Robert Walser, “Speech to a Button” (1915)

One day, when I was occupied with sewing together a shirt button that I had burst apart with a heavy sneeze, it suddenly occurred to me, while I was busy sewing, as if I had become an accomplished seamstress, to address the faithful shirt button, this innocent and modest little fellow, with the following words of tribute, which were murmured to myself but, for that very reason, were meant even more sincerely.

“Dear little button,” I said, “How much gratitude and great credit you are due from the one you have served now for so long and for so many years, more than seven, I think, faithfully, diligently, and remaining at his side, from the one whom, in spite of all the forgetfulness and disregard he showed you, you never admonished to praise you even a little bit, which is only happening today, once I came to my senses about what you mean and what your value is.

You, who during all your long, patient years of service have never once stepped into the foreground to appear in some advantageous, pretty light or in a flashy, conspicuous lighting effect, who have much more held back out of a moving and charming modesty, which cannot be overestimated, in the most inconspicuous inconspicuousness, where you exercised your dear, lovely virtue in the best kind of self-contentment. How you enchant me, for that very reason, showing the strength of loyalty, alacrity, and not needing the praise or recognition that anything else that does something would otherwise covet.

You’re cracking a smile, you pick of the bunch, and, as I see, you already look a little worn-out and exhausted, my dear! You excellent little thing! You should serve as an example for people who are addicted to never-ending approval, desiring to sink into their grief, dullness, and resentment, whenever they aren’t being caressed, fondled, and coddled by everyone’s goodwill and high opinion.

You, you are able to live without anyone knowing in the slightest that you even exist. You are happy because modesty is its own reward and faithfulness is at home with itself. You are able to live without anyone knowing that you don’t make a big deal about yourself. You are your own life’s work, or, at least appear to be, are devoted entirely to the silent performance of your duty. You are what one could call a wonderfully fragrant rose whose beauty is really almost a mystery to itself, emitting its fragrance without any purpose.

You are able to live without anyone knowing that you, as said before, are what you are, and the fact that you are what you are is what enchants me, moves, grips, and touches me, and makes me think that there are things, every now and then, in a world so rich in unpleasant phenomena, that give one pleasure and that make whoever spots them happy, cheerful, and bright.”

Source: Robert Walser, “Rede an einen Knopf,” Die weissen Blätter 8.1 (August 1915): 1053-54.

Mynona, “Idea for a Telehaptor” (1913)

So, then, we have telegraphy, telephony, the television is as good as ready-to-go. All that’s left to wait for is telehaptics, the telehaptor, the teletoucher. What use is the entire oeuvre of H.G. Wells, if he shrinks back from this idea? But the matter is much more miserable than one might suspect: We are lost if we do not learn how to telehapt. As long as our sense of touch remains frozen as if in stone, and only its refinements, the senses of sight, smell, and hearing, are free to roam around in the world, we will remain pitiful prisoners. But there’s no need to cry yet! We need some words of encouragement. Some things are not found only because nobody ever has the idea to look for them. The thought of telehapting the sense of touch, once grasped, will have to be realized!

I am not now in Bessarabia, I am here in the place where some people with a healthy digestive system always ask: What is the German’s fatherland? Take them…

Yes, the cuckoo sometimes sings too prettily, Frau Werner—What I wanted to say just now: I am here! But I am not everywhere…apart from…apart from…apart from my little—sense of touch?

Well, there lies the rub! My vision reaches as far as the Milky Way, my hearing potentially for miles, my smell unfortunately into the toilet of the lyrical poet Expresber. I hear the little prostitute Kleptomanopatra here, whenever she speaks during sexual intercourse in Cairo. I sense the elegant novelist Paul Juchheyse (with the sense of intuition, of course), whenever I, so far away from him, think of nothing. But I can only taste and touch my dears when I have them right next to me (which, by the way, heaven forbid!). Nevertheless! What is clear from all of this is that whenever somebody asks, “Where are you?” he actually means, “Where can you be touched?” For you could also be seen, heard, smelled somewhere else. Yes, this heavy and clumsy sense of touch! We have to pry it out, thaw it out, pull it through wires, and finally send it wirelessly into every distance. How easy!

You see, dear Frau Scholz, before you go to the trouble of putting on your stockings and shoes, powdering your nose, going to the train station, getting into a coupe, and still needing fourteen days until you’re not even in Japan yet, where Prince Ten-tsim-po will take you into his frail arms—simply stand naked, as, if we are not mistaken, God made you, on some kind of scale, whose counterpart at the target of your destination will react accordingly: With a flick of the wrist, everything about you that can be touched or weighed will be transferred over there telehaptically! Soon, we’ll be able to send along clothing too; for the time being, the teletoucher resists…shamefully!…anyone who is not stark naked. This is probably the reason why it does yet function properly.

Be that as it may, the teletoucher—which, of course, as Professor Abnossah Pschorr had the kindness to inform me, includes the telesmeller, teletaster, teleheater/cooler, etc.—is the ideal mode of all transportation…and so healthy, so amusing, so modern, that it promises to have a directly refreshing effect, especially in the field of erotics, which up to now has been somewhat…awkward? Yes, Mother Kobelke, have you heard that a teletictor, a telegestural apparatus is definitely envisaged for the future?

All the things that are true! Having oneself telehapted costs a little will power, giving away a little of oneself for a moment. Oh, my dear colonial grocer Schwach from Halle, rid yourself of the delusion that you’re not in Burma: You are everywhere. But without the telehaptor, you’ll hardly experience it! What’s Halle to you? How beautiful Burma is!

Simply have yourself telehapted, on account of your blessed memory in Halle! So that people lament your passing!

And what would be really delightful is the (still to be realized) forced telehaptation! In a single go, we could shoot off an entire regiment of deplorable people to Timbuktu, and destroy the device for them to get back. Good heavens, wouldn’t that be cathartic!…

What do you mean, you sheep nose? You take the thought to be fantastic, you uninvited fool?! Won’t you be silent, you boar! Did you make the festival celebrating 1813 on my behalf, you old party-animal! Did you think perhaps you might be among companions here? You vulture! Do you take these kinds of ideas for hollow eggs full of gas? What? Light waves and such rubbish are supposed to propagate rapidly—and haptic vibrations are not? Are you crazy? Or are you perhaps only the dumb goose who only goes with officers? You disaster!

Source: Mynona (Salomo Friedlaender), “Idee vom Ferntaster,” Der Sturm 4, no. 170–71 (July 1913): 66–67.


Paul Scheerbart, “Self-Advertisement” (1913)

The old man sprung up onto a little table in his laboratory, cleared his throat heavily, and said, “Gentlemen, I will now give a speech. I am not a practiced speaker. But I still hope that I can make myself understood.

“I maintain that Europeans and especially the Germans esteem their famous men of science too much, much too much! Whenever one of them expresses a halfway reasonable opinion or has invented something imposing, he immediately becomes an ‘authority’. Unfamous people say to themselves, ‘The man once did or said something reasonable, so everything he has to say will probably be reasonable too.’ That’s easy, gentlemen, isn’t it?

“Now let’s get to the point. A marvelous example will illustrate what I’ve said perfectly. As is well known, Robert Mayer formulated the great law of the conservation of energy very clearly in 1849. And to this incredibly modern ‘legislation’, he added the observation that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. And for sixty years, all scientists parroted it without taking any trouble to investigate the matter.

“Now, we’re not going to doubt the law of the conservation of energy. But we will definitely debate the claim that the impossibility of a load motor proceeds from this law. As is well-known, Robert Mayer was occupied with the perpetuum mobile for three full years. When he recognized that he would not be able to solve the problem himself, he said solemnly: ‘If I can’t do it, then it’s not possible! For nobody can be more clever than I am!’ This is how (or, roughly how) his really excellent book on the conservation of energy came about. What wisdom did the great Robert come up with? Only this: If a load goes down, it must be taken up again, so it cannot work perpetually if it goes down.

“However, it is still possible that a load sets a system of wheels in motion without approaching the earth. Why shouldn’t this be possible? Whatever is not found today could very well be found tomorrow. Furthermore, every millwheel in a river that is free of ice and never dries up, is already a perpetual motion machine. Admittedly, the evaporation of water takes care of taking up the load again. But the sun takes care of this process of being taken up again perpetually.

“I believe the respected physicists cannot yet position themselves or their imaginations, for the purposes of their cosmic observations, outside of the earth’s atmosphere, and, from this position, view the very strange perpetual attraction of the earth. Converting this force of attraction into perpetual motion may not be so easy: But we cannot declare it to be impossible. The principle of the conservation of energy does not affect the conversion of a force of attraction into motion. Admittedly, there are no dead forces in this world. Every object at rest exerts some pressure, and, in doing so, it does work.

“Physics may be a difficult matter. However, that does not justify anyone in claiming and believing all kinds of things for the field of this marvelous science. Furthermore, I declare that I have never met a technician who has not attempted to invent a perpetuum mobile in secret.”

The old man got down from the table and drank three cognacs without sitting down.

Then I said, “My esteemed Laboratory Director, I completely agree with you and I’ve also been working for two and a half years to invent a transportable load motor that functions perpetually only through the support of a weight. I believe I’ve done it. In any case, I’ve written a book about it, which has appeared through Rowohlt’s Press in Leipzig under the title The Perpetual Motion Machine. It has twenty-six drawings, and can be acquired in bookstores for fifty pfennig.

“That’s truly splendid!” the director said. “I congratulate you!”

“I congratulate myself too!” I said amiably.

Source: Paul Scheerbart, “Selbstanzeige,” Die Zukunft 47, no. 20 (Aug. 1913).


Franz Blei, “Travel” (1911)

These days, the fashion of travel has increased in the same proportion as the talent for it—or, to put it better, the need for it—has decreased. For, the need to travel through the world with the fastest means of transportation actually means continuing to stay at home by oneself, only it’s more uncomfortable, which the powerful hotel industry will remedy in the future. Today, there are travelers who differ from fixed people only in that the ones have a mobile bedroom, the others an immobile one.

Travel has become the mania of perpetual and ever faster movement, and it has completely lost its erotic meaning. We no longer travel due to the attraction of the unknown. We no longer allow ourselves to travel out into the blue. We travel along streets and in countries that we’ve informed ourselves about very precisely, and, before the start of the trip, we already know that they are not a mysterious shade of blue but definitely a nuanced yellow. We also travel to establish that people in one place or another eat and sleeper better than we do at home. We travel with a suitcase full of opinions, too, and we have our minds set on confirming them in a foreign region. In other words, we travel in order to rediscover ourselves everywhere. Which means that we no longer travel but are always at home by ourselves.

People today seem to have so little that they can’t lose any of it. They always have to watch out that they don’t get lost. Something—restlessness, bad digestion, a feeling of importance—drives them around the world, but they are no longer able to travel.

Source: Franz Blei, “Das Reisen,” in Vermischte Schriften, vol. 2, 258–259 (Munich: Georg Müller, 1911).

Artur Fürst, “The Masters of the Universe” (1911)

The other day a ship arrived in the port of New York, its passage from Europe to America constituting an important event in the history of technology. The steamship Bosnia carried on board a station for wireless telegraphy, and, with its help, it was possible for the first time to create a wireless telegraph connection from the suburb of Nauen near Berlin to the immediate proximity of the port of New York.

During its entire passage across the ocean, the Bosnia stayed in contact with the Telefunken station at Nauen. However much the ship’s propeller churned up the ocean, however many hundreds of kilometers the steamship put behind itself and the coast of Europe, it kept pulling along the power of ether waves mysteriously in its wake, and the little apparatus in the telegrapher’s cabin kept reporting with its sharp, clear tick-tock, tick-tock, the contents of the newest newspaper dispatches with the same clarity you would expect traveling across the English Channel or in view of the Statue of Liberty.

The distance from Nauen to New York amounts to 5,200 kilometers. It would take six to seven days to cover it using the fastest means of transportation for people and goods. An electric vibration travels from Berlin to the American coast in a fraction of a second, and it will not even be tired when it finally arrives, performing the task it was entrusted with on this side of the ocean both powerfully and willingly.

What tremendous power! And who is its master?

A man in a blue shirt sits in the humble, whitewashed room of a little country house, holding a smoky, short-stemmed pipe in one hand, and casually moving a delicate switch, a telegraph key up and down with the other. This movement occurs in a particular rhythm in which the trained ear can discern the letters of the Morse alphabet, which, as you know, is composed of combinations of short and long electrical currents. The man at the button is an ordinary telegrapher, and does not exert any more intellectual or physical energy on his work in the little room in Nauen than he would were he to send a telegram over the Imperial Prussian wire from the location of the post office in Treuenbrietzen to Füterbog.

However, the steamship Bosnia is traveling to the port of New York, 5,200 kilometers away, and the cool-headed man with the short-stemmed pipe can transmit the newest messages from around the world to that place across land and sea, across mountains and valleys and storm-tossed waves. What gives him this power?


If we step out of the little house into the open air, we will immediately see the Nauen telegrapher’s powerful assistant. There is suddenly, in the middle of the unspeakably flat Märkisch landscape that sprawls for miles in horrifying silence, a quite thin, very high tower (fig. 4), erected like a harsh exclamation point. It rises up a hundred meters, sticking out considerably above many church spires. Attached to the top of this tower is a web of wires that spreads out in every direction, and that, seen from below, resembles a very delicate spider’s web. From above, the web of wires contracts and expands in the most manifold connections and interlacings, until its last branch terminates in a row of low steel masts that are positioned in a circle at a distance of three hundred meters around the tower. This web is called an “antenna” (fig. 5), and it is the true master of the universe, because the movements the telegrapher makes in the little room closing an electric current with the key only serve in charging the antenna for a shorter or longer time with powerful electric impulses.


Every time the telegrapher presses down the key, a 100,000 V current gets shot into the antenna, and since this current does not flow directly but alternates many thousand times per second, it creates in the web of wires movements of the ether we call “electric waves”. They propagate into space in all directions with a speed of 300,000 km/s, and nothing is able to stop them en route—no storm, no mountains, no object, and no event. They will also make it from the tower at Nauen to the Telefunken station on board the steamship Bosnia, which is just arriving in the port of New York, and they are able to create dots and dashes, the letters of the Morse alphabet, on a moving paper tape with exactly the same rhythm as the Nauen telegrapher presses down his little button for a shorter or longer amount of time.

Nowadays people are already accustomed to counting on wireless telegraphy as a matter of fact, to viewing it as one among humanity’s many possessions. The legions of the mindless already find nothing special about it other than that you can send messages from one coast of the ocean to the other without any connecting wires, just as, a few months after the invention of television, these same people will consider it to be self-evident to be able not only to speak with their dear uncle in Kyritz over the wire but also to see him in the flesh hundreds of kilometers away.

On board the steamship, there is a small glass tube filled with fine metal filings, which completes a local circuit whenever electric waves hit it, and this little tube, called a “coherer”, makes the massive cables, which cost millions, redundant! It is the most sensitive construction that exists, and it will soon be able to detect ether waves around the entire circumference of the earth.

Because people will not be content with the route from Nauen to New York. In 1906, the large German Telefunken station had a range of 3,600 kilometers, which means that its telegrams were received at Tenerife [in the Canary Islands]. In 1909, Nauen was already sending its electric waves 4,500 kilometers away to Capo Blanco [in Mauritania on the west coast of Africa], and, in 1911, they reached 5,200 kilometers.

The main reason for the expansion of transmission range is the increase in the electric energy of the station’s engine room, along with refinements of many individual apparatuses. At first, people worked with an engine with 35 horsepower. Today, there is a motor with hundreds of horsepower. It would be nothing to increase the horsepower many times over, but unfortunately the corresponding increase of voltage in the antenna’s oscillating current would be unworkable.


For the problem of isolation already presents significant difficulties. In the Nauen telegraph house, the 50,000 V electric current created in the engine room, which can easily be transmitted, charges a powerful battery made of Leyden jars (fig. 6). If the current discharges, then oscillating electric sparks of 100,000 V, which create the vibrations in the ether, will jump the gap between a number of metal plates countless times per second. At the site of the wireless station, the antenna, which is attached to the tower outside, serves as a conductor for these spark gaps, since the network of wires leading up into the air increases the range of the vibrations enormously. At the place where the connecting wire passes from the spark gap to the antenna through the wall of the house, there is already, even at the present voltage, a huge porcelain isolator with a length of two meters (fig. 2). It keeps the 100,000 volts in check. There’s no way of managing a higher voltage. So, this constitutes a limit for the time being.



However, there is no doubt that the work already in motion will make it possible to keep increasing the voltage. And then wireless telegraphy will continue its victory march.


In the meantime, the power of ether waves has already conquered a new domain. On the Dutzendteich Lake in Nürnberg and the Wannsee near Berlin, you can see a motor boat driving around whose movements are controlled from the shore (fig. 7). Nobody is on board, and the turning of the helm, the starting and stopping of the machine, the discharge of warning signals for approaching ships—everything is brought about from dry land. It is a really strange, very wonderful sight to see the boat gliding through the water so sure of its goal without any crew, and the occupants of a passing steamship or a sailing yacht, none the wiser, must be as startled at the sight as if Hauff’s ghost ship were suddenly passing by.

The magician here, too, is the waves of the ether. On the shore, there is once again an antenna hung up on a high mast, and, just as in telegraphic communication, the electric vibrations sent through the antenna influence a coherer on board the ship, which is connected to a receiving antenna secured between the ship’s masts. Whenever the antenna on shore sends out vibrations through the push of a button, the coherer on the ship completes circuits that are fed from storage batteries on board.

In and of itself, it is not difficult to bring about effects like turning a steering wheel or stopping a gas motor through the completion of various circuits. What is surprising about this remote-controlled boat is that the steersman on the shore is able to complete various circuits according only to his own desire using the influence of the one coherer, which, of course, is the only one he can use—that is, using a circuit at one single location. One push of the button on dry land and the wheel turns to the left, another  push, and, with that, the antenna influences the coherer, and the warning signal sounds, then the wheel holds course or the motor suddenly stops.

Merely reporting the fundamental idea of the invention would not do justice to either the event or the inventor, the teacher Wirth. For the time being, it can remain his secret. There are no small number of possible uses for this invention—admittedly, only after further perfection in practice. The navy would be able to use torpedoes without launching tubes and without even needing to shoot them—simply put them in the water, since they could be controlled wirelessly from on board a ship to reach their target. People would also be able to send a rescue boat to anyone in danger on a stormy sea without endangering any of the rescue party. And the perfected invention would also open up many further fields of application.

Admittedly, it is first necessary to tune the receiving apparatus on board to the point where it would only pick up oscillations from the intended antenna. Otherwise, for example, one side in a naval battle would be able to easily defend themselves using the oscillations coming from their enemy’s antenna. For this situation, Wirth also claims to have found a solution.

The telegraphers at Nauen are also working on the problem of keeping their messages secret by tuning their apparatuses to particular wavelengths. Some of them have already succeeded, but there’s still a long way to go here, as is the case for the other Telefunken stations. For the time being, Nauen’s enormous range, as great for receiving as for transmitting, is able to capture any wireless telegram transmitted anywhere in Europe. It is almost omniscient: It knows everything that plays out in the ether.

Source: Artur Fürst, “Die Beherrscher des Weltraums,” in Die Wunder um Uns: Neue Einblicke in Natur und Technik, 11-20 (Berlin: Vita, 1911).

Alexander Roda Roda, “Inventors” (1908)

The first inventor I ever met was Uncle Bernhard. I was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time and on holiday. Uncle Bernhard heard that I had gotten a good grade in physics, which incited him to invite me to pay him a visit. He was longing for somebody to whom he could present his inventions. For somebody to participate in them, to understand them. For an expert, as it were, and he believed to have found one in me.

I can’t remember all of them, Uncle Bernhard’s inventions. I can only visualize one clearly —[a farming implement,] the tailcoat harrow.

A tailcoat harrow? It was a harrow with a somewhat bizarre form—let’s say, like the length-wise bisection of a mushroom. It was called a ‘tailcoat’ harrow, because Uncle Bernhard found that a tailcoat spread out on the ground would give the best outline.

“And what advantage does this harrow have over other harrows?”

Uncle Bernhard said: “You know, it does the same work as other harrows.”

“Well, of course. What’s the advantage? Is it easier to make? Is it more inexpensive?”

“It’s somewhat more difficult to make and costs somewhat more than other harrows. But, my child, it does have one very significant advantage: You only have to attach a couple of horses in front of it.”

I looked around and there were already a couple of horses attached in front of all the other normal rhombus-shaped harrows.

My uncle read my mind and said: “What I mean is that the horses don’t get so exhausted in front of the tailcoat harrow.”

“Why’s that, Uncle?”

My uncle warmed up and called out, “Isn’t it true, my boy, that when you put on a tailcoat, you simply put it on over your upper body, and the coattails—right, my boy—they’ll get dragged along behind—you don’t really need to carry them at all? My tailcoat harrow is based on this same mechanical principle: The horses pull the front part, the broad upper body, as it were, and the narrow coattails in the back simply go along with it. You don’t need to pull them one bit. You see, that’s the advantage of the tailcoat harrow.”

In subsequent years, I encountered quite a few other inventors. The strangest was probably the village blacksmith in Terpinje. Terpinje is a tiny little village somewhere in Croatia, and I never would have gone there on my own volition. But, at the time, I had to visit Terpinje because I was a lieutenant and had received the order to set up quarters there.

Once at the inn, somebody already started telling me about the curious village blacksmith who built gigantic, mysterious machines. And they told me how he had come to build them: As a 20-year-old boy, he had been sentenced to death for murdering a man who had caught him committing adultery in flagrante. Then he was ‘pardoned’, as people in Europe were in the custom of saying, to twenty years in a penitentiary. In confinement, he proved himself to be recalcitrant and closed-off, and he had to stay there for the full twenty years. Two or three years ago, he turned up again in Terpinje, re-opened the blacksmith’s shop, and pursued his trade using the rusty tools inherited from his father. He found them to be fairly useable, except for the bellows, which had not been improved by twenty years storage in a scorching hot attic.

And during all the years in the penitentiary this man had gotten stuck on an idea, which he now strove to make a reality. He did not speak about it with anyone, least of all with me. My uniform made him mistrust me.

But I was too curious, too cocky, and, consequently, I was also a little bit intrusive. I wouldn’t let him go. He had to take me to his machine! It was disassembled and consisted of a disorderly pile of gears, springs, connecting rods, shafts, and bearings—none of it would have made anyone the wiser.

The poor blacksmith had forged, filed, and finished all of these gears, control wheels, bearings, and springs in the bleak hours of his free time, using his own anvil. His father’s rusty old tools of the trade. It was one of those perseverant, closet accomplishments that makes you stand there frozen in disbelief and incomprehension. Like whenever you hear about some prisoner scratching a man-sized hole into a prison wall using only a sewing needle and then letting himself down from the fourth floor on a rope made out of threads he had culled from his bedsheets over the course of many years.

Among the sergeants quartered in Terpinje was a year-long volunteer, a technician who had more luck with the blacksmith. He learned the purpose and basic concept of the large machine.

It was supposed to be a motor for farmers, a replacement for the horse-driven mill. And where did the blacksmith get the necessary horsepower? At the end of a single-arm lever, there was a seat for the machine’s custodian. His bodyweight pressed the lever down and set the wheels in motion. Whenever the lever would be at its position of rest, a mechanical system would automatically get activated, and the machine would raise the lever up again. Then the weight of the man would start to work again, and so on, and so on. In short: a perpetual motion machine. And this invention is what the poor blacksmith was spending his time on, all his years, his desires, his future, and his inheritance from his father.

Shortly thereafter I encountered another inventor. It was in Belowar, again in Croatia. Belowar is a tiny little Komitat city, the retirementopolis of the military frontier. An ancient captain there had the monomaniacal pursuit of brewing wild cherry liquor—but not made from wild cherries—no, made from wild cherry wood. He attributed magical properties to this schnapps. It was supposed to be a veritable Theriac. It was supposed to heal any disease and fight off aging and death. Whoever drank it would live to be at least two hundred years old.

“How do you know that, Captain?”

Then he told me cryptically that he had made experiments using fresh veal bones. He put them in the schnapps and observed—they were barely altered. Every day he would weigh them, and, out of their reduction in weight, he arrived at the number 200 as the limit of human life, assuming that it is conserved with wild cherry schnapps.

You can find these kinds of oddballs by the dozen, if you’re lucky—and, if you’re not afraid of visiting a madhouse, by the hundreds. Everyday and everywhere an inestimable amount of energy and brainpower gets wasted on nonsensical inventions. Just as dilettantes often have  fifty dramas stashed away in their desks, working on each of them for months, perhaps years, with fervent effort and unshakeable belief.

In Drahowitza there lived an entire family of inventors—father, mother, three sons, and a daughter—all of whom were building an enormous birdcage, once again, for years. They were always expecting to find a millionaire and aficionado who would offer them riches for it. I saw the cage at three rural exhibitions. Once it even received a bronze medal. The head of the family was no longer around to experience it. The poor man had starved to death.

That’s one group of inventors, the complete dilettantes.

I’ve also met another type of inventor. For example, Count Defours-Walderode. He had traveled around the whole world, only to get know all of its railroads. He studied and noted down all the little inventions and improvements. When he returned home, he built his own miniature train set in his park, which contained all the inventions and improvements he had liked.

Then there was another inventor, a higher Austrian officer. His name is renowned in the history of weapons technology. He famously contributed to the development of the modern repeating rifle. This high officer spent years of his life on a construction that was supposed to make it possible to open and close a double-window—using a single handle.

Once I traveled from Hamburg to Berlin with a strange man. I no longer know why—the man introduced himself to me. He gave me his business card. It read: Emile Durieux, inventeur. At the time, I was amazed at this job title and thought of the village blacksmith in Terpinje, my Uncle with his tailcoat harrow, and the captain with his wild cherry liquor. But ever since I’ve learned that there’s such a thing as a professional poet, I can also believe that there’s such a thing as a professional inventor. And I can no longer apply the well-known Styrian proverb to them: “The like of them surely exist, you may hear about them, but you’ll never find them.” For I know exactly where they can be found—in very large factories. Almost in every very large establishment.

The most peculiar inventors can be found in chemical factories. They have the task of creating new chemical compounds out of simple permutations of atoms. Every now and then it is easier to come up with new chemical compounds than to come up with the bombastic names for them. Only after a new compound gets produced do people consider the purpose it might be suited for. A factory owner can always find ambitious assistant doctors and university lecturers to accept the new invention, undertake experiments with it, and finally discover the disease that the new medicine should treat.

Professional inventors can also be found on the technical committees of the ministry of war. There, it’s a matter of adapting unprofessional inventions to the purposes of war. But usually just circumventing foreign patents by means of minor modifications.

The professional inventor really only works with permutations of known elements—without any truly new ideas. That will always be their bread and butter. A genius among the inventors does not always get by so easily. As is well known, Josef Ressel, the inventor of the screw propeller, died of starvation. That was less than forty years ago. And we are all contemporaries of the engineer Wilhelm Kress, a poor old man who will one day earn a monument for thinking up the experimental aircraft called the “Dragon-flier.” If people called Heinrich Heine unlucky three times over for being poor, sick, and Jewish, the same applies to Kress four times over: He is a genius—i.e., born too early—poor, old, and Austrian.

Only a tiny amount of genius inventors have reaped the fruits of their labor: Guglielmo Marconi, for example, and before him, Alfred Nobel. But Marconi’s invention can be traced back further to Heinrich Hertz, and Nobel only invented dynamite using nitroglycerin by accident, which had already been produced using kieselguhr.

We are all witnesses to a grandiose fight over the priority of invention in the case of the Zeppelin. While the external form of the balloon was created by Charles Renard over twenty years ago, the gasoline engine, the soul of the modern airship, derives from Karl Benz. Yet, the rigid frame of the balloon was an idea of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, and Zeppelin alone. For years, nobody wanted to believe in the invention, and even today, nine out of ten aeronauts are opposed to the rigid system. “Is there anything more amazing, anything more hair-brained than a balloon made of metal?” these opponents say. Long before the experts, it was laypeople, unbiased and unprejudiced, who placed their trust in the daring Count. The masses are always easier to persuade than are the high priests.

Source: Alexander Roda Roda, “Erfinder.” Berliner Tagesblatt und Handels-Zeitung, Abend-Ausgabe 37, no. 484 (September 22, 1908): 1–2.

Christian Morgenstern, Selected Diary Entries (1907)

As a schoolboy, I attempted for the first time to create a vivid picture of what we call the endlessness of the universe. At night, I would lay down in the garden on a folding chair in an almost horizontal position, and I would try to penetrate into the reality of the starry sky beyond its purely visual appearance. I succeeded in experiencing the following: One second of this kind of absence from the earth, one single little step further, and my brain would be lost forever. I broke off the unearthly experiment. Now, some fifteen odd years later, the same danger threatens me in the light of day. It began on a steely blue spring evening in a garden in Obermais with my gaze directed at the mountain chain upstream from the Vinschgau Valley. The mountains formed something like a molehill, the places around me lost their significance. My little trough seemed no more significant to me than a thumbprint in a wax ball, and the huge yet small planet carried me around on its back through space like a single-celled organism. I was gripped by a light, spiritual feeling of vertigo, a presentiment of motion sickness of the soul. The concepts above and below disappeared into a third. I sat there due only to the mercy of barometric pressure.

Were it not for my such great love of the present, were it not for this love like a great, secure parachute, I would have fallen into the abyss long ago.

Well, then, I come from painters—and have to experience the collapse of nature as an image within myself.

I am like someone who, without a guide, climbs up into the high mountains using only maps and occasional information from shepherds and hikers. Nobody would guess the agony I had to pay for it or that a quick death would have often been a divine blessing for me. No, my ‘dilettantism’ was not fun, not coquetry. It is my fate, but I cannot escape it. Since my spirit was always willing, my body always lacked that last gasp of energy that always has to provide support whenever something great should come about in the world.

I have a lot of luck, both the luck that conceals my limits from me and the luck that my limits seem to enable me to extend myself out into the indeterminate. I have a lot of talent at living—if only life had more talent for me. But sometimes a gust of wind will blow away every warm protective illusion and then I momentarily see my silhouette and…shudder.

I have only one real and true enemy in the world and that is myself.

Whenever I’m among people, it’s like I’m on vacation. And that’s why I shouldn’t go out among people anymore and, least of all, among friends. For none of them know that I’m only with them and lend them an ear as a guest, that I’ve lost the last bit of passionate attention for much of their lives and goings-on, as though I was a man listening to beautiful and huge music in a big hall—but outside his wife is secretly standing in front of the door and waiting for him, and, due to pure inner unrest, he only listens with one ear, and hardly hides his distractedness, and, for many sharp observers, would rightly not be considered to be a very expertly engaged listener.

I wander around in these European countries like a bird in a greenhouse. People think that my life is enviable because I travel from one place to another. They don’t know that in the end every one of these places is disappointing—because the bane of European civilization, which the places had been spared a hundred, even fifty years ago, has been poured out over every last one of them. The appalling sobriety of the past 30, 40 years creeps around after you everywhere, indeed, even stains you. In the end, you hopelessly spend your time in hotels. For if there’s not a hotel, there’s no room for you with your massive traveling suitcase and your standard German language. I, too, believed in the greatness of our epoch of technology, but now I only feel one thing: that it disenchants the earth by making everything common.

The alternating buzzing of two or three wasps reminds me of the responsorial songs in the Catholic church. I can see the well-fed churchmen, the priests celebrating on the steps of the altar and even the altar with its slim little candles and old paintings.

I began this fall with evil deeds. On two hot days in September, I killed five or six wasps that had come into my room and were bothering me. It was completely and utterly out of character for me and can only be explained with the unrest and lack of self control that had come over me under the influence of the southern wind perhaps just as it had the wasps.
Later comment: I can still remember how much the “stupidity” of the animals, in particular, had gotten me worked up at the time, how they would fly around the ceiling for hours, up and down, back and forth, without finding or wanting to find the open balcony door. If we transfer my impatience and hurry to the relation between gods and man, then the gods would really have nothing to do all day long other than kill people.

My entire life I’ve been searching for the stinger I could press into idle flesh—and I never find it.

Today, I could still play in the woods like a boy: build houses out of stones and pieces of wood, mark off streets with dry little branches and create groves, elevate a piece of rock to the status of an Alpine peak, and bestow the dominion over everything on a stag beetle and his wife. And this little kingdom would make me happier, and occupy and work up my fantasy in a more intricate way than even the largest kingdom found in reality. So, once, at age 35, I spent eight days on a beach on the island of Salt creating and building a seaside hut. Honestly, I have seldom been so happy at heart as during this harmless game.

The older I become, the more one word becomes my word above all others: ‘grotesque’.

If I was a musician, I would compose a work for a mixed choir with an orchestra—”The Choir of Convalescents”—and not even in heaven itself would the singing be so deep, so ardent, and so sweet.

Source: Christian Morgenstern, “1907,” in Stufen: Eine Entwicklung in Aphorismen und Tagebuch-Notizen, 22-26 (Munich: Piper, 1918).

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).

Lost & Found: New Translations

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing the following translations. Most are relatively unknown, short-form texts related to my current research on media, science, and technology around 1900:

Research Activity

Busy reading and writing for the past couple of months, I’ve neglected to update this blog….

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

I gave a public lecture (ca. 45 minutes, and in German!) at the IFK called “Entkabelung. Zur Mediengeschichte der Drahtlosigkeit.” My lecture was structured around my current research on the popular wireless icon and the history of signal strength indicators.

I wrote up some this research as a short text for Bernhard Garnicnig of the Viennese Palais des Beaux Arts: “A Little History of the Wireless Icon” / “Eine kleine Geschichte des Wireless Icons.”

I was interviewed about my doctoral project by Günter Hack, a reporter from the ÖRF who wrote his dissertation on the early history of computing in Germany and has since been investigating Net politics in his journalism. He wrote up an excellent account of our interview under the title “Wie das Unsichtbare Spuren hinterlässt.”

I also gave a more personal interview with Ernst Schmiederer for his column “Drinnen/Draußen” in the Austrian edition of Die Zeit (image below: “Mit den Wellen leben”). His interviews, either with Austrians living abroad or with foreigners living in Austria–all of which make for great reads–have been collected in the book Import/Export.