Twelve Stories and a Dream

BOOK: Twelve Stories and a Dream
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Twelve Stories and a Dream
First published in 1903
ISBN 978-1-62012-686-8
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.
1 - Filmer

In truth the mastery of flying was the work of thousands of men—this
man a suggestion and that an experiment, until at last only one vigorous
intellectual effort was needed to finish the work. But the inexorable
injustice of the popular mind has decided that of all these thousands,
one man, and that a man who never flew, should be chosen as the
discoverer, just as it has chosen to honour Watt as the discoverer of
steam and Stephenson of the steam-engine. And surely of all honoured
names none is so grotesquely and tragically honoured as poor Filmer's,
the timid, intellectual creature who solved the problem over which the
world had hung perplexed and a little fearful for so many generations,
the man who pressed the button that has changed peace and warfare and
well-nigh every condition of human life and happiness. Never has that
recurring wonder of the littleness of the scientific man in the face of
the greatness of his science found such an amazing exemplification.
Much concerning Filmer is, and must remain, profoundly obscure—Filmers
attract no Boswells—but the essential facts and the concluding scene
are clear enough, and there are letters, and notes, and casual allusions
to piece the whole together. And this is the story one makes, putting
this thing with that, of Filmer's life and death.

The first authentic trace of Filmer on the page of history is a document
in which he applies for admission as a paid student in physics to the
Government laboratories at South Kensington, and therein he describes
himself as the son of a "military bootmaker" ("cobbler" in the vulgar
tongue) of Dover, and lists his various examination proofs of a high
proficiency in chemistry and mathematics. With a certain want of dignity
he seeks to enhance these attainments by a profession of poverty and
disadvantages, and he writes of the laboratory as the "gaol" of his
ambitions, a slip which reinforces his claim to have devoted himself
exclusively to the exact sciences. The document is endorsed in a manner
that shows Filmer was admitted to this coveted opportunity; but until
quite recently no traces of his success in the Government institution
could be found.

It has now, however, been shown that in spite of his professed zeal
for research, Filmer, before he had held this scholarship a year, was
tempted, by the possibility of a small increase in his immediate income,
to abandon it in order to become one of the nine-pence-an-hour computers
employed by a well-known Professor in his vicarious conduct of those
extensive researches of his in solar physics—researches which are still
a matter of perplexity to astronomers. Afterwards, for the space of
seven years, save for the pass lists of the London University, in which
he is seen to climb slowly to a double first class B.Sc., in mathematics
and chemistry, there is no evidence of how Filmer passed his life. No
one knows how or where he lived, though it seems highly probable that he
continued to support himself by teaching while he prosecuted the studies
necessary for this distinction. And then, oddly enough, one finds him
mentioned in the correspondence of Arthur Hicks, the poet.

"You remember Filmer," Hicks writes to his friend Vance; "well, HE
hasn't altered a bit, the same hostile mumble and the nasty chin—how
CAN a man contrive to be always three days from shaving?—and a sort of
furtive air of being engaged in sneaking in front of one; even his
coat and that frayed collar of his show no further signs of the passing
years. He was writing in the library and I sat down beside him in the
name of God's charity, whereupon he deliberately insulted me by covering
up his memoranda. It seems he has some brilliant research on hand that
he suspects me of all people—with a Bodley Booklet a-printing!—of
stealing. He has taken remarkable honours at the University—he went
through them with a sort of hasty slobber, as though he feared I might
interrupt him before he had told me all—and he spoke of taking his
D.Sc. as one might speak of taking a cab. And he asked what I was
doing—with a sort of comparative accent, and his arm was spread
nervously, positively a protecting arm, over the paper that hid the
precious idea—his one hopeful idea.

"'Poetry,' he said, 'Poetry. And what do you profess to teach in it,

"The thing's a Provincial professorling in the very act of budding, and
I thank the Lord devoutly that but for the precious gift of indolence I
also might have gone this way to D.Sc. and destruction..."

A curious little vignette that I am inclined to think caught Filmer in
or near the very birth of his discovery. Hicks was wrong in anticipating
a provincial professorship for Filmer. Our next glimpse of him is
lecturing on "rubber and rubber substitutes," to the Society of Arts—he
had become manager to a great plastic-substance manufactory—and at
that time, it is now known, he was a member of the Aeronautical
Society, albeit he contributed nothing to the discussions of that body,
preferring no doubt to mature his great conception without external
assistance. And within two years of that paper before the Society of
Arts he was hastily taking out a number of patents and proclaiming in
various undignified ways the completion of the divergent inquiries which
made his flying machine possible. The first definite statement to that
effect appeared in a halfpenny evening paper through the agency of a man
who lodged in the same house with Filmer. His final haste after his long
laborious secret patience seems to have been due to a needless panic,
Bootle, the notorious American scientific quack, having made an
announcement that Filmer interpreted wrongly as an anticipation of his

Now what precisely was Filmer's idea? Really a very simple one. Before
his time the pursuit of aeronautics had taken two divergent lines, and
had developed on the one hand balloons—large apparatus lighter than
air, easy in ascent, and comparatively safe in descent, but floating
helplessly before any breeze that took them; and on the other, flying
machines that flew only in theory—vast flat structures heavier than
air, propelled and kept up by heavy engines and for the most part
smashing at the first descent. But, neglecting the fact that the
inevitable final collapse rendered them impossible, the weight of the
flying machines gave them this theoretical advantage, that they could
go through the air against a wind, a necessary condition if aerial
navigation was to have any practical value. It is Filmer's particular
merit that he perceived the way in which the contrasted and hitherto
incompatible merits of balloon and heavy flying machine might be
combined in one apparatus, which should be at choice either heavier or
lighter than air. He took hints from the contractile bladders of fish
and the pneumatic cavities of birds. He devised an arrangement of
contractile and absolutely closed balloons which when expanded could
lift the actual flying apparatus with ease, and when retracted by the
complicated "musculature" he wove about them, were withdrawn almost
completely into the frame; and he built the large framework which these
balloons sustained, of hollow, rigid tubes, the air in which, by an
ingenious contrivance, was automatically pumped out as the apparatus
fell, and which then remained exhausted so long as the aeronaut desired.
There were no wings or propellers to his machine, such as there had been
to all previous aeroplanes, and the only engine required was the compact
and powerful little appliance needed to contract the balloons. He
perceived that such an apparatus as he had devised might rise with frame
exhausted and balloons expanded to a considerable height, might
then contract its balloons and let the air into its frame, and by an
adjustment of its weights slide down the air in any desired direction.
As it fell it would accumulate velocity and at the same time lose
weight, and the momentum accumulated by its down-rush could be utilised
by means of a shifting of its weights to drive it up in the air again
as the balloons expanded. This conception, which is still the structural
conception of all successful flying machines, needed, however, a vast
amount of toil upon its details before it could actually be
realised, and such toil Filmer—as he was accustomed to tell the
numerous interviewers who crowded upon him in the heyday of his
fame—"ungrudgingly and unsparingly gave." His particular difficulty was
the elastic lining of the contractile balloon. He found he needed a new
substance, and in the discovery and manufacture of that new substance he
had, as he never failed to impress upon the interviewers, "performed
a far more arduous work than even in the actual achievement of my
seemingly greater discovery."

But it must not be imagined that these interviews followed hard upon
Filmer's proclamation of his invention. An interval of nearly five years
elapsed during which he timidly remained at his rubber factory—he
seems to have been entirely dependent on his small income from this
source—making misdirected attempts to assure a quite indifferent
public that he really HAD invented what he had invented. He occupied
the greater part of his leisure in the composition of letters to the
scientific and daily press, and so forth, stating precisely the net
result of his contrivances, and demanding financial aid. That alone
would have sufficed for the suppression of his letters. He spent such
holidays as he could arrange in unsatisfactory interviews with the
door-keepers of leading London papers—he was singularly not adapted for
inspiring hall-porters with confidence—and he positively attempted
to induce the War Office to take up his work with him. There remains a
confidential letter from Major-General Volleyfire to the Earl of Frogs.
"The man's a crank and a bounder to boot," says the Major-General in
his bluff, sensible, army way, and so left it open for the Japanese
to secure, as they subsequently did, the priority in this side of
warfare—a priority they still to our great discomfort retain.

And then by a stroke of luck the membrane Filmer had invented for his
contractile balloon was discovered to be useful for the valves of a new
oil-engine, and he obtained the means for making a trial model of his
invention. He threw up his rubber factory appointment, desisted from all
further writing, and, with a certain secrecy that seems to have been an
inseparable characteristic of all his proceedings, set to work upon
the apparatus. He seems to have directed the making of its parts and
collected most of it in a room in Shoreditch, but its final putting
together was done at Dymchurch, in Kent. He did not make the affair
large enough to carry a man, but he made an extremely ingenious use of
what were then called the Marconi rays to control its flight. The first
flight of this first practicable flying machine took place over some
fields near Burford Bridge, near Hythe, in Kent, and Filmer followed and
controlled its flight upon a specially constructed motor tricycle.

BOOK: Twelve Stories and a Dream
13.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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