Today, Dorothy, Kansas, and the new forces of
electricity. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Lyman Frank Baum, who wrote
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born in
upstate New York in 1856. His father, a barrel
maker, went on to become oil-rich. Baum was dogged
by poor health and driven by a fertile imagination.
At seventeen he started a newspaper. At twenty-four
he became manager of several theaters owned by his
father. Baum wrote and mounted musical plays. He
ran a newspaper in South Dakota. He wrote his first
book on raising chickens. It was 1900 when he wrote
the first of fourteen or more Oz books. They were
wonderful stories. I know. I was raised on them.
But Oz books were only a fraction of Baum's
writings for children. A year after The Wizard
of Oz he wrote The Master Key -- a book
I first saw just the other day. It's about a boy
named Rob whose father allows him great freedom to
do electrical experiments in his workshop. Rob
plays with telephones and electric motors.
Rob's mother worries about his safety, but his
father replies, "Electricity is destined to become the motive power of the world."
So Rob strings
wires and throws switches. One day he connects two
wires, unsure of what he's doing, and a genie
appears in a great flash of light. It seems Rob has
inadvertently summoned the Demon of
Electricity by touching the master key of
The Demon promises Rob three electric items of the
future each week for three weeks. He tells Rob to
use the devices with care and circumspection and to
show them to the wisest people in the land. The
first three are a tube that stuns an enemy for an
hour without killing him, a wrist device that
transports one through the air, and a box of pills
that serve in place of food. Rob takes them and
flies off. His rashness leads him into terrible
dangers, but he returns safely to receive the
second three devices.
This time he's given a pair of glasses that reveal
a person's character, a sort of hand-held TV screen
that shows what's taking place anywhere on earth,
and a garment that wards off any assault.
A much wiser Rob returns from yet another series of
life-threatening adventures. When the Demon offers
the third set of devices, Rob says, "Keep it." The
horrified Demon says,
"You might have hastened [a new day] if you'd been wise enough to use your powers properly."
"But I'm NOT wise enough," Rob
cries. It's up to humans to become wise
All this is a little like Dorothy deciding that
being back in Kansas is best after all. Baum
reminds us that Rob, Dorothy, all of us, really did
stand at the portals of Oz in 1900. As the Demon of
Electricity went poof, an army of smart
people stepped up to begin creating the wonders Rob
Baum leaves us less with a vision of
electricity-to-come than with a story about the
foreboding that touched us a century ago. By now
we've seen some of the Demon's gifts, and we've
tried to make others. But in 1900 we'd all caught
just a glimpse of that Demon -- and we had no idea
where he actually meant to take us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds