Mark Twain Predicts the Internet in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Story, “From The ‘London Times’ in 1904”


Most peo­ple know that Mark Twain wrote about Jim and Huck­le­ber­ry Finn nav­i­gat­ing down the Mis­sis­sip­pi. Less well known is that he occa­sion­al­ly dab­bled in the bur­geon­ing genre of sci­ence fic­tion. His 1898 short sto­ry “The Great Dark” is about a ship that sails across a drop of water on a micro­scope slide. His nov­el Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court is one of the first to explore time trav­el. And, in a short sto­ry called “From The ‘Lon­don Times’ in 1904,” Twain pre­dict­ed the inter­net. In 1898. Read it here.

Set five years into the future, the sto­ry starts off as a crime mys­tery. Clay­ton, a quick-tem­pered army offi­cer, is accused of mur­der­ing Szczepanik, the inven­tor of a new and promis­ing device called the Tel­elec­tro­scope. The tale’s unnamed nar­ra­tor describes it like this:

As soon as the Paris con­tract released the tel­elec­tro­scope, it was deliv­ered to pub­lic use, and was soon con­nect­ed with the tele­phon­ic sys­tems of the whole world. The improved ‘lim­it­less-dis­tance’ tele­phone was present­ly intro­duced and the dai­ly doings of the globe made vis­i­ble to every­body, and audi­bly dis­cuss­able too, by wit­ness­es sep­a­rat­ed by any num­ber of leagues.

That sounds a lot like social media. Mark Twain dreamed up Twit­ter and Youtube dur­ing the Grover Cleve­land admin­is­tra­tion.

Fac­ing the hangman’s noose, Clay­ton asks for, and receives, a tel­elec­tro­scope for his cell. As the nar­ra­tor describes Clay­ton’s tel­elec­tro­scop­ic rev­el­ry, it sounds uncan­ni­ly like a bored cubi­cle dweller surf­ing the web at work.

…day by day, and night by night, he called up one cor­ner of the globe after anoth­er, and looked upon its life, and stud­ied its strange sights, and spoke with its peo­ple, and real­ized that by grace of this mar­velous instru­ment he was almost as free as the birds of the air, although a pris­on­er under locks and bars. He sel­dom spoke, and I nev­er inter­rupt­ed him when he was absorbed in this amuse­ment. I sat in his par­lor and read, and smoked, and the nights were very qui­et and repose­ful­ly socia­ble, and I found them pleas­ant. Now and then I would hear him say ‘Give me Yedo;’ next, ‘Give me Hong-Kong;’ next, ‘Give me Mel­bourne.’ And I smoked on, and read in com­fort, while he wan­dered about the remote under­world, where the sun was shin­ing in the sky, and the peo­ple were at their dai­ly work.

The sto­ry itself is an admit­ted­ly minor work by the mas­ter of Amer­i­can fic­tion. In its last third, the sto­ry abrupt­ly turns into a sur­pris­ing­ly sour satire about the sad state of our legal sys­tem. As Clay­ton is get­ting marched to the gal­lows, the nar­ra­tor spots the guy Clay­ton sup­pos­ed­ly mur­dered on the tel­elec­tro­scope screen, stand­ing in a crowd for the coro­na­tion of the new “Czar” of Chi­na. Even though no crime took place, Clay­ton is still sen­tenced to hang.

“From The ‘Lon­don Times’ in 1904” con­tains two long-run­ning themes in Twain’s work and life. One is the absur­di­ty of the courts – see, for exam­ple “The Facts in the Great Land­slide Case.”

And the oth­er is a fas­ci­na­tion with tech­nol­o­gy. In spite of his folksy image, he was, as they say now, an ear­ly adopter. He was the first in his neigh­bor­hood to get a tele­phone. He may or may not have been the first major author to use a type­writer to write a nov­el. He lost his shirt invest­ing in a Vic­to­ri­an-era start up hawk­ing an exceed­ing­ly com­plex print­ing press called the Paige Com­pos­i­tor. And he allowed him­self to be filmed by Thomas Edi­son in 1909, a year before his death.

One won­ders what he would have thought of his tel­elec­tro­scope in action.

Note: The char­ac­ter Szczepanik men­tioned above was clear­ly named after a Pol­ish inven­tor, Jan Szczepanik, who talked about cre­at­ing a “telec­tro­scope,” in the late 19th cen­tu­ry.  How­ev­er, if you read a report in The New York Times in 1898, it becomes appar­ent that Szczepanik’s “telec­tro­scope” was­n’t as vision­ary as what Twain had in mind.

via Cracked/TheTy­ee

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Mark Twain Shirt­less in 1883 Pho­to

Mark Twain Cap­tured on Film by Thomas Edi­son in 1909. It’s the Only Known Footage of the Author.

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Joe Guyton says:

    I recall read­ing that Clements com­mis­sioned and received instal­la­tion of one of the first res­i­den­tial air-con­di­tion­ing units for his house around 1910 for com­fort and treat­ment of an ail­ing daugh­ter.

  • sclemens says:

    The Paige Com­pos­i­tor was not “an exceed­ing­ly com­plex print­ing press.”
    It was a type­set­ting machine.
    Com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ani­mal.

  • teltri says:

    I can­not see a short sto­ry, only infor­ma­tion on Mark Twain.

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