Shiel's Liquid Air Engines in The Purple Cloud
By John D Squires
[This essay appeared with minor changes in
The New York Review of Science Fiction
December 2009, Number 256, Vol 22, No 4, page 6.]
In his Introduction to the serial version of The Purple Cloud in volume I of his monumental Works of M. P. Shiel series, Reynolds Morse claimed that Shiel predicted atomic powered ships in the novel. That was nonsense, but Shiel did describe ships powered by liquid air engines, which could easily be handled by Adam Jeffson, the last man alive, on his travels around the empty planet. The coal powered steamships of the day required intensive backbreaking labor to shovel coal from shore side to ship board bins. Once refueled, steamships still required a black gang to stoke the fire and otherwise tend the boiler to maintain steam pressure to run the engine. On any ship capable of realistic ocean travel, as opposed to a small steam launch, such as depicted in The African Queen, steam power was simply not a one person operation. I always assumed Shiel had just made his liquid air engines up — created a black box — to solve the problem of how to get his character around the world unaided in the era of coal power.
But, I was wrong. There were numerous popular science articles about this wondrous new technology in 1899, the liquid air engine, based on the claimed discovery of a new process for producing liquid air at minimal cost. For instance, in the Review of Reviews, London, Vol 19, March 1899, at pp 244-245, appeared an abstract of an article from the March issue of McClure’s Magazine. It read in part:
Unlimited Power at Next to No Cost,.... Think of the
ocean greyhound unencumbered with coal bunkers,
and sweltering boilers, and smokestacks, making her
power as she sails, from the free sea air around her!
Shiel wrote The Purple Cloud in 1899-1900 when this sort of wonderful hype was in the news. At least as late as 1903 popular science writers were still speculating about how liquid air power might revolutionize the world, if the claims of the new method of cheaply producing liquid air, first announced in 1899, proved to be commercially feasible. They didn't, but by then Shiel had long since taken the idea from the popular press and worked it into his novel. It added a believable, but futuristic touch for contemporary readers, while resolving a plot problem. It was also a science fiction flourish which, somewhat, suggested the future potential of atomic power, while having, in fact, absolutely nothing to do with it.
Shiel, M. P., The Purple Cloud, serialized in The Royal Magazine, London, Vol V, #27-#30, Vol VI, #31-32, January - June, 1901; photo-offset in Volume I of A. Reynolds Morse, ed., The Works of M. P. Shiel, 1979-1983.
_________, The Purple Cloud, London: Chatto & Windus, [Sept] 1901, revised, Gollancz, 1929.
Baker, Ray Stannard, “Liquid Air,” McClure’s Magazine, New York, Vol XII, No 5,
March 1899, 397-408; also published in The Strand Magazine, London, Vol XVII, No 100,
April 1899, 459-468.
“Science and Invention, Liquid Air and Perpetual Motion,” The Literary Digest, XVIII, No 13, April 1, 1899, 370-371.
John D Squires
JDS Books/The Vainglory Press
PO Box 292333
Kettering, OH 45429