In the grand, sweeping stroke of sci-fi grandeur and the beginnings of space opera, no name stands out like Edward Elmer (E.E. “Doc”) Smith Ph.D. Smith was of all things, a chemical engineer who worked for various companies that produced donuts. Hardly a profession that would inspire great space opera one can surmise, but stranger things have happened.
Smith’s greatest works were two series; The Skylark of Space and Lensman. The writing is considered campy and what science there is, is seriously dated. The thing to remember in this instance is not how accurate the science may or may not have been, but the way the narrative is woven by Smith. Also Smith had written the stories so that they were a series, a first in of itself. Skylarks’ and Lensmans’ obvious descendents are works such as Asimov’s Foundation Series, Niven’s Known Space, Star Trek, Star Wars, even Banks’ Culture and Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels.
Smith’s first work was The Skylark of Space. That story was written in partnership with a Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby, a classmate of his in college. They started it in 1916 and Smith finished it in 1920. But he had various rejections from many pulp mags until 1927 when Amazing Stories accepted it. From there the rest is sci-fi history.
The Skylark of Space by E.E. “Doc” Smith PhD. and Lee Hawkins Garby
The Occurrence of the Impossible
Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper
steam-bath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of “X,” the
unknown metal. For as soon as he had removed the beaker the heavy bath
had jumped endwise from under his hand as though it were alive. It had
flown with terrific speed over the table, smashing apparatus and bottles
of chemicals on its way, and was even now disappearing through the open
window. He seized his prism binoculars and focused them upon the flying
vessel, a speck in the distance. Through the glass he saw that it did
not fall to the ground, but continued on in a straight line, only its
rapidly diminishing size showing the enormous velocity with which it was
moving. It grew smaller and smaller, and in a few moments disappeared
utterly. The chemist turned as though in a trance. How was this? The copper bath
he had used for months was gone–gone like a shot, with nothing to make
it go. Nothing, that is, except an electric cell and a few drops of the
unknown solution. He looked at the empty space where it had stood, at
the broken glass covering his laboratory table, and again stared out of
the window.He was aroused from his stunned inaction by the entrance of his colored
laboratory helper, and silently motioned him to clean up the wreckage.“What’s happened, Doctah?” asked the dusky assistant.
“Search me, Dan. I wish I knew, myself,” responded Seaton, absently,
lost in wonder at the incredible phenomenon of which he had just been a
Ferdinand Scott, a chemist employed in the next room, entered breezily.
“Hello, Dicky, thought I heard a racket in here,” the newcomer remarked.
Then he saw the helper busily mopping up the reeking mass of chemicals.
“Great balls of fire!” he exclaimed. “What’ve you been celebrating? Had
an explosion? How, what, and why?”
“I can tell you the ‘what,’ and part of the ‘how’,” Seaton replied
thoughtfully, “but as to the ‘why,’ I am completely in the dark. Here’s
all I know about it,” and in a few words he related the foregoing
incident. Scott’s face showed in turn interest, amazement, and pitying
alarm. He took Seaton by the arm.
“Dick, old top, I never knew you to drink or dope, but this stuff sure
came out of either a bottle or a needle. Did you see a pink serpent
carrying it away? Take my advice, old son, if you want to stay in Uncle
Sam’s service, and lay off the stuff, whatever it is. It’s bad enough to
come down here so far gone that you wreck most of your apparatus and
lose the rest of it, but to pull a yarn like that is going too far. The
Chief will have to ask for your resignation, sure. Why don’t you take a
couple of days of your leave and straighten up?”
Seaton paid no attention to him, and Scott returned to his own
laboratory, shaking his head sadly.
Seaton, with his mind in a whirl, walked slowly to his desk, picked up
his blackened and battered briar pipe, and sat down to study out what he
had done, or what could possibly have happened, to result in such an
unbelievable infraction of all the laws of mechanics and gravitation. He
knew that he was sober and sane, that the thing had actually happened.
But why? And how? All his scientific training told him that it was
impossible. It was unthinkable that an inert mass of metal should fly
off into space without any applied force. Since it had actually
happened, there must have been applied an enormous and hitherto unknown
force. What was that force? The reason for this unbelievable
manifestation of energy was certainly somewhere in the solution, the
electrolytic cell, or the steam-bath. Concentrating all the power of his
highly-trained analytical mind upon the problem–deaf and blind to
everything else, as was his wont when deeply interested–he sat
motionless, with his forgotten pipe clenched between his teeth. Hour
after hour he sat there, while most of his fellow-chemists finished the
day’s work and left the building and the room slowly darkened with the
coming of night.
Finally he jumped up. Crashing his hand down upon the desk, he
“I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper! Copper, ‘X,’ and
“I’m sure a fool for luck!” he continued as a new thought struck him.
“Suppose it had been liberated all at once? Probably blown the whole
world off its hinges. But it wasn’t: it was given off slowly and in a
straight line. Wonder why? Talk about power! Infinite! Believe me, I’ll
show this whole Bureau of Chemistry something to make their eyes stick
out, tomorrow. If they won’t let me go ahead and develop it, I’ll
resign, hunt up some more ‘X’, and do it myself. That bath is on its way
to the moon right now, and there’s no reason why I can’t follow it.
Martin’s such a fanatic on exploration, he’ll fall all over himself to
build us any kind of a craft we’ll need … we’ll explore the whole
solar system! Great Cat, what a chance! A fool for luck is right!”
He came to himself with a start. He switched on the lights and saw that
it was ten o’clock. Simultaneously he recalled that he was to have had
dinner with his fiancée at her home, their first dinner since their
engagement. Cursing himself for an idiot he hastily left the building,
and soon his motorcycle was tearing up Connecticut Avenue toward his
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