Kurd Lasswitz, “Bottled Lightning” (1902)

M0014782 Nikola Tesla, with his equipment

I am born.

“Born? What sort of nonsense is it this time? One of the human stupidities that people still pride themselves in. I’m not born, was never born. Or, are you perhaps born, old mechanical timer?”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said the clock in the counter of the electric current.

“Speak more clearly, I don’t understand you,” called the light bulb.

“Don’t know whether I was born,” the clock answered. “Never thought about it. But I have already seen many glass bulbs like you burn themselves out to death. So they must have been born as well.”

“Don’t talk so foolishly! Am I a glass bulb? Am I a carbon filament? You, of course, are a sad piece of clockwork. You have to be wound or you’d run out. But I—I am something completely different.”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock.”

“At the moment, of course, I inhabit a light bulb. At the moment, I only light up on the table here, on the blue books and the white pages, and on people. But once…. Should I tell you?”

“Why are you even asking? You’re going to tell me regardless.”

“You may be right, boring meter! Everything can’t just go ‘tick-tock’ all day and night. Yes, there are times I like to talk. I have to keep silent for so long! But whenever I glow, I talk. And if you don’t want to listen, I’ll tell people regardless of whether they’re born.”

“Human beings? And they’d understand you?”

“Whether they’d understand me? I’ll illuminate them regardless.”

“You’ll have to.”

“Have to? Don’t upset me! Stop interrupting me! Since I vibrate, their brains must resonate with me. Then they’ll see things all around. That’s our language. Color, color! I make it! Haven’t you ever noticed how whenever he’s writing in the blue book, something red flows out of his pen, and there’s a dark stripe on his forehead, and his face goes pale. But whenever he’s writing in the little black book, he writes in black and his cheeks turn red and his eyes glow blue.”

“What don’t you know! But right now he’s writing on the big pages. You don’t understand that.”

“Huh? I can’t read it? We ethereal spirits penetrate the entire world. Our knowledge stretches as far as the father’s giant arm. There, on the big pages, it’s a request, a plea. He wants someone to grant him—his health—with the excessive use of his—yes, his…”

“You see! You can’t read it.”

“I can read it. I just don’t want to! I just don’t like the word!”

“What is it then?”

“Leave me alone! On the other page, it says who he is. ‘I, Karl Theodor Matthew, was born in Waidenburg, the son of the merchant Emil Matthew and his wife Karoline, a born…’ Once again a born something! I’ve had enough! I wasn’t born, not me! Listen to me!

Up there in space where the planets vibrate, my mother, the steamy earth, wakes me from a slumber, whenever she kisses my father, the endless ether, in their dancing vortex. I stream down, the airs rise up, I ball up the vapors into billowing clouds, I drive a summer night’s storm to torrid desires. Thus I awaken and live!”

Thus I awaken and live. That’s what the man wrote in his life story, the beginning of which was written on the paper. Then he grabbed hold of his head, looked with astonishment at the words he had written, pushed the sheet of paper aside, and threw the pen away.

He leaned back in his chair and let his hands fall down idly. But his large clear eyes were directed at the soft light of the lamp on his table, and it was as though the lamp kept sticking out further and further. His eyes slowly defocused until his gaze fixed on an endless distance and no longer perceived anything nearby.

The lamp flickered to the clock with a triumphant flash, and continued: “I was not born. I just woke up and will continue to slumber and wake up again. Do you see the white points rising above the dark rocks in the image there? Do you see the stream issuing from the glacier? Do you recognize the broken tree trunk of the crippled jaws? That’s how it looked when I woke up for the first time.

I met the tree trunks in the mountain jungle, they crunched and fell down, and I, clattering, threw the icy hail down into the valley. Oh wild air, oh golden freedom! I was the weather, I was lightning! From cloud to cloud I jumped into the clothing of light, I traveled down from the cloud to the ground in a blaring beam, splitting the rocks, and streamed up again to the dark cloud in a play of the ethereal spirits. You old, poor clock, what do you know of the ethereal child’s celestial freedom? Do you know a still, muggy July night with its heavy, wistful smell of flowers, when the lovestruck moonbeams glide over the blades of grass in a meadow? Then I snuggled up to the resting air and lured it up with some flattery. And as we floated, embracing each other tightly, we cried tears of joy. The little drops of fog, shooed away by my hot breath, balled themselves up in the moonlight to a soft curve of white cloud.”

The man in his chair sighed quietly. He reached for his pen again, but indignantly pushed aside the big paper and the brunt of the blue books. He took his little book and wrote in it. And the lamp spoke again:

“In the sunshine, I wrapped myself playfully in the veil of the Staubbach Falls. I looked down at the people in the secluded mountain valley. They were constructing strange paths, detonating the rocks, throwing slender bridges across the chasm. Iron rails lay stretched out on the ground. Things slid marvelously up the mountain, down the valley, much easier and smoother than I, flickering, part the airs. Then they put up shining, sparkling red wires in the air above the tracks. It was tempting for me to glide along them whenever I traveled alongside them in blustery weather. And yet, it was as though I would lose my power as soon as I would approach them. As though an unknown law would prevent me from dancing back and forth freely between the water and the clouds. Mother earth warned me. I heard her voice threatening in the thunder with which she called to me whenever I was getting caught up in one of my moods.

‘Do not disturb the work of man! Do not disturb the work of man!’ That’s how the warning sounded.

I didn’t understand what she meant.

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘What is man?’

‘Your master and mine.’

I listened in amazement and fear. ‘Master? Why master? Am I not the radiant son of the ether who can flash through the heights whenever he pleases? What could man want, man who groans in the dust, that ephemeral worm, what could he command of me?’

‘And if I told you, would you understand? That’s why you need to heed my warning. Even after the worst trial and error, you’ll never learn why man is your master, only that he is. His sense of purpose is light and careless. You may have the power, but your power is a game. His power is work.’

‘Work? What is work?’ I asked in high spirits. And I jumped down out of the cloud to the ground through the trunk of a large spruce tree that burst into flames.

‘Beware!’ my mother called out angrily. ‘Do not disturb the work of man, so that you won’t have to learn what work is. Beware that you never have to work. For your work will not be anything like human work. Indeed, I once heard in a mysterious riddle that human work leads to freedom. But your work will be slave labor. Beware in disturbing the work of man!’

‘Beware!’ the warning always echoed around me during my games. Work…work! That must be something really shocking. But what is ‘shocking’? I once heard people say the word when I slid past their window down a metal pole. I saw them standing in the room, trembling, and a dark feeling appeared in me that there was something here that was foreign to me. But I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know it. What’s ‘shocking’ supposed to mean? The deep abyss of a mountain range during an avalanche? I floated over it. The dark, endless space up above? That’s where my father, the ruler of the ether, lives, where the stars send out their messages. Down in the valley, then, where people live? That’s where work is at home. What might it look like? Probably those long, straight, rectangular stripes, now black, now green, now yellow, which were put up down there over the plains and over the hills. That’s what work must be. They always lay fixed to the ground, they didn’t move—that may be what’s shocking. And I was supposed to become a strip like that? The thought was nasty. And yet, as my mother said, man is your master, work is his power. My master? So he was to become my master through work. Then work would have to be something better than me. Who can solve the riddle for me? I often rested for a long time in cold airspace and, in my brooding, would forget the drifting clouds and the flashing sparks. And yet, it was nonsense that human beings should command me—through the fields down there, for instance. Nonsense!

In a hurricane, I traveled out over the sea and pulled the waves up into my cloud in a raging dance and flashed out of the foaming funnel and asked the ocean, ‘What is work?’

‘The coast! The coast!’ it called up to me dully.

That’s when I recognized that I didn’t have much experience. For ‘the coast’ is the ocean’s horizon, and anything that goes beyond it, that’s all ‘coast’ for the ocean.

‘What is man?’ I asked next. ‘Is he our master?’

‘That, I do not know.’ the ocean gurgled. ‘To be sure, man swims around here and there, but he never harms me. By the way, man is, for the most part, dead. Not to be scoffed at as food for the fishes. What does ‘man’ even mean? Don’t be so pedantic. The coast! The coast!’

Then I whooshed away again. There’s not much happening with the ocean. It’s too large and ponderous of a mass. Who, then, could I ask?

Since my comrades didn’t know anything more than I did, I would have to search out the work of man for myself. But I wasn’t allowed to disturb the work of man. The tracks, perhaps? I had glided along them without damaging them. But they couldn’t speak. I had already noticed that. What about the red wire? Did I dare? I couldn’t get any rest.

It was too stupid! A single thought was already disturbing my freedom. Did that already count as work? Did work not perhaps mean precisely the fact that the free air was ruined for me…

One day, I was playing again in the clouds over the mountainside. Then I saw something strange crawling up onto the tracks. It clung to the center track but stretched its long throat up to the red wire, licking it with its shiny tongue.

And people were sitting inside. Why would they notice me? Plus, they were still cheerful, their flags flapping on the wagon and songs resounding upward.

People were rejoicing. But I could smell work everywhere. I also thought about whether the wagon was work…’

There was a snap in the timer.

“What’s the matter?” the lamp asked, annoyed at the interruption. “Do you have something to say?”

“Tick-tock,” said the timer, consistent once again. “I was only wondering. People were happy, you said, and the wagon was work, you said, and work is something shocking. That seems like nonsense to me, the most inventive thing an incandescent light could come up with. What do you have to say to that?”

“But people are not the same as wagons, is what I’m saying, you old pedant. And furthermore, I don’t even understand the matter. All I wanted was information about work, and I thought that the wagon could provide it.”

“If only you had asked me,” the timer said wisely. “I get it now. I’ll tell you what work is. It’s the blue notebooks there. Didn’t you notice how that man looked up from his little book just now, how he looked at the clock and cast shy glances at the blue book? But you, how could you be so stupid and disregard the warning about work?”

“Speak smartly now that I’ve instructed you. I no longer had any reserve about the danger of falling into the slavery of man—it’s just that my games were being disturbed—I wanted to know, once and for all, what this whole work thing was about, whether it could really subjugate me…”

The man had jumped up. He was pacing  across the room restlessly. The lamp was afraid he would switch it off. But then he sat down again and put his head in his hand. The lamp was able to continue its story:

“With even more violence, I balled up the clouds and pressed them down to the mountainside while the wagon creeped up into my fog. I wanted to collect myself, so that I would be able to strike down on the wagon and human beings with full power. But once again, everything became strange. My power seemed to grow weak near the wire. My clouds lost their voltage. Still, I kept waltzing up past the icy heights, and now, I felt strong enough—I shot down and crashed into the wagon with a crack of thunder.

Then…then what? I had intended to smash the wagon and the people inside. But instead, I could only notice how a light was now flashing in the wagon. I barely saw that those impudent people were laughing, while I couldn’t penetrate the wagon. I couldn’t hold keep hold of the wire either, only glide along it. I ended up in a high hall. Spinning wheels were turning inside. (I thought about smashing them, but I fell into a trap.) In the hall, things were clattering and rattling, sparks were flying, voices were crying out, a person jumped over and turned a handle. I felt torn apart, my power weakened. I wanted to flee down to mother earth but wasn’t able. I wanted to jump back up to the clouds, floating miles away, but I couldn’t do it. I was chained, shackled to whirling pieces of copper, to dark, long wires. I was no longer a lightning bolt. That’s how I was captured, subjugated to man…”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said the timer.

“Yes, you boring counting mechanism, you torture box, you’re one of my tormentors. I’ll get measured off, and when they switch on the lamps, I’ll have to glow.”

“What’s that?” said the counting mechanism. “At least you have a truly useful occupation and some pleasant variety. You have it better than me. And yet, I’m perfectly content.”

“You don’t know anything else! You’ll never understand me! Now I know what’s shocking, work. Not the fact that I glow but that I must—that’s it! Have to! Have to! Oh, how life is.”

“Have to! Have to!”

A dull groan. It was the man who was groaning.

“You see, human beings have to do things too,” the timer said by way of consolation.

“That’s precisely the point—the fact that I have to share his fate and yet he’s my master. How has he come to force me, the free spirit of the ether, the unborn, immortal power of the universe, how can he force me to work and have to do it himself as well?”

“Have to?”

The man sat up. He pushed the papers and the little book aside and reached for the blue books.

“You see,” the timer said again, “how I’m right?”

The timer ticked, the lamp glowed—they had to…

But the man reached for his pen and said to himself:

“I want to!”

Source: Kurd Lasswitz, “Der gefangene Blitz,” in Traumkristalle, 9-20 (Leipzig: Elischer, 1902).


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Erik Born

I’m an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Society for the Humanities and the Department of German Studies at Cornell University. My research and teaching focuses broadly speaking on relations between old media and new media, and particularly on questions of mobility.

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