The World Set Free

I recently re-readThe World Set Free” by H.G. Wells, a book which has a decent claim to being the most influential work of fiction of the 20th Century.

Written in 1913, a central theme of the book is that access to energy is central to the advance of global civilisation.

In the prologue, he imagines early humans wandering over the Earth and not realising that, first coal, and then later nuclear fuel, was literally under their feet.

Rendering of the gigantic planned SunCable solar farm. Copyright SunCable.

I had revisited the text because I realised that Wells had ignored the energy in the sunlight falling on the Earth, of which we require just 0.01% to power our advanced civilisation.

And so now, we can simply collect the largesse of energy that falls on the Earth everyday.

But it is unfair to criticise a futurist for what they omitted – getting anything right at all about the future is hard.

But re-reading the book I realised that Wells’ imagined vision of the future has been – I think – profoundly influential. Let me explain.

The Most Influential Book of the Twentieth Century?

The book initially follows a scientist (Holsten) who uncovers the secret of what he calls “induced radio-activity” – allowing the controlled release of nuclear energy.

And eventually a world of atomic-powered planes and automobiles follows.

But the political institutions of the world remained archaic and unsuited to the possibilities of this new world.

And in a stand-off broadly following the divisions of the actual World Wars, he foresees a global war fought with atomic weapons – a phrase which I think he must have invented.

Fictional Atomic Bombs

Of course in 1913, atomic bombs did not exist. H G Wells envisaged them as follows.

“…the bomb-thrower lifted the big atomic bomb from the box and steadied it against the side [of the plane]. It was black sphere roughly two feet in diameter. Between its handles was a little celluloid stud, and to this he bent his head until his lips touched it. Then he had to bite in order to let air in upon the inducive. Sure of its accessibility, he craned his neck over the side of the aeroplane and judged his pace and distance. Then very quickly he bent forward, bit the stud, and hoisted the bomb over the side.

“Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive… Those used by the allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with un-oxidised 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 the radioactivity 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.

Carolinum belonged to the beta group of Hyslop’s so-called ‘suspended degenerator’ elements, [and] once its degenerative process had been induced, continued a furious radiation of energy and nothing could arrest it. Of all of Hyslop’s artificial elements, Carolinum was the most heavily stored with energy and the most dangerous to make and handle. To this day it remains the most potent degenerator known. What earlier 20th Century chemists called its half-period was seventeen days; that is to say, it poured out half the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days’ emission was half of that first period’s outpouring and so on…. to this day, the battle-fields and bomb fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter, and so centres of inconvenient rays

“A moment or so after its explosion began, [the bomb] was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground mainly solid, and, melting soil and rock in their progress bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove onto and mixed up with the boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam, and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according the size of the bomb…

“Once launched the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far.

“Such was the crowning triumph of military science, the ultimate explosive that was to give the ‘decisive touch’ to war…

Actual Atomic Bombs

Of course almost every detail of the account above is wrong.

But qualitatively, it is spot on: a single weapon which could utterly destroy a city not just at the time of its detonation, but have effects which would persist for decades afterwards: the “ultimate explosive”

And critically, the book was read by Leo Szilard, a man with a truly packed Wikipedia page!

On September 12, 1933, having only recently fled Germany for England, Szilard was irritated by a Times article by Rutherford, who dismissed the possibility of releasing useful amounts of nuclear energy.

And later that day, while crossing Southampton Row in London, it came to him how one could practically release nuclear energy by making a nuclear chain reaction. He patented his idea and assigned the patent to the UK Admiralty to maintain its secrecy.

In the following years he was influential in urging the US to create a programme to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans, and so he came to be present in Chicago when Fermi first realised Szilard’s chain reaction on December 2nd 1943.

On seeing his invention work, he did not rejoice. He recalls…

“There was a crowd there and when it dispersed, Fermi and I stayed there alone. Enrico Fermi and I remained. I shook hands with Fermi and I said that I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind.

I was quite aware of the dangers. Not because I am so wise but because I have read a book written by H. G. Wells called The World Set Free. He wrote this before the First World War and described in it the development of atomic bombs, and the war fought by atomic bombs. So I was aware of these things.

But I was also aware of the fact that something had to be done if the Germans get the bomb before we have it. They had knowledge. They had the people to do it and would have forced us to surrender if we didn’t have bombs also.

We had no choice, or we thought we had no choice.

Was the book really influential?

Of course I don’t know.

But it is striking to me that by merely imagining that such terrible weapons might one day exist, and feasibly imagining the circumstances and results of their use, H.G. Wells placed this idea firmly into Szilard’s mind.

And Szilard was a man who – with good reason – feared what the German regime of the time would do with such weapons.

And so when recalling the first sustained and controlled release of atomic energy in Chicago, he immediately recalled H.G. Wells vision of a war fought with atomic bombs.


“The World Set Free” is fascinating to read, but it is not – in my totally unqualified opinion – a great work of literature.

The characters are mainly implausible, and the peaceful and rational world government Wells envisages would follow nuclear devastation might be better characterised by George Orwell. (Scientific American contrast Orwell and Wells’ ideas about science and society in an interesting essay here.)

By contrast, some of the plot twists are strikingly plausible. I was struck in particular when – after the declaration of World Government from a conference in Brissago in Switzerland – one single monarch held out.

In what might now be called “a rogue state”, a conniving ruler – “a Fox” – sought to conceal some “weapons of mass destruction”. After an attempted pre-emptive strike on the World Government was foiled, an international force searched the rogue state, grounding its aeroplanes, and a search eventually unearthed a stash of atomic bombs hidden under a haybarn.

Perhaps George Bush had been reading “The World Set Free” too!




One Response to “The World Set Free”

  1. 171indianroad Says:

    Complicated topic for sure.

    I was thinking that we are fortunate that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs occurred when they did and not much later.

    The ongoing development and magnification of power of the fusion bombs terrified even their creators.

    The story I read was that after the Tsara Bomb the Soviet scientists used a back channel to message the US scientists directly to call an end to the escalation for fear of immolating the entire planet.

    The many “unknown unknowns” that were not fully realized – the conversion of relatively ordinary matter to nuclear fusion fuel within the explosion process – and frightening.

    In a sense – the two bombs used upon Japan provided inoculation.

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