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H. G. Wells And The Atom Bomb
By CHARLES MATHEWS
ONE of the popular fallacies
about the atom bomb is that its manufacture, use and devastat- ing power were forecast by H. G. Wells nearly 40 years before
Ardent believers in Wcllsian pre- diction suggest you read immediately his inventive fantasy, "The World Set Free," in which the effects of atomic warfare are described with horrible accuracy. There, ihcv will tell you, is proof of his gift of prophecy.
A few weeks after "The World Set Free" appeared on the bookstalls the Great War broke out and the bombing of France and Germany followed the lines Wells had pre- dicted in earlier writings. But these prophetic writings were sur- passed by his master stroke of pre- vision when he introduced the atom bomb, and, ac the author him- self declared in 1926: "Obviously, it was a prophetic book."
'THIS all seems extremely clever
and greatly enhances the crea- tive genius of Mr. Wells. But in- vestigation reveals the origin of his remarkable prediction of cosmic
"The World Set Free" was written
in 1913 after Wells had spent a short holiday in Switzerland. He confessed on his return that he had read many scientific and pseudo - scientific books dealing with radioactiv- ity and toyed with the idea of a romance with atomic power as its theme.
The outcome was a book with a character named Halsten, a scientific wiz- ard, who had solved the riddle of extracting
energy from radioactive materials by causing atomic disintegration in a piece of bismuth which burst with terrific force into a heavy gas of "extreme radioactivity," which dis- persed immediately.
piGHTEEN years before, in May, ^ 1895, Messrs. Digby Long and Co., of London, published a book, '"The Crack of Doom," written by Robert Cromie, a retired bank mana- ger, of Belfast, Northern Ireland. This unique work of fiction foretold the atomic bomb half a century be-
fore the first bomb was made and
used and a quarter of a century be- fore Lord Rutherford, at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, split the atom, and ten years before Einstein first investigated the immensity of atomic power.
The book was accepted as a vari- ation of the Jules Verne type of
fiction, but there was more In it than
The author pointed out that each atom was a store of pent-up energy which could be released with a vio- lence millions of times more power- ful than any known explosive; scientific journals dismissed this with smug disdain.
It was firmly believed at that date that all the greatest discoveries id physics had been made and one noted scientist declared: "The great things are discovered; for us theie remains little but the working out of
The showdown came in 1903 when, at a meeting of the British Association prominent physicists con- fessed they were amazed at the evi- dence before them of the enormous power contained in what they had regarded as inert grains of matter,
gETWEEN the publication of
Cromie's book and the meeting of the British Association, Becquerel had discoveicd radioactivity and the Curies had detected and calculated the leakage of atomic power from radium. It was then that the scien- tific world began to concentrate on the study of atomic force, especially when in 1905 Einstein shocked the
world by claim- ing that the energy in ona pound of matter was equal to the explosive force of 1,000,000 tons of T.N.T.
All these facU were known in 1913 when H. G. Wells "forecast" the atom bomb, but Cromie had had to draw upon his imagina- tion to construct the theme of his story.
Cromie, liko Wells many years later, selected for his central char- acter a scientist
who spoke with almost incredible prediction when he said he viewed the atom as "a miniature solar sys- tem," this, some considerable time before Bohr and Rutherford came to the same momentous decision.
Cromie's scientists knew their stuff, for one of them declared: "The atom is destructible . . . on i grain of mat- ter contains sufficient energy, if etherised, to raise 100,000 tons nearly two miles. In a pint of water there is bound up a latent force be- side which steam and electricity are powerless in comparison."
It is quite probable that before Wells left Victoria Station for that holiday in Switzerland he strolled over to the bookstall and slipped a copy of Cromie's book into his coat pocket and later enjoyed everv word
In any case, Cromie and not ho must enjoy the credit of having first imagined the atom bomb. ? .
H. G. WELLS