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No. 1571:
Oz and Electricity

Today, Dorothy, Kansas, and the new forces of electricity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lyman Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born in upstate New York in 1856. His father, a barrel maker, went on to become oil-rich. Baum was dogged by poor health and driven by a fertile imagination. At seventeen he started a newspaper. At twenty-four he became manager of several theaters owned by his father. Baum wrote and mounted musical plays. He ran a newspaper in South Dakota. He wrote his first book on raising chickens. It was 1900 when he wrote the first of fourteen or more Oz books. They were wonderful stories. I know. I was raised on them.

But Oz books were only a fraction of Baum's writings for children. A year after The Wizard of Oz he wrote The Master Key -- a book I first saw just the other day. It's about a boy named Rob whose father allows him great freedom to do electrical experiments in his workshop. Rob plays with telephones and electric motors.

Rob's mother worries about his safety, but his father replies, "Electricity is destined to become the motive power of the world." So Rob strings wires and throws switches. One day he connects two wires, unsure of what he's doing, and a genie appears in a great flash of light. It seems Rob has inadvertently summoned the Demon of Electricity by touching the master key of electricity.

The Demon promises Rob three electric items of the future each week for three weeks. He tells Rob to use the devices with care and circumspection and to show them to the wisest people in the land. The first three are a tube that stuns an enemy for an hour without killing him, a wrist device that transports one through the air, and a box of pills that serve in place of food. Rob takes them and flies off. His rashness leads him into terrible dangers, but he returns safely to receive the second three devices.

This time he's given a pair of glasses that reveal a person's character, a sort of hand-held TV screen that shows what's taking place anywhere on earth, and a garment that wards off any assault.

A much wiser Rob returns from yet another series of life-threatening adventures. When the Demon offers the third set of devices, Rob says, "Keep it." The horrified Demon says, "You might have hastened [a new day] if you'd been wise enough to use your powers properly." "But I'm NOT wise enough," Rob cries. It's up to humans to become wise enough first.

All this is a little like Dorothy deciding that being back in Kansas is best after all. Baum reminds us that Rob, Dorothy, all of us, really did stand at the portals of Oz in 1900. As the Demon of Electricity went poof, an army of smart people stepped up to begin creating the wonders Rob wouldn't accept.

Baum leaves us less with a vision of electricity-to-come than with a story about the foreboding that touched us a century ago. By now we've seen some of the Demon's gifts, and we've tried to make others. But in 1900 we'd all caught just a glimpse of that Demon -- and we had no idea where he actually meant to take us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Baum, L. F. The Master Key, an electrical fairy tale founded upon the mysteries of electricity and the optimism of its devotees. It was written for boys, but others may read it. (illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory) Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Co., 1901.

The full text of The Master Key may be found at:

Illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1901

Illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1901.