
hear him.

'----we will.'

He put up that lean finger again, his solitary gesture.

'And then,' he said. . . .

'Then that perpetual struggle for existence, that perpetual
struggle to live on the bare surplus of Nature's energies will
cease to be the lot of Man. Man will step from the pinnacle of
this civilisation to the beginning of the next. I have no
eloquence, ladies and gentlemen, to express the vision of man's
material destiny that opens out before me. I see the desert
continents transformed, the poles no longer wildernesses of ice,
the whole world once more Eden. I see the power of man reach out
among the stars....'

He stopped abruptly with a catching of the breath that many an
actor or orator might have envied.

The lecture was over, the audience hung silent for a few seconds,
sighed, became audible, stirred, fluttered, prepared for
dispersal. More light was turned on and what had been a dim mass
of figures became a bright confusion of movement. Some of the
people signalled to friends, some crowded down towards the
platform to examine the lecturer's apparatus and make notes of
his diagrams. But the chuckle-headed lad with the scrub hair
wanted no such detailed frittering away of the thoughts that had
inspired him. He wanted to be alone with them; he elbowed his way
out almost fiercely, he made himself as angular and bony as a
cow, fearing lest some one should speak to him, lest some one
should invade his glowing sphere of enthusiasm.

He went through the streets with a rapt face, like a saint who
sees visions. He had arms disproportionately long, and
ridiculous big feet.

He must get alone, get somewhere high out of all this crowding of
commonness, of everyday life.

He made his way to the top of Arthur's Seat, and there he sat for
a long time in the golden evening sunshine, still, except that
ever and again he whispered to himself some precious phrase that
had stuck in his mind.

'If,' he whispered, 'if only we could pick that lock. . . .'

The sun was sinking over the distant hills. Already it was shorn
of its beams, a globe of ruddy gold, hanging over the great banks
of cloud that would presently engulf it.

'Eh!' said the youngster. 'Eh!'

He seemed to wake up at last out of his entrancement, and the red
sun was there before his eyes. He stared at it, at first without
intelligence, and then with a gathering recognition. Into his
mind came a strange echo of that ancestral fancy, that fancy of a
Stone Age savage, dead and scattered bones among the drift two
hundred thousand years ago.

'Ye auld thing,' he said--and his eyes were shining, and he made
a kind of grabbing gesture with his hand; 'ye auld red thing....
We'll have ye YET.'



Section I

The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men
as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the
twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the
heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was
solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and
luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933. From the first
detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human
purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. For
twenty years after that, indeed, minor difficulties prevented any
striking practical application of his success, but the essential
thing was done, this new boundary in the march of human progress
was crossed, in that year. He set up atomic disintegration in a
minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into
a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its
turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another
year's work that he was able to show practically that the last
result of this rapid release of energy was gold. But the thing
was done--at the cost of a blistered chest and an injured finger,
and from the moment when the invisible speck of bismuth flashed
into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a
way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to
worlds of limitless power. He recorded as much in the strange
diary biography he left the world, a diary that was up to that
particular moment a mass of speculations and calculations, and
which suddenly became for a space an amazingly minute and human
record of sensations and emotions that all humanity might

He gives, in broken phrases and often single words, it is true,
but none the less vividly for that, a record of the twenty-four
hours following the demonstration of the correctness of his
intricate tracery of computations and guesses. 'I thought I
should not sleep,' he writes--the words he omitted are supplied
in brackets--(on account of) 'pain in (the) hand and chest and
(the) wonder of what I had done.... Slept like a child.'

He felt strange and disconcerted the next morning; he had nothing
to do, he was living alone in apartments in Bloomsbury, and he
decided to go up to Hampstead Heath, which he had known when he
was a little boy as a breezy playground. He went up by the
underground tube that was then the recognised means of travel
from one part of London to another, and walked up Heath Street
from the tube station to the open heath. He found it a gully of
planks and scaffoldings between the hoardings of house-wreckers.
The spirit of the times had seized upon that narrow, steep, and
winding thoroughfare, and was in the act of making it commodious
and interesting, according to the remarkable ideals of
Neo-Georgian aestheticism. Such is the illogical quality of
humanity that Holsten, fresh from work that was like a petard
under the seat of current civilisation, saw these changes with
regret. He had come up Heath Street perhaps a thousand times, had
known the windows of all the little shops, spent hours in the
vanished cinematograph theatre, and marvelled at the high-flung
early Georgian houses upon the westward bank of that old gully of
a thoroughfare; he felt strange with all these familiar things
gone. He escaped at last with a feeling of relief from this
choked alley of trenches and holes and cranes, and emerged upon
the old familiar scene about the White Stone Pond. That, at
least, was very much as it used to be.

There were still the fine old red-brick houses to left and right
of him; the reservoir had been improved by a portico of marble,
the white-fronted inn with the clustering flowers above its
portico still stood out at the angle of the ways, and the blue
view to Harrow Hill and Harrow spire, a view of hills and trees
and shining waters and wind-driven cloud shadows, was like the
opening of a great window to the ascending Londoner. All that
was very reassuring. There was the same strolling crowd, the same
perpetual miracle of motors dodging through it harmlessly,
escaping headlong into the country from the Sabbatical stuffiness
behind and below them. There was a band still, a women's suffrage
meeting--for the suffrage women had won their way back to the
tolerance, a trifle derisive, of the populace again--socialist
orators, politicians, a band, and the same wild uproar of dogs,
frantic with the gladness of their one blessed weekly release
from the back yard and the chain. And away along the road to the
Spaniards strolled a vast multitude, saying, as ever, that the
view of London was exceptionally clear that day.

Young Holsten's face was white. He walked with that uneasy
affectation of ease that marks an overstrained nervous system and
an under-exercised body. He hesitated at the White Stone Pond
whether to go to the left of it or the right, and again at the
fork of the roads. He kept shifting his stick in his hand, and
every now and then he would get in the way of people on the
footpath or be jostled by them because of the uncertainty of his
movements. He felt, he confesses, 'inadequate to ordinary
existence.' He seemed to himself to be something inhuman and
mischievous. All the people about him looked fairly prosperous,
fairly happy, fairly well adapted to the lives they had to
lead--a week of work and a Sunday of best clothes and mild
promenading--and he had launched something that would disorganise
the entire fabric that held their contentments and ambitions and
satisfactions together. 'Felt like an imbecile who has presented
a box full of loaded revolvers to a Creche,' he notes.

He met a man named Lawson, an old school-fellow, of whom history
now knows only that he was red-faced and had a terrier. He and
Holsten walked together and Holsten was sufficiently pale and
jumpy for Lawson to tell him he overworked and needed a holiday.
They sat down at a little table outside the County Council house
of Golders Hill Park and sent one of the waiters to the Bull and
Bush for a couple of bottles of beer, no doubt at Lawson's
suggestion. The beer warmed Holsten's rather dehumanised system.
He began to tell Lawson as clearly as he could to what his great
discovery amounted. Lawson feigned attention, but indeed he had
neither the knowledge nor the imagination to understand. 'In the
end, before many years are out, this must eventually change war,
transit, lighting, building, and every sort of manufacture, even
agriculture, every material human concern----'

Then Holsten stopped short. Lawson had leapt to his feet. 'Damn
that dog!' cried Lawson. 'Look at it now. Hi! Here!
Phewoo--phewoo phewoo! Come HERE, Bobs! Come HERE!'

The young scientific man, with his bandaged hand, sat at the
green table, too tired to convey the wonder of the thing he had
sought so long, his friend whistled and bawled for his dog, and
the Sunday people drifted about them through the spring sunshine.
For a moment or so Holsten stared at Lawson in astonishment, for
he had been too intent upon what he had been saying to realise
how little Lawson had attended.

Then he remarked, 'WELL!' and smiled faintly, and--finished the
tankard of beer before him.

Lawson sat down again. 'One must look after one's dog,' he said,
with a note of apology. 'What was it you were telling me?'

Section 2

In the evening Holsten went out again. He walked to Saint Paul's
Cathedral, and stood for a time near the door listening to the
evening service. The candles upon the altar reminded him in some
odd way of the fireflies at Fiesole. Then he walked back through
the evening lights to Westminster. He was oppressed, he was
indeed scared, by his sense of the immense consequences of his
discovery. He had a vague idea that night that he ought not to
publish his results, that they were premature, that some secret
association of wise men should take care of his work and hand it
on from generation to generation until the world was riper for
its practical application. He felt that nobody in all the
thousands of people he passed had really awakened to the fact of
change, they trusted the world for what it was, not to alter too
rapidly, to respect their trusts, their assurances, their habits,
their little accustomed traffics and hard-won positions.

He went into those little gardens beneath the over-hanging,
brightly-lit masses of the Savoy Hotel and the Hotel Cecil. He
sat down on a seat and became aware of the talk of the two people
next to him. It was the talk of a young couple evidently on the
eve of marriage. The man was congratulating himself on having
regular employment at last; 'they like me,' he said, 'and I like
the job. If I work up--in'r dozen years or so I ought to be
gettin' somethin' pretty comfortable. That's the plain sense of
it, Hetty. There ain't no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't get
along very decently--very decently indeed.'

The desire for little successes amidst conditions securely fixed!
So it struck upon Holsten's mind. He added in his diary, 'I had
a sense of all this globe as that....'

By that phrase he meant a kind of clairvoyant vision of this
populated world as a whole, of all its cities and towns and
villages, its high roads and the inns beside them, its gardens
and farms and upland pastures, its boatmen and sailors, its ships
coming along the great circles of the ocean, its time-tables and
appointments and payments and dues as it were one unified and
progressive spectacle. Sometimes such visions came to him; his
mind, accustomed to great generalisations and yet acutely
sensitive to detail, saw things far more comprehensively than the
minds of most of his contemporaries. Usually the teeming sphere
moved on to its predestined ends and circled with a stately
swiftness on its path about the sun. Usually it was all a living
progress that altered under his regard. But now fatigue a little
deadened him to that incessancy of life, it seemed now just an
eternal circling. He lapsed to the commoner persuasion of the
great fixities and recurrencies of the human routine. The remoter
past of wandering savagery, the inevitable changes of to-morrow
were veiled, and he saw only day and night, seed-time and
harvest, loving and begetting, births and deaths, walks in the
summer sunlight and tales by the winter fireside, the ancient
sequence of hope and acts and age perennially renewed, eddying on
for ever and ever, save that now the impious hand of research was
raised to overthrow this drowsy, gently humming, habitual, sunlit
spinning-top of man's existence....

For a time he forgot wars and crimes and hates and persecutions,
famine and pestilence, the cruelties of beasts, weariness and the
bitter wind, failure and insufficiency and retrocession. He saw
all mankind in terms of the humble Sunday couple upon the seat
beside him, who schemed their inglorious outlook and improbable
contentments. 'I had a sense of all this globe as that.'

His intelligence struggled against this mood and struggled for a
time in vain. He reassured himself against the invasion of this
disconcerting idea that he was something strange and inhuman, a
loose wanderer from the flock returning with evil gifts from his
sustained unnatural excursions amidst the darknesses and
phosphorescences beneath the fair surfaces of life. Man had not
been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home,
the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an
adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an
insatiable desire. For a few thousand generations indeed he had
tilled the earth and followed the seasons, saying his prayers,
grinding his corn and trampling the October winepress, yet not
for so long but that he was still full of restless stirrings.

'If there have been home and routine and the field,' thought
Holsten, 'there have also been wonder and the sea.'

He turned his head and looked up over the back of the seat at the
great hotels above him, full of softly shaded lights and the glow
and colour and stir of feasting. Might his gift to mankind mean
simply more of that? . . .

He got up and walked out of the garden, surveyed a passing
tram-car, laden with warm light, against the deep blues of
evening, dripping and trailing long skirts of shining reflection;
he crossed the Embankment and stood for a time watching the dark
river and turning ever and again to the lit buildings and
bridges. His mind began to scheme conceivable replacements of all
those clustering arrangements. . . .

'It has begun,' he writes in the diary in which these things are
recorded. 'It is not for me to reach out to consequences I cannot
foresee. I am a part, not a whole; I am a little instrument in
the armoury of Change. If I were to burn all these papers,
before a score of years had passed, some other man would be doing
this. . .

Section 3

Holsten, before he died, was destined to see atomic energy
dominating every other source of power, but for some years yet a
vast network of difficulties in detail and application kept the
new discovery from any effective invasion of ordinary life. The
path from the laboratory to the workshop is sometimes a tortuous
one; electro-magnetic radiations were known and demonstrated for
twenty years before Marconi made them practically available, and
in the same way it was twenty years before induced radio-activity
could be brought to practical utilisation. The thing, of course,
was discussed very much, more perhaps at the time of its
discovery than during the interval of technical adaptation, but
with very little realisation of the huge economic revolution that
impended. What chiefly impressed the journalists of 1933 was the
production of gold from bismuth and the realisation albeit upon
unprofitable lines of the alchemist's dreams; there was a
considerable amount of discussion and expectation in that more
intelligent section of the educated publics of the various
civilised countries which followed scientific development; but
for the most part the world went about its business--as the
inhabitants of those Swiss villages which live under the
perpetual threat of overhanging rocks and mountains go about
their business--just as though the possible was impossible, as
though the inevitable was postponed for ever because it was

It was in 1953 that the first Holsten-Roberts engine brought
induced radio-activity into the sphere of industrial production,
and its first general use was to replace the steam-engine in
electrical generating stations. Hard upon the appearance of this
came the Dass-Tata engine--the invention of two among the
brilliant galaxy of Bengali inventors the modernisation of Indian
thought was producing at this time--which was used chiefly for
automobiles, aeroplanes, waterplanes, and such-like, mobile
purposes. The American Kemp engine, differing widely in principle
but equally practicable, and the Krupp-Erlanger came hard upon
the heels of this, and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic
replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress
all about the habitable globe. Small wonder was this when the
cost, even of these earliest and clumsiest of atomic engines, is
compared with that of the power they superseded. Allowing for
lubrication the Dass-Tata engine, once it was started cost a
penny to run thirty-seven miles, and added only nine and quarter
pounds to the weight of the carriage it drove. It made the heavy
alcohol-driven automobile of the time ridiculous in appearance as
well as preposterously costly. For many years the price of coal
and every form of liquid fuel had been clambering to levels that
made even the revival of the draft horse seem a practicable
possibility, and now with the abrupt relaxation of this
stringency, the change in appearance of the traffic upon the
world's roads was instantaneous. In three years the frightful
armoured monsters that had hooted and smoked and thundered about
the world for four awful decades were swept away to the dealers
in old metal, and the highways thronged with light and clean and
shimmering shapes of silvered steel. At the same time a new
impetus was given to aviation by the relatively enormous power
for weight of the atomic engine, it was at last possible to add
Redmayne's ingenious helicopter ascent and descent engine to the
vertical propeller that had hitherto been the sole driving force
of the aeroplane without overweighting the machine, and men found
themselves possessed of an instrument of flight that could hover
or ascend or descend vertically and gently as well as rush wildly
through the air. The last dread of flying vanished. As the
journalists of the time phrased it, this was the epoch of the
Leap into the Air. The new atomic aeroplane became indeed a
mania; every one of means was frantic to possess a thing so
controllable, so secure and so free from the dust and danger of
the road, and in France alone in the year 1943 thirty thousand of
these new aeroplanes were manufactured and licensed, and soared
humming softly into the sky.

And with an equal speed atomic engines of various types invaded
industrialism. The railways paid enormous premiums for priority
in the delivery of atomic traction engines, atomic smelting was
embarked upon so eagerly as to lead to a number of disastrous
explosions due to inexperienced handling of the new power, and
the revolutionary cheapening of both materials and electricity
made the entire reconstruction of domestic buildings a matter
merely dependent upon a reorganisation of the methods of the
builder and the house-furnisher. Viewed from the side of the new
power and from the point of view of those who financed and
manufactured the new engines and material it required the age of
the Leap into the Air was one of astonishing prosperity.
Patent-holding companies were presently paying dividends of five
or six hundred per cent. and enormous fortunes were made and
fantastic wages earned by all who were concerned in the new
developments. This prosperity was not a little enhanced by the
fact that in both the Dass-Tata and Holsten-Roberts engines one
of the recoverable waste products was gold--the former
disintegrated dust of bismuth and the latter dust of lead--and
that this new supply of gold led quite naturally to a rise in
prices throughout the world.

This spectacle of feverish enterprise was productivity, this
crowding flight of happy and fortunate rich people--every great
city was as if a crawling ant-hill had suddenly taken wing--was
the bright side of the opening phase of the new epoch in human
history. Beneath that brightness was a gathering darkness, a
deepening dismay. If there was a vast development of production
there was also a huge destruction of values. These glaring
factories working night and day, these glittering new vehicles
swinging noiselessly along the roads, these flights of
dragon-flies that swooped and soared and circled in the air, were
indeed no more than the brightnesses of lamps and fires that
gleam out when the world sinks towards twilight and the night.
Between these high lights accumulated disaster, social
catastrophe. The coal mines were manifestly doomed to closure at
no very distant date, the vast amount of capital invested in oil
was becoming unsaleable, millions of coal miners, steel workers
upon the old lines, vast swarms of unskilled or under-skilled
labourers in innumerable occupations, were being flung out of
employment by the superior efficiency of the new machinery, the
rapid fall in the cost of transit was destroying high land values
at every centre of population, the value of existing house
property had become problematical, gold was undergoing headlong
depreciation, all the securities upon which the credit of the
world rested were slipping and sliding, banks were tottering, the
stock exchanges were scenes of feverish panic;--this was the
reverse of the spectacle, these were the black and monstrous
under-consequences of the Leap into the Air.

There is a story of a demented London stockbroker running out
into Threadneedle Street and tearing off his clothes as he ran.
'The Steel Trust is scrapping the whole of its plant,' he
shouted. 'The State Railways are going to scrap all their
engines. Everything's going to be scrapped--everything. Come and
scrap the mint, you fellows, come and scrap the mint!'

In the year 1955 the suicide rate for the United States of
America quadrupled any previous record. There was an enormous
increase also in violent crime throughout the world. The thing
had come upon an unprepared humanity; it seemed as though human
society was to be smashed by its own magnificent gains.

For there had been no foresight of these things. There had been
no attempt anywhere even to compute the probable dislocations
this flood of inexpensive energy would produce in human affairs.
The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the
sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent
years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic,
conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative;
throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism
still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it
was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an
enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their
professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation
of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they
clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts,
conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize
advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an
obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on
outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was
the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and
imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade
even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very
existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.

The world was so little governed that with the very coming of
plenty, in the full tide of an incalculable abundance, when
everything necessary to satisfy human needs and everything
necessary to realise such will and purpose as existed then in
human hearts was already at hand, one has still to tell of
hardship, famine, anger, confusion, conflict, and incoherent
suffering. There was no scheme for the distribution of this vast
new wealth that had come at last within the reach of men; there
was no clear conception that any such distribution was possible.
As one attempts a comprehensive view of those opening years of
the new age, as one measures it against the latent achievement
that later years have demonstrated, one begins to measure the
blindness, the narrowness, the insensate unimaginative
individualism of the pre-atomic time. Under this tremendous dawn
of power and freedom, under a sky ablaze with promise, in the
very presence of science standing like some bountiful goddess
over all the squat darknesses of human life, holding patiently in
her strong arms, until men chose to take them, security, plenty,
the solution of riddles, the key of the bravest adventures, in
her very presence, and with the earnest of her gifts in court,
the world was to witness such things as the squalid spectacle of
the Dass-Tata patent litigation.

There in a stuffy court in London, a grimy oblong box of a room,
during the exceptional heat of the May of 1956, the leading
counsel of the day argued and shouted over a miserable little
matter of more royalties or less and whether the Dass-Tata
company might not bar the Holsten-Roberts' methods of utilising
the new power. The Dass-Tata people were indeed making a
strenuous attempt to secure a world monopoly in atomic
engineering. The judge, after the manner of those times, sat
raised above the court, wearing a preposterous gown and a foolish
huge wig, the counsel also wore dirty-looking little wigs and
queer black gowns over their usual costume, wigs and gowns that
were held to be necessary to their pleading, and upon unclean
wooden benches stirred and whispered artful-looking solicitors,
busily scribbling reporters, the parties to the case, expert
witnesses, interested people, and a jostling confusion of
subpoenaed persons, briefless young barristers (forming a style
on the most esteemed and truculent examples) and casual eccentric
spectators who preferred this pit of iniquity to the free
sunlight outside. Every one was damply hot, the examining King's
Counsel wiped the perspiration from his huge, clean-shaven upper
lip; and into this atmosphere of grasping contention and human
exhalations the daylight filtered through a window that was
manifestly dirty. The jury sat in a double pew to the left of
the judge, looking as uncomfortable as frogs that have fallen
into an ash-pit, and in the witness-box lied the would-be
omnivorous Dass, under cross-examination....

Holsten had always been accustomed to publish his results so soon
as they appeared to him to be sufficiently advanced to furnish a
basis for further work, and to that confiding disposition and one
happy flash of adaptive invention the alert Dass owed his

But indeed a vast multitude of such sharp people were clutching,
patenting, pre-empting, monopolising this or that feature of the
new development, seeking to subdue this gigantic winged power to
the purposes of their little lusts and avarice. That trial is
just one of innumerable disputes of the same kind. For a time the
face of the world festered with patent legislation. It chanced,
however, to have one oddly dramatic feature in the fact that
Holsten, after being kept waiting about the court for two days as
a beggar might have waited at a rich man's door, after being
bullied by ushers and watched by policemen, was called as a
witness, rather severely handled by counsel, and told not to
'quibble' by the judge when he was trying to be absolutely

The judge scratched his nose with a quill pen, and sneered at
Holsten's astonishment round the corner of his monstrous wig.
Holsten was a great man, was he? Well, in a law-court great men
were put in their places.

'We want to know has the plaintiff added anything to this or
hasn't he?' said the judge, 'we don't want to have your views
whether Sir Philip Dass's improvements were merely superficial
adaptations or whether they were implicit in your paper. No
doubt--after the manner of inventors--you think most things that
were ever likely to be discovered are implicit in your papers. No
doubt also you think too that most subsequent additions and
modifications are merely superficial. Inventors have a way of
thinking that. The law isn't concerned with that sort of thing.
The law has nothing to do with the vanity of inventors. The law
is concerned with the question whether these patent rights have
the novelty the plantiff claims for them. What that admission
may or may not stop, and all these other things you are saying in
your overflowing zeal to answer more than the questions addressed
to you--none of these things have anything whatever to do with
the case in hand. It is a matter of constant astonishment to me
in this court to see how you scientific men, with all your
extraordinary claims to precision and veracity, wander and wander
so soon as you get into the witness-box. I know no more
unsatisfactory class of witness. The plain and simple question
is, has Sir Philip Dass made any real addition to existing
knowledge and methods in this matter or has he not? We don't
want to know whether they were large or small additions nor what
the consequences of your admission may be. That you will leave to

Holsten was silent.

'Surely?' said the judge, almost pityingly.

'No, he hasn't,' said Holsten, perceiving that for once in his
life he must disregard infinitesimals.

'Ah!' said the judge, 'now why couldn't you say that when counsel
put the question? . . .'

An entry in Holsten's diary-autobiography, dated five days later,
runs: 'Still amazed. The law is the most dangerous thing in this
country. It is hundreds of years old. It hasn't an idea. The
oldest of old bottles and this new wine, the most explosive wine.
Something will overtake them.'

Section 4

There was a certain truth in Holsten's assertion that the law was
'hundreds of years old.' It was, in relation to current thought
and widely accepted ideas, an archaic thing. While almost all the
material and methods of life had been changing rapidly and were
now changing still more rapidly, the law-courts and the
legislatures of the world were struggling desperately to meet
modern demands with devices and procedures, conceptions of rights
and property and authority and obligation that dated from the
rude compromises of relatively barbaric times. The horse-hair
wigs and antic dresses of the British judges, their musty courts
and overbearing manners, were indeed only the outward and visible
intimations of profounder anachronisms. The legal and political
organisation of the earth in the middle twentieth century was
indeed everywhere like a complicated garment, outworn yet strong,
that now fettered the governing body that once it had protected.

Yet that same spirit of free-thinking and outspoken publication
that in the field of natural science had been the beginning of
the conquest of nature, was at work throughout all the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries preparing the spirit of the new world
within the degenerating body of the old. The idea of a greater
subordination of individual interests and established
institutions to the collective future, is traceable more and more
clearly in the literature of those times, and movement after
movement fretted itself away in criticism of and opposition to
first this aspect and then that of the legal, social, and
political order. Already in the early nineteenth century Shelley,
with no scrap of alternative, is denouncing the established
rulers of the world as Anarchs, and the entire system of ideas
and suggestions that was known as Socialism, and more
particularly its international side, feeble as it was in creative
proposals or any method of transition, still witnesses to the
growth of a conception of a modernised system of
inter-relationships that should supplant the existing tangle of
proprietary legal ideas.

The word 'Sociology' was invented by Herbert Spencer, a popular
writer upon philosophical subjects, who flourished about the
middle of the nineteenth century, but the idea of a state,
planned as an electric-traction system is planned, without
reference to pre-existing apparatus, upon scientific lines, did
not take a very strong hold upon the popular imagination of the
world until the twentieth century. Then, the growing impatience
of the American people with the monstrous and socially paralysing
party systems that had sprung out of their absurd electoral
arrangements, led to the appearance of what came to be called the
'Modern State' movement, and a galaxy of brilliant writers, in
America, Europe, and the East, stirred up the world to the
thought of bolder rearrangements of social interaction, property,
employment, education, and government, than had ever been
contemplated before. No doubt these Modern State ideas were very
largely the reflection upon social and political thought of the
vast revolution in material things that had been in progress for
two hundred years, but for a long time they seemed to be having
no more influence upon existing institutions than the writings of
Rousseau and Voltaire seemed to have had at the time of the death
of the latter. They were fermenting in men's minds, and it needed
only just such social and political stresses as the coming of the
atomic mechanisms brought about, to thrust them forward abruptly
into crude and startling realisation.

Section 5

Frederick Barnet's Wander Jahre is one of those autobiographical
novels that were popular throughout the third and fourth decades
of the twentieth century. It was published in 1970, and one must
understand Wander Jahre rather in a spiritual and intellectual
than in a literal sense. It is indeed an allusive title,
carrying the world back to the Wilhelm Meister of Goethe, a
century and a half earlier.

Its author, Frederick Barnet, gives a minute and curious history
of his life and ideas between his nineteenth and his twenty-third
birthdays. He was neither a very original nor a very brilliant
man, but he had a trick of circumstantial writing; and though no
authentic portrait was to survive for the information of
posterity, he betrays by a score of casual phrases that he was
short, sturdy, inclined to be plump, with a 'rather blobby' face,
and full, rather projecting blue eyes. He belonged until the
financial debacle of 1956 to the class of fairly prosperous
people, he was a student in London, he aeroplaned to Italy and
then had a pedestrian tour from Genoa to Rome, crossed in the air
to Greece and Egypt, and came back over the Balkans and Germany.
His family fortunes, which were largely invested in bank shares,
coal mines, and house property, were destroyed. Reduced to
penury, he sought to earn a living. He suffered great hardship,
and was then caught up by the war and had a year of soldiering,
first as an officer in the English infantry and then in the army
of pacification. His book tells all these things so simply and
at the same time so explicitly, that it remains, as it were, an
eye by which future generations may have at least one man's
vision of the years of the Great Change.

And he was, he tells us, a 'Modern State' man 'by instinct' from
the beginning. He breathed in these ideas in the class rooms and
laboratories of the Carnegie Foundation school that rose, a long
and delicately beautiful facade, along the South Bank of the
Thames opposite the ancient dignity of Somerset House. Such
thought was interwoven with the very fabric of that pioneer
school in the educational renascence in England. After the
customary exchange years in Heidelberg and Paris, he went into
the classical school of London University. The older so-called
'classical' education of the British pedagogues, probably the
most paralysing, ineffective, and foolish routine that ever
wasted human life, had already been swept out of this great
institution in favour of modern methods; and he learnt Greek and
Latin as well as he had learnt German, Spanish, and French, so
that he wrote and spoke them freely, and used them with an
unconscious ease in his study of the foundation civilisations of
the European system to which they were the key. (This change was
still so recent that he mentions an encounter in Rome with an
'Oxford don' who 'spoke Latin with a Wiltshire accent and
manifest discomfort, wrote Greek letters with his tongue out, and
seemed to think a Greek sentence a charm when it was a quotation
and an impropriety when it wasn't.')

Barnet saw the last days of the coal-steam engines upon the
English railways and the gradual cleansing of the London
atmosphere as the smoke-creating sea-coal fires gave place to
electric heating. The building of laboratories at Kensington was
still in progress, and he took part in the students' riots that
delayed the removal of the Albert Memorial. He carried a banner
with 'We like Funny Statuary' on one side, and on the other
'Seats and Canopies for Statues, Why should our Great Departed
Stand in the Rain?' He learnt the rather athletic aviation of
those days at the University grounds at Sydenham, and he was
fined for flying over the new prison for political libellers at
Wormwood Scrubs, 'in a manner calculated to exhilarate the
prisoners while at exercise.' That was the time of the attempted
suppression of any criticism of the public judicature and the
place was crowded with journalists who had ventured to call
attention to the dementia of Chief Justice Abrahams. Barnet was
not a very good aviator, he confesses he was always a little
afraid of his machine--there was excellent reason for every one
to be afraid of those clumsy early types--and he never attempted
steep descents or very high flying. He also, he records, owned
one of those oil-driven motor-bicycles whose clumsy complexity
and extravagant filthiness still astonish the visitors to the
museum of machinery at South Kensington. He mentions running
over a dog and complains of the ruinous price of 'spatchcocks' in
Surrey. 'Spatchcocks,' it seems, was a slang term for crushed

He passed the examinations necessary to reduce his military
service to a minimum, and his want of any special scientific or
technical qualification and a certain precocious corpulence that
handicapped his aviation indicated the infantry of the line as
his sphere of training. That was the most generalised form of
soldiering. The development of the theory of war had been for
some decades but little assisted by any practical experience.
What fighting had occurred in recent years, had been fighting in
minor or uncivilised states, with peasant or barbaric soldiers
and with but a small equipment of modern contrivances, and the
great powers of the world were content for the most part to
maintain armies that sustained in their broader organisation the
traditions of the European wars of thirty and forty years before.
There was the infantry arm to which Barnet belonged and which was
supposed to fight on foot with a rifle and be the main portion of
the army. There were cavalry forces (horse soldiers), having a
ratio to the infantry that had been determined by the experiences
of the Franco-German war in 1871. There was also artillery, and
for some unexplained reason much of this was still drawn by
horses; though there were also in all the European armies a small
number of motor-guns with wheels so constructed that they could
go over broken ground. In addition there were large developments
of the engineering arm, concerned with motor transport,
motor-bicycle scouting, aviation, and the like.

No first-class intelligence had been sought to specialise in and
work out the problem of warfare with the new appliances and under
modern conditions, but a succession of able jurists, Lord
Haldane, Chief Justice Briggs, and that very able King's Counsel,
Philbrick, had reconstructed the army frequently and thoroughly
and placed it at last, with the adoption of national service,
upon a footing that would have seemed very imposing to the public
of 1900. At any moment the British Empire could now put a
million and a quarter of arguable soldiers upon the board of
Welt-Politik. The traditions of Japan and the Central European
armies were more princely and less forensic; the Chinese still
refused resolutely to become a military power, and maintained a
small standing army upon the American model that was said, so far
as it went, to be highly efficient, and Russia, secured by a
stringent administration against internal criticism, had scarcely
altered the design of a uniform or the organisation of a battery
since the opening decades of the century. Barnet's opinion of his
military training was manifestly a poor one, his Modern State
ideas disposed him to regard it as a bore, and his common sense
condemned it as useless. Moreover, his habit of body made him
peculiarly sensitive to the fatigues and hardships of service.

'For three days in succession we turned out before dawn and--for
no earthly reason--without breakfast,' he relates. 'I suppose
that is to show us that when the Day comes the first thing will
be to get us thoroughly uncomfortable and rotten. We then
proceeded to Kriegspiel, according to the mysterious ideas of
those in authority over us. On the last day we spent three hours
under a hot if early sun getting over eight miles of country to a
point we could have reached in a motor omnibus in nine minutes
and a half--I did it the next day in that--and then we made a
massed attack upon entrenchments that could have shot us all
about three times over if only the umpires had let them. Then
came a little bayonet exercise, but I doubt if I am sufficiently
a barbarian to stick this long knife into anything living. Anyhow
in this battle I shouldn't have had a chance. Assuming that by
some miracle I hadn't been shot three times over, I was far too
hot and blown when I got up to the entrenchments even to lift my
beastly rifle. It was those others would have begun the

'For a time we were watched by two hostile aeroplanes; then our
own came up and asked them not to, and--the practice of aerial
warfare still being unknown--they very politely desisted and went
away and did dives and circles of the most charming description
over the Fox Hills.'

All Barnet's accounts of his military training were written in
the same half-contemptuous, half-protesting tone. He was of
opinion that his chances of participating in any real warfare
were very slight, and that, if after all he should participate,
it was bound to be so entirely different from these peace
manoeuvres that his only course as a rational man would be to
keep as observantly out of danger as he could until he had learnt
the tricks and possibilities of the new conditions. He states
this quite frankly. Never was a man more free from sham heroics.

Section 6

Barnet welcomed the appearance of the atomic engine with the zest
of masculine youth in all fresh machinery, and it is evident that
for some time he failed to connect the rush of wonderful new
possibilities with the financial troubles of his family. 'I knew
my father was worried,' he admits. That cast the smallest of
shadows upon his delighted departure for Italy and Greece and
Egypt with three congenial companions in one of the new atomic
models. They flew over the Channel Isles and Touraine, he
mentions, and circled about Mont Blanc--'These new helicopters,
we found,' he notes, 'had abolished all the danger and strain of
sudden drops to which the old-time aeroplanes were liable'--and
then he went on by way of Pisa, Paestum, Ghirgenti, and Athens,
to visit the pyramids by moonlight, flying thither from Cairo,
and to follow the Nile up to Khartum. Even by later standards,
it must have been a very gleeful holiday for a young man, and it
made the tragedy of his next experiences all the darker. A week
after his return his father, who was a widower, announced himself
ruined, and committed suicide by means of an unscheduled opiate.

At one blow Barnet found himself flung out of the possessing,
spending, enjoying class to which he belonged, penniless and with
no calling by which he could earn a living. He tried teaching
and some journalism, but in a little while he found himself on
the underside of a world in which he had always reckoned to live
in the sunshine. For innumerable men such an experience has
meant mental and spiritual destruction, but Barnet, in spite of
his bodily gravitation towards comfort, showed himself when put
to the test, of the more valiant modern quality. He was saturated
with the creative stoicism of the heroic times that were already
dawning, and he took his difficulties and discomforts stoutly as
his appointed material, and turned them to expression.

Indeed, in his book, he thanks fortune for them. 'I might have
lived and died,' he says, 'in that neat fool's paradise of secure
lavishness above there. I might never have realised the
gathering wrath and sorrow of the ousted and exasperated masses.
In the days of my own prosperity things had seemed to me to be
very well arranged.' Now from his new point of view he was to
find they were not arranged at all; that government was a
compromise of aggressions and powers and lassitudes, and law a
convention between interests, and that the poor and the weak,
though they had many negligent masters, had few friends.

'I had thought things were looked after,' he wrote. 'It was with
a kind of amazement that I tramped the roads and starved--and
found that no one in particular cared.'

He was turned out of his lodging in a backward part of London.

'It was with difficulty I persuaded my landlady--she was a needy
widow, poor soul, and I was already in her debt--to keep an old
box for me in which I had locked a few letters, keepsakes, and
the like. She lived in great fear of the Public Health and
Morality Inspectors, because she was sometimes too poor to pay
the customary tip to them, but at last she consented to put it in
a dark tiled place under the stairs, and then I went forth into
the world--to seek first the luck of a meal and then shelter.'

He wandered down into the thronging gayer parts of London, in
which a year or so ago he had been numbered among the spenders.

London, under the Visible Smoke Law, by which any production of
visible smoke with or without excuse was punishable by a fine,
had already ceased to be the sombre smoke-darkened city of the
Victorian time; it had been, and indeed was, constantly being
rebuilt, and its main streets were already beginning to take on
those characteristics that distinguished them throughout the
latter half of the twentieth century. The insanitary horse and
the plebeian bicycle had been banished from the roadway, which
was now of a resilient, glass-like surface, spotlessly clean; and
the foot passenger was restricted to a narrow vestige of the
ancient footpath on either side of the track and forbidden at the
risk of a fine, if he survived, to cross the roadway. People
descended from their automobiles upon this pavement and went
through the lower shops to the lifts and stairs to the new ways
for pedestrians, the Rows, that ran along the front of the houses
at the level of the first story, and, being joined by frequent
bridges, gave the newer parts of London a curiously Venetian
appearance. In some streets there were upper and even third-story
Rows. For most of the day and all night the shop windows were
lit by electric light, and many establishments had made, as it
were, canals of public footpaths through their premises in order
to increase their window space.

Barnet made his way along this night-scene rather apprehensively
since the police had power to challenge and demand the Labour
Card of any indigent-looking person, and if the record failed to
show he was in employment, dismiss him to the traffic pavement

But there was still enough of his former gentility about Barnet's
appearance and bearing to protect him from this; the police, too,
had other things to think of that night, and he was permitted to
reach the galleries about Leicester Square--that great focus of
London life and pleasure.

He gives a vivid description of the scene that evening. In the
centre was a garden raised on arches lit by festoons of lights
and connected with the Rows by eight graceful bridges, beneath
which hummed the interlacing streams of motor traffic, pulsating
as the current alternated between east and west and north and
south. Above rose great frontages of intricate rather than
beautiful reinforced porcelain, studded with lights, barred by
bold illuminated advertisements, and glowing with reflections.
There were the two historical music halls of this place, the
Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, in which the municipal players
revolved perpetually through the cycle of Shakespeare's plays,
and four other great houses of refreshment and entertainment
whose pinnacles streamed up into the blue obscurity of the night.
The south side of the square was in dark contrast to the others;
it was still being rebuilt, and a lattice of steel bars
surmounted by the frozen gestures of monstrous cranes rose over
the excavated sites of vanished Victorian buildings.

This framework attracted Barnet's attention for a time to the
exclusion of other interests. It was absolutely still, it had a
dead rigidity, a stricken inaction, no one was at work upon it
and all its machinery was quiet; but the constructor's globes of
vacuum light filled its every interstice with a quivering green
moonshine and showed alert but motionless--soldier sentinels!

He asked a passing stroller, and was told that the men had struck
that day against the use of an atomic riveter that would have
doubled the individual efficiency and halved the number of steel

'Shouldn't wonder if they didn't get chucking bombs,' said
Barnet's informant, hovered for a moment, and then went on his
way to the Alhambra music hall.

Barnet became aware of an excitement in the newspaper kiosks at
the corners of the square. Something very sensational had been
flashed upon the transparencies. Forgetting for a moment his
penniless condition, he made his way over a bridge to buy a
paper, for in those days the papers, which were printed upon thin
sheets of metallic foil, were sold at determinate points by
specially licensed purveyors. Half over, he stopped short at a
change in the traffic below; and was astonished to see that the
police signals were restricting vehicles to the half roadway.
When presently he got within sight of the transparencies that had
replaced the placards of Victorian times, he read of the Great
March of the Unemployed that was already in progress through the
West End, and so without expenditure he was able to understand
what was coming.

He watched, and his book describes this procession which the
police had considered it unwise to prevent and which had been
spontaneously organised in imitation of the Unemployed
Processions of earlier times. He had expected a mob but there was
a kind of sullen discipline about the procession when at last it
arrived. What seemed for a time an unending column of men
marched wearily, marched with a kind of implacable futility,
along the roadway underneath him. He was, he says, moved to join
them, but instead he remained watching. They were a dingy,
shabby, ineffective-looking multitude, for the most part
incapable of any but obsolete and superseded types of labour.
They bore a few banners with the time-honoured inscription:
'Work, not Charity,' but otherwise their ranks were unadorned.

They were not singing, they were not even talking, there was
nothing truculent nor aggressive in their bearing, they had no
definite objective they were just marching and showing themselves
in the more prosperous parts of London. They were a sample of
that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still
cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were
being 'scrapped'--as horses had been 'scrapped.'

Barnet leant over the parapet watching them, his mind quickened
by his own precarious condition. For a time, he says, he felt
nothing but despair at the sight; what should be done, what could
be done for this gathering surplus of humanity? They were so
manifestly useless--and incapable--and pitiful.

What were they asking for?

They had been overtaken by unexpected things. Nobody had

It flashed suddenly into his mind just what the multitudinous
shambling enigma below meant. It was an appeal against the
unexpected, an appeal to those others who, more fortunate, seemed
wiser and more powerful, for something--for INTELLIGENCE. This
mute mass, weary footed, rank following rank, protested its
persuasion that some of these others must have foreseen these
dislocations--that anyhow they ought to have foreseen--and

That was what this crowd of wreckage was feeling and seeking so
dumbly to assert.

'Things came to me like the turning on of a light in a darkened
room,' he says. 'These men were praying to their fellow
creatures as once they prayed to God! The last thing that men
will realise about anything is that it is inanimate. They had
transferred their animation to mankind. They still believed
there was intelligence somewhere, even if it was careless or
malignant.... It had only to be aroused to be
conscience-stricken, to be moved to exertion.... And I saw, too,
that as yet THERE WAS NO SUCH INTELLIGENCE. The world waits for
intelligence. That intelligence has still to be made, that will
for good and order has still to be gathered together, out of
scraps of impulse and wandering seeds of benevolence and whatever
is fine and creative in our souls, into a common purpose. It's
something still to come....'

It is characteristic of the widening thought of the time that
this not very heroical young man who, in any previous age, might
well have been altogether occupied with the problem of his own
individual necessities, should be able to stand there and
generalise about the needs of the race.

But upon all the stresses and conflicts of that chaotic time
there was already dawning the light of a new era. The spirit of
humanity was escaping, even then it was escaping, from its
extreme imprisonment in individuals. Salvation from the bitter
intensities of self, which had been a conscious religious end for
thousands of years, which men had sought in mortifications, in
the wilderness, in meditation, and by innumerable strange paths,
was coming at last with the effect of naturalness into the talk
of men, into the books they read, into their unconscious
gestures, into their newspapers and daily purposes and everyday
acts. The broad horizons, the magic possibilities that the spirit
of the seeker had revealed to them, were charming them out of
those ancient and instinctive preoccupations from which the very
threat of hell and torment had failed to drive them. And this
young man, homeless and without provision even for the immediate
hours, in the presence of social disorganisation, distress, and
perplexity, in a blazing wilderness of thoughtless pleasure that
blotted out the stars, could think as he tells us he thought.

'I saw life plain,' he wrote. 'I saw the gigantic task before
us, and the very splendour of its intricate and immeasurable
difficulty filled me with exaltation. I saw that we have still
to discover government, that we have still to discover education,
which is the necessary reciprocal of government, and that all
this--in which my own little speck of a life was so manifestly
overwhelmed--this and its yesterday in Greece and Rome and Egypt
were nothing, the mere first dust swirls of the beginning, the
movements and dim murmurings of a sleeper who will presently be

Section 7

And then the story tells, with an engaging simplicity, of his
descent from this ecstatic vision of reality.

'Presently I found myself again, and I was beginning to feel cold
and a little hungry.'

He bethought himself of the John Burns Relief Offices which stood
upon the Thames Embankment. He made his way through the
galleries of the booksellers and the National Gallery, which had
been open continuously day and night to all decently dressed
people now for more than twelve years, and across the
rose-gardens of Trafalgar Square, and so by the hotel colonnade
to the Embankment. He had long known of these admirable offices,
which had swept the last beggars and matchsellers and all the
casual indigent from the London streets, and he believed that he
would, as a matter of course, be able to procure a ticket for
food and a night's lodgings and some indication of possible

But he had not reckoned upon the new labour troubles, and when he
got to the Embankment he found the offices hopelessly congested
and besieged by a large and rather unruly crowd. He hovered for
a time on the outskirts of the waiting multitude, perplexed and
dismayed, and then he became aware of a movement, a purposive
trickling away of people, up through the arches of the great
buildings that had arisen when all the railway stations were
removed to the south side of the river, and so to the covered
ways of the Strand. And here, in the open glare of midnight, he
found unemployed men begging, and not only begging, but begging
with astonishing assurance, from the people who were emerging
from the small theatres and other such places of entertainment
which abounded in that thoroughfare.

This was an altogether unexampled thing. There had been no
begging in London streets for a quarter of a century. But that
night the police were evidently unwilling or unable to cope with
the destitute who were invading those well-kept quarters of the
town. They had become stonily blind to anything but manifest

Barnet walked through the crowd, unable to bring himself to ask;
indeed his bearing must have been more valiant than his
circumstances, for twice he says that he was begged from. Near
the Trafalgar Square gardens, a girl with reddened cheeks and
blackened eyebrows, who was walking alone, spoke to him with a
peculiar friendliness.

'I'm starving,' he said to her abruptly.

'Oh! poor dear!' she said; and with the impulsive generosity of
her kind, glanced round and slipped a silver piece into his

It was a gift that, in spite of the precedent of De Quincey,
might under the repressive social legislation of those times,
have brought Barnet within reach of the prison lash. But he took
it, he confesses, and thanked her as well as he was able, and
went off very gladly to get food.

Section 8

A day or so later--and again his freedom to go as he pleased upon
the roads may be taken as a mark of increasing social
disorganisation and police embarrassment--he wandered out into
the open country. He speaks of the roads of that plutocratic age
as being 'fenced with barbed wire against unpropertied people,'
of the high-walled gardens and trespass warnings that kept him to
the dusty narrowness of the public ways. In the air, happy rich
people were flying, heedless of the misfortunes about them, as he
himself had been flying two years ago, and along the road swept
the new traffic, light and swift and wonderful. One was rarely
out of earshot of its whistles and gongs and siren cries even in
the field paths or over the open downs. The officials of the
labour exchanges were everywhere overworked and infuriated, the
casual wards were so crowded that the surplus wanderers slept in
ranks under sheds or in the open air, and since giving to
wayfarers had been made a punishable offence there was no longer
friendship or help for a man from the rare foot passenger or the
wayside cottage....

'I wasn't angry,' said Barnet. 'I saw an immense selfishness, a
monstrous disregard for anything but pleasure and possession in
all those people above us, but I saw how inevitable that was, how
certainly if the richest had changed places with the poorest,
that things would have been the same. What else can happen when
men use science and every new thing that science gives, and all
their available intelligence and energy to manufacture wealth and
appliances, and leave government and education to the rustling
traditions of hundreds of years ago? Those traditions come from
the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one,
when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could
not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce
dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony
between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and
the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made
the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The
men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all
smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and
revenge. I saw no hope in that talk, nor in anything but

But he did not mean a passive patience. He meant that the method
of social reconstruction was still a riddle, that no effectual
rearrangement was possible until this riddle in all its tangled
aspects was solved. 'I tried to talk to those discontented men,'
he wrote, 'but it was hard for them to see things as I saw them.
When I talked of patience and the larger scheme, they answered,
"But then we shall all be dead"--and I could not make them see,
what is so simple to my own mind, that that did not affect the
question. Men who think in lifetimes are of no use to

He does not seem to have seen a newspaper during those
wanderings, and a chance sight of the transparency of a kiosk in
the market-place at Bishop's Stortford announcing a 'Grave
International Situation' did not excite him very much. There had
been so many grave international situations in recent years.

This time it was talk of the Central European powers suddenly
attacking the Slav Confederacy, with France and England going to
the help of the Slavs.

But the next night he found a tolerable meal awaiting the
vagrants in the casual ward, and learnt from the workhouse master
that all serviceable trained men were to be sent back on the
morrow to their mobilisation centres. The country was on the eve
of war. He was to go back through London to Surrey. His first
feeling, he records, was one of extreme relief that his days of
'hopeless battering at the underside of civilisation' were at an
end. Here was something definite to do, something definitely
provided for. But his relief was greatly modified when he found
that the mobilisation arrangements had been made so hastily and
carelessly that for nearly thirty-six hours at the improvised
depot at Epsom he got nothing either to eat or to drink but a cup
of cold water. The depot was absolutely unprovisioned, and no one
was free to leave it.

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