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H.G. Wells and the Scientific Imagination

[clock] 18-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1989

One of the rarest birds in the lands of literature is the scientist who writes novels. In mainstream fiction, such a creature is almost unknown. As C.P. Snow observed in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), modern civilization is split in two. The scientists go one way, the humanists another, and those who would travel with both (like Snow himself, a novel-writing scientist) court the condemnation of both.

But one courageous band of writers straddles the two cultures ineluctably, no matter what the training or allegiance of its members. Their patron saint is H.G. Wells, and their craft is science fiction, the fiction of science.

Some few writers of science fiction are bona fide men or women of science, such as the biochemist Isaac Asimov, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan, the physicists Gregory Benford and David Brin, or the experimental psychologist Alice B. Sheldon (better known by her pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr.). Many others have no special competence in science at all, or, in curious deference to C.P. Snow’s thesis, may even be hostile to the scientific world-view. But they share with their scientist-colleagues a fascination, almost an obsession, with the powers of science.

The prototypical writer of science fiction, H. G. Wells— Brian Aldiss calls him “the Shakespeare of science fiction”— started out in life not quite a scientist, but a teacher of science, educated at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, London, now the Imperial Institute of Science and Technology. Among his teachers was T.H. Huxley, the chief apostle in late Victorian England of the theory of evolution put forward by Charles Darwin, and a tireless champion of science and scientific education. Huxley and evolutionary theory shaped decisively the impressionable intellect of the young Bertie Wells. In recent years, whole volumes have been devoted to the fierce grip of science, and evolutionary biology in particular, on Wells’s imagination.

The grip is well illustrated by The War of the Worlds (1898), the novel that inspired Orson Welles’s infamous Halloween broadcast 40 years later. The War of the Worlds—Wells’s novel, not Welles’s radio show—may be construed in various ways, as horror tale, apocalypse, political fantasia, or warning to a complacent England, basking in the warmth of Queen Victoria’s 60th-anniversary Jubilee. Clearly, it owed something to the “tale of enemy invasion” popular in England from 1871 onward after the startling defeat of France by Prussia the year before. Bernard Bergonzi sees the novel as a typical product of the fin-de-siecle mentality, which doted on thoughts of the decadence and dissolution of modern society, and may have reflected Wells’s guilty conscience, as an Englishman, about the crimes of British imperialism. There is also merit in Mark Hillegas’s suggestion that The War of the Worlds was Wells’s first experiment in forecasting the coming Great War of 1914—18, “a warning of the changes in human life to be brought by new science and technology.”

But most of this is speculation and hindsight. All we can say with assurance from the available evidence is that what most forcefully engaged the mind of H.G. Wells in the early and middle 1890’s was the theory of evolution and its bleak implications for the future of Homo sapiens. He seldom if ever referred, at the time, to the burdens of Empire or the menace to England of foreign aggressors or the prospects for global conflict in an age of soaring progress in science and technology.

The vision uppermost in the young novelist’s eye was of evolution: the struggle for survival, the transformation of species resulting from environmental stimuli, the threat of extinction, and the intoxicating (yet also sinister) thought that humankind might one day become unrecognizably “advanced,” all brain and no heart, like the Martians of The War of the Worlds. When he did ponder political matters, like most of his contemporaries, his thoughts turned to the warfare of the classes expounded by the socialists of his day and dramatized in two of his own novels of the period, The Time Machine (1895) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). Rut there is only a faint echo of such concerns in The War of the Worlds.

In Roslynn Haynes’s recent study of Wells and the influence of the scientific world-view on his thinking, she goes to the heart of the matter.

The Martians [in Wells’s novel] are not “evil”, only amoral and highly efficient. Their fighting machines are simply their means of trapping or overrunning a more vulnerable species—a practice which Wells compares to the British colonisation of Tasmania. The War of the Worlds provides no answer.

Just so. There is no answer. Portrayed as coldly intelligent octopi whose only nourishment is mammalian blood, the Martians arrive in England with their overwhelming technology. They treat human beings as edible fauna, suitable (once subdued) only for rounding up and domesticating like wild cattle. One or two of the Martians are killed by their stampeding victims, but the human remnant is brought into line, and in the end the only thing that stops the invaders is yet another force of nature: the bacteria that infest the earth, to which Martians have no immunity. In Frank McConnell’s phrase, The War of the Worlds is literally “a war of worlds,” of competing ecologies, a Darwinian fight to the finish in which not the best but the strongest (the terrestrial bacteria) win the day. In this sense the “triumph” of mankind is wholly serendipitous, a by-product of the real triumph of earth’s micro-organisms.


In most of his later work, Wells carried the logic of his biological obsessions a step further, and tried to recommend strategies for Homo sapiens that would spare the species from extinction without having to call in the deus ex machina of the bacterial microworld. Human beings, using their intelligence, their knowledge of nature, themselves, and their own possible futures, could evade destruction by fashioning a rational world state run by scientists and engineers.

But Wells had no doubt that it would be touch and go all the way. Drawing on his scientific training and his novelist’s intuitions of human nature, he anticipated many of the horrors of the new century in the years before the outbreak of the First World War: the mobilization of economies for total war, tanks and bombing planes, nuclear weapons (which he was the first to call “atomic bombs”), poison gas and beam weapons (both of which appear in The War of the Worlds itself), and the harnessing of modern technology by totalitarian superstates to crush privacy and freedom. Nothing foreseen by the Zamyatins, Huxleys, and Orwells of later generations was missed by Wells in the science fiction and studies of the human future that he published before 1914.


His preoccupation in all this work was the impact on civilization of the dizzy progress of science and technology. Time and again, Wells was among the first to fathom the implications of a given advance, and the first to cheer its coming or foresee grim consequences that others, less acquainted with the human condition, failed to grasp.

Not surprisingly, he started early in his career to call for a science of the future, a disciplined inquiry into the shape of things to come, that would enable humankind to gain control of its own destiny. All contemporary futures inquiry traces its origins to Wells’s The Discovery of the Future, a little book first published in 1902 and cited almost reverently in the work of various present-day futurists.

Much later, Wells even suggested the appointment of “Professors of Foresight,” indeed “whole Faculties and Departments of Foresight,” doing their best to anticipate and prepare for the consequences of the abolition of space and time made possible by modern technology. In the struggle to safeguard humankind from the dark dangers lurking in the unchecked growth of science, the only efficacious weapon available was science itself, the rational planning of the human future by scientifically trained experts. It was Wells’s way—and he knew it—of bringing up to date Plato’s ancient dream of philosopher-kings.

No one will be flabbergasted to learn that many of Wells’s most devoted fans throughout his long literary career were scientists themselves. Quite a few were personal friends and occasionally colleagues, notably in the writing of The Science of Life (1930), a handsome survey of the biological sciences, which he produced in collaboration with the marine biologist, G.P. Wells (his own eldest son), and the great evolutionist Julian Huxley.

Among Wells’s admirers in the scientific community, two stand out in particular. Both were physicists and both were directly inspired by the science fiction of Wells to make fateful contributions in their fields of expertise. Both men exhibit, as did Wells himself, the astonishing fertility of the scientific imagination. Both men were, like Wells, idealists with an abiding concern for human welfare and the arts of peace. Both men also uniquely share, with Wells, the distinction of having helped to usher in the nuclear age and make possible the swift annihilation of all life on earth.

The first is Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born nuclear physicist who emigrated to the United States in the 1930’s, worked with Enrico Fermi to develop the first self-sustained fission reactor fueled by uranium, and persuaded Albert Einstein to take the initiative that led to the first atomic bombs of 1945.

The story has been told more than once, but bears repeating. Szilard was familiar with Wells’s writings in his earlier years and met Wells briefly in 1929. He admired both the fiction and Wells’s plans for world reconstruction. In 1932 while living in Berlin, he happened on a new German edition of one of Wells’s least successful science-fiction novels, The World Set Free. Written in 1913 and published early the next year in book form, The World Set Free had taken as its central premise the speculation that radioactivity could provide a source of unlimited energy and also the means of destroying the human race. The novel was dedicated to a book by Frederick Soddy, in which the British chemist had recounted his research on radioactive isotopes, research that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize.

From the raw material supplied by Soddy’s discussion of radioactivity, Wells spun an amazing tale of nuclear reactors generating vast stores of energy and the fashioning of atomic bombs from an artificial element known as Carolinum (analogous to the plutonium of later research). The bombs were dropped from airplanes in a great war that erupted in 1958 and destroyed most of the world’s cities. The survivors came to their senses in the aftermath and forged a world state. But what sticks in the reader’s imagination is the forceful description that Wells supplied of atomic ruin, not so very different from the devastation wreaked on London by the Martians in The War of the Worlds.

Not that The World Set Free compares even remotely as a work of art. Written in haste, it has none of the splendid shapeliness of The War of the Worlds. Nevertheless, Wells’s grasp of the implications of scientific research was never stronger. And when Szilard read it in 1932, it made, he wrote in his memoirs, “a very great impression on me.” In that same year, in a conversation with a German Wellsian named Otto Mandl, he even came to the conclusion that he should devote himself to nuclear physics and discover a source of power that would enable humankind to travel to other worlds. But for a year the seeds planted in Szilard’s mind by The World Set Free lay dormant.

Then, in September 1933, in one of those protracted double takes that often result in great scientific discoveries, Szilard was walking down a street in London. When he stopped for a red light at an intersection,

it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

In no more time than is needed for a red light to turn green, atomic energy had been born.


And with it the atomic bomb. Unlike most scientists then doing research into radioactivity, Szilard perceived at once that a nuclear chain reaction could produce weapons as well as engines. After further research, he took his ideas for a chain reaction to the British War Office and later the Admiralty, assigning his patent to the Admiralty to keep the news from reaching the notice of the scientific community at large. “Knowing what this [a chain reaction] would mean,” he wrote, “—and I knew it because I had read H.G. Wells—I did not want this patent to become public.”

Also in 1934, Szilard tried to interest the founder of the British General Electric Company, Sir Hugo Hirst, in the possibility of the industrial application of nuclear energy. To support his case, he enclosed in his letter a few relevant pages from The World Set Free, admitting that Wells’s story was all “moonshine” and yet likely to prove “more accurate than the forecasts of the scientists,” most of whom, at this time, were adamantly denying the feasibility of wringing usable energy from atomic fission.

Szilard plunged deeply into nuclear research in the years that followed. As everyone knows, it was he who talked Einstein into signing his name to the letter to President Roosevelt that Szilard drafted in 1939 urging the U.S. government to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. The work went slowly at first, but in due course, Szilard’s initiative bore fruit, and the bomb intended to frustrate Adolf Hitler’s plans for world conquest killed thousands of civilians on the other side of the globe.

The story does not end there. Szilard was the complete Wellsian, attracted not only to Wells’s scientific prophecies but also to his vision of a new world order. As early as 1930, he had tried to organize a Bund or League of idealistic scientists and intellectuals from which would arise a quasi-religious, quasi-political Order capable of eventually replacing the parliamentary system of modern capitalism with something akin to technocracy. His ideas ran parallel to, and were probably influenced by, the notion of a new Order of Samurai in Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) and the call for a worldwide “open conspiracy” of scientists and business leaders broached by Wells in his book The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (1928), which Szilard knew and to which he sometimes referred in later years.

The Bund never materialized, except briefly as a small circle of German friends and followers of Szilard. But as his fame grew, Szilard continued his efforts in his adopted country, the United States. He led a group of physicists at the University of Chicago opposed to the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, drafting a petition to this effect, which was signed by 68 scientists and sent to President Truman in July 1945. He was active in launching the Pugwash movement. In 1962 he organized the Council for Abolishing War, which carries on today as the Council for a Livable World, a political action group headed by scientists that lobbies Congress and campaigns for candidates in the cause of arms control.

Szilard died in 1964, but his work continues. Scientists are still creating nuclear weapons. Other scientists, sometimes the same ones, warn humanity of their menace. This ghoulish paradox is more apparent than real: in both instances, men and women of science are acting rationally, applying their gifts of reason to the solution of problems, but in the context of a largely irrational world they do not fathom. As Einstein himself said of Szilard at the time he was forming his Bund in 1930, Szilard was a “fine, intelligent man,” but “perhaps, like many such people, he is inclined to overestimate the significance of reason in human affairs.”


The same pattern of inspiration, discovery, application to warfare, and humane idealism recurs in the life of Robert Hutchings Goddard. If Szilard was the father of the atomic bomb, Goddard is the father of the technology now used to deliver nuclear weapons to their targets, the rocket-propelled missile. And he, too, was a fervent Wellsian.

In 1898 the young Goddard, then 16 and living in Massachusetts, read Fighters from Mars, or The War of the Worlds, in and near Boston, an adaptation of Wells’s novel serialized in the Boston Post. As Orson Welles later transferred the Martians from England to New Jersey, so the Post shifted them to the suburbs of Boston. Writing in 1932 to Wells, Goddard remarked that the novel “made a deep impression” on his fledgling imagination. Elsewhere he noted that his discovery of Wells’s Martians and their spacecraft was

an event. . . which was destined to provide me with all the scientific speculative material that I could desire. . . . [It] gripped my imagination tremendously. Wells’s wonderfully true psychology made the thing very vivid, and possible ways and means of accomplishing the physical marvels set forth kept me busy thinking.

But not at first. Again, as with Szilard, Goddard did a long double take. The ideas borrowed from Wells fermented in his mind for more than a year before the moment of illumination came. When it did arrive, it was not on a crowded city street but in the boughs of a cherry tree in his own backyard. On Oct. 19, 1899, Goddard climbed the tree and had a vision of a whirling spaceship capable of flying to Mars. In later years he came to regard that moment as the one that transformed his life, and celebrated October 19 as “Anniversary Day,” visiting the old tree from time to time to refresh his memory. He also evolved the ritual of rereading The War of the Worlds, usually during the Christmas season. His letters and papers teem with references to the novel, and to several other works of Wells, including The First Men in the Moon, In the Days of the Comet, and “A Story of the Stone Age.”

Over the years Goddard toiled away at the development of liquid-fuel rockets, at first with little support or encouragement. He was granted two key patents in February 1914, which contained the essential features of all the rockets that followed. Later that same year he tried to interest the U.S. Navy in military applications of his inventions, and in 1918 the Army also became briefly involved in his research. The bazooka, not employed on the battlefield until World War II, was actually a Goddard invention of 1918. In 1926 he built and successfully test-fired the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket. All modern rocket artillery, jet-propelled aircraft, and of course ballistic missiles, owe much to Goddard’s studies.

But although Goddard worked for the military again during World War II, it is clear from his papers that the dream animating his research was not weaponry but space flight, the same vision that sparked the parallel labors in Germany of Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun, the vision instilled in Goddard by reading The War of the Worlds in 1898. In 1932, as already noted, he acknowledged his debt in a fan letter to Wells. He followed it four years later with another congratulating Wells on his 70th birthday and enclosing a report on his latest researches. Ironically, Wells had predicted the use of guided missiles in warfare in a radio talk delivered over the B.B.C. just a few months after receiving his first letter from Goddard, although there seems to have been no connection between the two events.

Goddard also shared Wells’s humanism and his hopes for a brighter future made possible by science and scientists. In his 1932 letter to Wells he confessed to

the greatest admiration for your later work, which you no doubt feel is much more important than your writings of the nineties. What I find most inspiring is your optimism. It is the best antidote I know for the feeling of depression that comes at times when one contemplates the remarkable capacity for bungling of both man and nature.

In 1941 he added, in a letter to a friend, “I agree with you, and also H.G. Wells, that we must hope to have the race ruled by science. To continue with our present hit-or-miss policies may be disastrous.”


What conclusions should one draw from all this? Were Wells, Szilard, and Goddard fools or sages? Devils or angels? Destroyers or saviors?

Actually, a little of both. They were human beings, doing what they knew best, dreaming dreams of reason in an irrational world. They were also not indispensable. Science fiction, atomic reactors, nuclear bombs, and rockets would have happened with or without H.G. Wells, Leo Szilard, and Robert H. Goddard. Perhaps not quite as soon or in quite the same way. But we cannot hold them personally responsible for what came to pass.

Yet one valuable lesson may surely be learned from their exploits. The steadfast application of reason, science, and technology to the relief of human distress is no guarantee of anything. It can lead to ruin, just as the Martians ruined London and lost their own lives in the process, victims of the mindless genocidal hunger of terrestrial bacteria. The Martians had, wrote Wells, “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” far in advance of those of Homo sapiens. But their great brains did not save them. The problems of modern civilization transcend the categories accessible to reason. In the final analysis science can assist in their solution only if guided at every step by the hearts and wills and spirits of all humankind.


(August 2, 2016)

In the original version of this article Robert Hutchings Goddard’s middle name was misspelled. 


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gk's picture
gk · 1 year ago

Enjoyed the piece very much...

I think Robert Goddard's middle name is Hutchings, rather than Hatchings.


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