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Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Mark Twain's From the 'London Times' of 1904

Mark Twain was fascinated by technology and industry, but rarely delved into the genre of Scientific Romance. I suspect there is a correlation between those two facts. After all, Twain was a satirist driven by his intolerance of what he deemed foolishness and hypocrisy. Being fascinated by technology, it would have been beyond him to really give it a good go the way he did to the institutions of society.

In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Twain takes the starch out of genius inventors, though one feels he's really poking at the genre of Scientific Romance itself and the airship created by the inventor serves mainly as a plot device. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the American author has a go at Mediaeval romances by allowing his protagonist to introduce modernity at Camelot. Even in the industrial carnage of its conclusion, one never quite feels that Twain is turning on industrialization. Throughout his travelogues like Innocents Abroad, he has sometimes shockingly cruel things to say about non-industrialized cultures. For his part, Twain had several patents to his name, including the elastic bra strap. Even the financial failure of his Paige typesetting machine seemed not to dull his overall enthusiasm for technology.

This love affair comes out in his 1898 short story From the 'London Times' of 1904. Its scant 4000 words are divided into three chapters, of which the first two concern themselves with a device called the "telelectroscope." It is this part that interests modern readers the most, because it essentially predicted the Internet. Twain plays it remarkably straight in doing so, with hardly a joke to speak of. His satirist mind comes to play in the third chapter, which savages one of his favourite targets - the French - over the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern legal history, the Dreyfus Affair violently divided French society at the turn of the century and could not escape Twain's notice either.

The concept of the telelectroscope first entered public consciousness in 1878, hot on the heels of Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent for the telephone. French writer Louis Figuier was taken in by an anonymous hoax article in the New York Sun describing a telephone-like invention by an unnamed "eminent scientist" that amounted to a videophone or, in modern parlance, a webcam. Figuier ascribed this invention to Bell, and while Bell was working on an optics-related project, it was not a telelectroscope. The actual invention was the photophone, which used optical cable to transmit communication via modulated light beams... Essentially, the precursor to fibre-optics.    

Nevertheless, the telelectroscope was a fascinating idea and savants took to it. Most notably, Jan Szczepanik and Ludwig Kleiberg filed a British patent for such a device in 1898, though there has been considerable debate over whether the device ever actually existed. It was from here that Mark Twain took notice and wrote his fictional story about Szczepanik and the invention.

Before continuing, it is worth reading Twain's own story, as originally published in the November 1898 edition of The Century Magazine. Click on each page for a larger version...







Twain was forced to declare bankruptcy after the failure of the Paige typesetter, necessitating a world speaking tour to pay off his debts. He had been in Paris in 1894 when the Dreyfus Affair broke out, and was living in Vienna in 1898 when he wrote From the 'London Times' of 1904. This gave him a ringside seat for a bizarre, often unfathomable, intersection of race, politics, nationalism, and injustice at the fin de siècle

The Dreyfus Affair is complex (and warrants its own lengthy Wikipedia article) but revolved around Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jewish captain in the French military who was accused, tried, and found guilty of treason with the Prussians by a military tribunal. While serving out his sentence on Devil's Island in French Guiana, new evidence came to light that Dreyfus was innocent. To protect its reputation, the military tribunal acquitted the guilty party, removed the officers who began uncovering the conspiracy, and levied new charges against Dreyfus using falsified documents. By the time of Dreyfus' second trial in 1899, a civil trial, France was deeply divided between the pro-justice Dreyfusards and the pro-nationalistic Anti-Dreyfusards. Émile Zola came out in support of Dreyfus, and even did jail time for his scathing critique J'accuse! (trans: I Accuse!) which pointed the finger at not only the military and political authorities in general, but specifically named names. Jules Verne began as an Anti-Dreyfusard, but in the process of writing his novel The Kip Brothers (1902) touching on the themes of the case, converted to a Dreyfusard. Georges Méliès was a Dreyfusard as well, and broke out as a filmmaker with his 1899 series of vignettes on the case.

Mark Twain already held a fairly dim view of the French. "France has neither winter nor summer nor morals," he wrote in his Notebook, "--apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country." Also "In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog & a Frenchman is not perceptible." He was quoted as saying "There is nothing lower than the human race except the French." And those were just some of the lighter remarks. The Dreyfus Affair did nothing to endear him to the nation.