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The World Set Free

The World Set Free is a novel published in 1914 by H. G. Wells. It is not very successful as a novel, but is very noteworthy for its depiction of what he referred to as "atomic bombs" that eerily prefigured nuclear weapons.

The novel opens: "The history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal." A constant theme in Wells' work, such as his 1901 nonfiction book Anticipations, was the role of energy and technological advance as a determinant of human progress.

Scientists of the day were well aware that the slow natural radioactive decay of elements like radium continues for thousands of years, and that while the rate of energy release is negligible, the total amount released is huge. In his story,

"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."

As fate or coincidence would have it, in reality the physicist Leo Szilard read the book in 1932, conceived of the idea of nuclear chain reaction in 1933, and filed for patents on it in 1934.

In Wells' story, the "atomic bombs" have no more power than ordinary high explosive--but they "continue to explode" for days:

"Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them."

In the great tradition of science-fiction, he gives the obligatory double-talk explanation of how the bombs are supposed to work:
"Those used by the Allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb was a blazing continual explosion."
Nonsense, of course--even if the "inducive" does sound rather like the initiator used in modern nuclear weapons.

It is hard to see how any bomb could "explode continuously" without destroying itself; this is, of course, one of the problems that had to be solved in the development of the real atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons are, and need to be, just as "instantaneous" as a conventional explosive. Thus Wells' bombs were not truly prophetic at an engineering level. Nevertheless, it is startling to read:

"Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands... All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape... Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it... Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city."

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