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An Electrical Fairytale from Wizard of Oz Author L. Frank Baum


A quick flash of light almost blinded Rob

At the start of the 20th century, electricity was not taken for granted. It was regarded as something almost magical by many people, including Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, who was so inspired by electricity that he wrote a fairytale about it.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. Baum’s next book. published in 1901, was called The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees. It’s a combination of science fiction, fantasy and boy’s own adventure.

The Master Key a short novel that imagines what electricity could do for humanity. The protagonist is an adventurous teenager called Rob, who enjoys experimenting in electricity. One experiment does not go to plan and the resulting electrical flash of energy summons the Demon of Electricity.

This electrical fairy tale expresses Baum’s lifelong fascination with scientific discovery

Rob is told his experiment touched the so-called electrical Master Key. Rather like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, the Demon of Electricity must give gifts to the person who calls him into the human world.

The gifts are where Baum’s imagination kicks in. They are:

  • Electrical food tablets
  • A small tube that shoots electricity at an enemy and renders the victim unconscious for an hour or so.
  • A watch-sized transport device that flies the wearer around the world at high speeds.
  • A “garment of protection,” which protects the wearer against bullets, swords, and weapons.
  • A “record of events,” which provides remote views of important events taking place in any part of the world within the last 24 hours
  • A “character marker” set of spectacles. The wearer sees people with letters transposed onto their forehead showing their character. G is good, E is evil, W is wise, F is foolish, K is kind and C is cruel.
  • An “Electro-Magnetic Restorer” which “For its wearer will instantly become free from any bodily disease or pain and will enjoy perfect health and vigor. In truth, so great are its powers that even the dead may be restored to life, provided the blood has not yet chilled.”
  • A “Illimitable Communicator” which allows the owner to communicate with anyone around the world.

So how good was Baum, who wrote The Master Key during a period of intense development in electrical engineering, at imagining the future?

We can cook with electricity but can’t eat it.

A small tube that shoots electricity is clearly the electroshock weapon which has the brand name of Taser. Development on this controversial device began in the late 1960s and the name was inspired by a 1911 adventure novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land by Victor Appleton. By the way, the Tom Swift series also includes the wonderfully named books Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone (published in 1914) and Tom Swift and his Electric Runabout (1910)

Rob “tasers” some pirates with his silver electric tube

Electric-powered flight is a struggle but flying cars are being developed. The most advanced is the Kitty Hawk Flyer with a battery that lasts 20 minutes. Of course, we can all travel on Japan’s Bullet Trains, segways, hoverboards and drive a Nissan Leaf.

The electrical garment of protection sounds rather like a force field or a spaceship’s defensive shield from Star Trek or Star Wars. Still science fiction. Scientists appear closer to developing a Klingon-style cloaking device than a force field.

A device showing a record of events. That’s the laptop computer but it also could be interpreted as TV, the internet, or YouTube. Take your pick. In the novel, Rob raises a relevant privacy issue.

What right have you to capture vibrations that radiate from private and secret actions and discover them to others who have no business to know them?

An interactive character marker would be truly amazing and make life much easier, especially when dating and buying used cars. But as Baum points out in the book, you can’t look at your family while wearing these spectacles. Is he imagining augmented reality? Almost. Pokémon Go would have fascinated Baum who adored gadgetry.

Electro-Magnetic Restorer – not quite but we’ve all seen medical dramas where our hero yells ‘clear’ and then applies a defibrillator to the heart, sending a jolt of electricity into the patient.  The idea of defibrillation predates Baum’s Master Key book but the first external one, not using a wire to the heart, was invented in 1930.

Communicator – yep, you might be reading this article on a communicator/smartphone but this one was easy to see coming.  Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in the US in 1876.

Baum wrote 14 Wizard of Oz novels and many more books, stories, poems and scripts. The 1939 classic movie adaptation of Dorothy and Toto’s first adventure ensured his storytelling has a place in cinema history too. The Master Key is mostly forgotten but it shows an interesting perspective on something we utterly take for granted now.

Early editions of The Master Key are usually priced under $1,000. The book is dedicated to Baum’s second son Robert Stanton Baum, who served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in France during World War I and apparently loved messing about with electricity.

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