H.G. Wells has long been given credit for inventing the idea of the atomic bomb. He not only described it in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free, but also coined the name. But there was a far more obscure novel, published that same year, which should really be credited with the most realistic prediction of what the Bomb would be like.
While Wells certainly got the basic idea right, he radically underestimated the effects of an unbridled nuclear reaction. And what he described would hardly be recognizable as an atomic explosion today. The explosive force, he thought, would be no greater than that of a conventional high explosive. The main difference was, according to Wells, that an atomic explosion simply wouldn't stop. It would just keep on exploding pretty much forever.
A far more accurate picture of an atomic blast appeared in an obscure story serialized the same year in Saturday Evening Post (November 14-November 18) and published as a book in 1915.
The Man Who Rocked the Earth was written by an unusual team of authors. One was Arthur Train, the creator of a series of wildly popular detective and mystery novels. As a lawyer-turned-mystery author, Train's popularity can be compared to that of, say, John Grisham today. In his autobiography, My Day in Court (1939), he wrote: "I enjoy the dubious distinction of being known among lawyers as a writer, and among writers as a lawyer." Members of both professions, he goodhumoredly lamented, treated him with condescension. Although Train's best-known work is about lawyer-detective Ephraim Tutt, he also wrote some of the first books about true crime in America, non-mystery novels and...two books of science fiction (the other, a sequel to The Man Who Rocked the Earth, is no less remarkable and worthy of an article of its own).
In creating the latter he turned for help to a pre-eminent scientists of his day, Robert Wood. Hardly a household word today, he was a scientist whose researches in many areas are still important, especially his work in optics and spectroscopy. In 1897, he became the first to observe field emission; that is, charged particles being emitted from a conductor in an electric field. This phenomenon is now used in the field emission microscope for studying atomic structure. He developed a color photography process, as well as both infrared and ultraviolet photography. He invented the frosted glass light bulb and the Vienna method of detecting forged documents. He was apparently also the first person ever to show animated films.
He brought a level of scientific imagination and verisimilitude to the two novels he collaborated on with Train that was unique for the time they were written.
In their story, a mad scientist named Pax demonstrates his power by detonating a nuclear device in the Atlas Mountains of Africa. A gunboat attempts to shoot down his flying machine, when...
"...everything happened at once. Mohammed described afterward to a gaping multitude of dirty villagers, while he sat enthroned upon his daughter's threshold, how the star-ship had sailed across the face of the moon and come to a standstill above the mountains, with its beam of yellow light pointing directly downward so that the coast could be seen bright as day from Sf ax to Cabes. He saw, he said, genii climbing up and down on the beam. Be that as it may, he swears upon the Beard of the Prophet that a second ray of light—of a lavender colour, like the eye of a long-dead mullet—flashed down alongside the yellow beam. Instantly the earth blew up like a cannon—up into the air, a thousand miles up. It was as light as noonday. Deafened by titanic concussions he fell half dead. The sea boiled and gave off thick clouds of steam through which flashed dazzling discharges of lightning accompanied by a thundering, grinding sound like a million mills. The ocean heaved spasmodically and the air shook with a rending, ripping noise, as if Nature were bent upon destroying her own handiwork. The glare was so dazzling that sight was impossible. The falukah was tossed this way and that, as if caught in a simoon, and he was rolled hither and yon in the company of Chud, Abdullah, and the headless mullet.
"This earsplitting racket continued, he says, without interruption for two days. Abdullah says it was several hours; the official report of the Fiala gives it as six minutes. And then it began to rain in torrents until he was almost drowned. A great wind arose and lashed the ocean, and a whirlpool seized the falukah and whirled it round and round. Darkness descended upon the earth, and in the general mess Mohammed hit his head a terrific blow against the mast. He was sure it was but a matter of seconds before they would be dashed to pieces by the waves. The falukah spun like a marine top with a swift sideways motion. Something was dragging them along, sucking them in. The Fiala went careening by, her fighting masts hanging in shreds. The air was full of falling rocks, trees, splinters, and thick clouds of dust that turned the water yellow in the lightning flashes. The mast went crashing over and a lemon tree descended to take its place. Great streams of lava poured down out of the air, and masses of opaque matter plunged into the sea all about the falukah. Scalding mud, stones, hail, fell upon the deck."
The authors go on to detail the widespread effects of the explosion. One result was a breech in the mountains, allowing the Mediterranean to flood the Sahara.
(It might be worth mentioning that the illustrations accompanying the story were the first depictions of a nuclear explosion—including the first in color.)
Unlike Wells who mumbled about oxidizing an imaginary element called "Carolinium," Train and Wood explicitly used uranium, which they had release its energy instantaneously. The resulting atomic blast itself was devastating enough, but Train and Wood trumped Wells totally in describing the physical aftereffects of the explosion: "Reaching Syfax [the survivors on the boat] reported their adventures and offered prayers in gratitude for their extraordinary escape; but five days later all three began to suffer excruciating torment from internal burns, the skin upon their heads and bodies began to peel off, and they died in agony within the week."
So, almost exactly 100 years ago, a lawyer and a scientist managed to describe in meticulous detail not only a nuclear explosion but the lingering aftereffects of fallout and radiation poisoning.