A special treat this time: a lost robot story that nobody has seen for more than a century.
Supernatural tales, ghost stories, odd occurrences, mysterious disappearances, and bizarre inventions all found a home in The Black Cat, a magazine founded in 1895, a year before the first pulp magazine appeared. Mike Ashley calls it “a spiritual ancestor to Weird Tales.” The stories were proto-genre, a mixture of what then got called “unusual” stories, a term that must have had more currency in the 19th century. It was founded by 44-year-old Herman Daniel Umbstaetter, who went by the initials H. D. Not content with being editor and publisher, he seeded the magazine with his own stories, some under pseudonyms, until it took off on its own. Covers were illustrated by his much younger wife Nelly, usually with some variation of the stylized black cat staring spookily out at the reader that appeared from from the first issue.
The indispensable Everett F. Bleiler scoured the magazine for his Science Fiction: The Early Years (i. e. before Gernsback) but only found a handful of stories that came close to precursors of science fiction. One such, to give an example, was by H. D. himself, collaborating with Thomas F. Anderson. “The Mystery of the Thirty Million,” April 1896, involves “a Russian inventor who has built a ‘hypnotic cruiser’ furnished with electrical apparatus that can control any ship.” Electricity made anything possible in the late 19th century, just as radioactivity was an all-purpose fallback used Stan Lee to reinvent Marvel in the 1960s, and AI is for the hacks today.
Automatons, in all senses robots before the word was coined, were experiencing a fictional revival at the time, with the new-fangled and seemingly miraculous electricity replacing clockwork as their power source. Elizabeth Bellamy’s “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” in the December 1899 issue is an important early robot story. It was so popular that it spawned a competition, won by W. M. Stannard’s “Mr. Corndropper’s Hired Man” – an unabashed rip-off that ran in the October 1900 Black Cat.
Even Bleiler nods. Somehow he overlooked another mechanical man in The Black Cat.
Enter Henry Holt. Not the publisher whose eponymous company is one of the giants of American publishing, but Henry P. Holt, a British crime reporter who turned to fiction writing in 1913 and started two decades of writing mystery novels in 1929. Obscure doesn’t begin to describe him. No picture of him is findable. His biography is not in any of the four mystery encyclopedias I own (although his novels are listed in bibliographic mystery compendia), and there is nary a mention in science fiction references. He doesn’t rate a Wikipedia entry. An American Wikipedia entry, that is: he was apparently successful in France in translation because he has a page in the French language Wikipedia. That’s mostly a listing of his novels with little biographical details. All it says about his time on earth (1879-1962) is that he married fellow writer and later fellow mystery novelist Elaine Hamilton in the early 1920s and that he “lived for a long time not far from Monte-Carlo and has traveled extensively while traveling across Europe by car.”
The Fiction Mags Index lists dozens of stories he wrote for, or got reprinted in, American magazines (he was even more prolific than that, with many stories appearing only in Britain) before he turned to more lucrative novel writing, with “A Trial Run” in the February 1913 Black Cat as the very first. Not an evocative title, unfortunately. Bleiler missed it, although that could be because he flagged after the first 150 issues. Or possibly he didn’t see it because Black Cats from 1913 are hard to find. Even today, when everything seems accessible, they are not on Google Books or archive.org or Gutenberg or any other place I looked. I backed into the discovery while doing keyword searches on “mechanical man” in the British Newspaper Archive. Up popped the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph for November 21, 1914 reprinting Holt’s story with the transfixing subheading of “The Wonderful Adventures of ‘Mr. Jones,’ the Electric Man.”
Sure, an “electric man” might simply be a professional electrician. And about 99 times out of 100 “mechanical man” in early 20th century newspapers meant an advertisement for a professional handyman. This was the exception. This electric man was a robot, a runner faster than any human. That places the tale well within what we would call science fiction and also is a precursor to Holt’s later career. “A Trial Run” can be termed Holt’s first crime story, because the perpetrators want to bet on their sure thing and bilk the unknowing public. Entered into a race, “Mr. Jones” beats every world record for the mile. And the two mile. And…
For the first time in over one hundred years, for your delectation, a robot story seemingly nobody alive except me has ever read. Here it is in its entirety.
H. P. Holt
“A Trial Run”
The Wonderful Adventures of ‘Mr. Jones,’ the Electric Man.
The Black Cat, February 1913
“It’s as near a perfect bit of work as you will find on this earth, murmured Professor Edicombe ecstatically as he gazed on his handiwork.
Jem Gannett scratched his head, bewildered.
“There ain’t no manner of doubt there’s money in it – if what you say is right,” he said in somewhat awed tones.
“It represents just ten years’ labour,” remarked the Professor. “I began it with the idea of startling the world as a colossal joke, but I’ve got so infernally hard up recently that I don’t see why I shouldn’t make it help me to put my bank balance right.”
“There’s ‘undreds an’ thousands in it, pervidin’ it works right.”
“It cannot help doing that, so far as human ingenuity can arrange,” said the Professor, casting an approving glance over the form that stood leaning against the wall.
Jem’s eyes shone. The more he considered the situation the more enthusiastic he became.
“Of course if the bloomin’ clockwork goes wrong we stand a good chance of bein’ found out. I won’t say as we shouldn’t be sent to quod for false pretences,” he observed thoughtfully.
“It isn’t clockwork, Mr. Gannett. “Everything in it is done by electricity. Two levers at the back control the whole figure.”
Again Jem Gannett scratched his head. In his early life he had been a famous athlete; in later years adipose tissue and short wind had turned him into a trainer, and his imagination ran riot as he contemplated possibilities with the electric man.
“I let you share the secret,” said the Professor, “because I really know nothing about the world of athletics and how these races are conducted. Besides, it will need two of us to work the thing successfully.”
“It suttingly looks just like a real man there. Are you sure you’ve got the running action right?”
“Perfectly. He has three speeds – walking, trotting, and running, and when he is going there is nobody could detect him from a living being. Come down to the lawn, and we’ll give him a trip.”
“We’ll have to find a name for him. What do you propose?”
“I hardly know, Mr. Gannett.”
“I suppose he can’t talk, among his other accomplishments?”
“No. It seems to me that if he becomes the most famous runner in the world that will be quite enough.”
“P’raps. Maybe you hadn’t thought that when he is famous we shall have all the newspaper interviewers trying to get a word in edgeways with him.”
“Candidly, I had not considered that factor.”
“Well, it orter be thought of. If you take my tip you’ll call him William Jones, and inform the British public that he’s deaf and dumb. In a manner of speaking that won’t be a huntruth.”
“True, true. He shall be William Jones, a deaf mute. Now come to the lawn, and see him work.”
Mr. Gannett, regarding the affair as uncanny, stepped back a pace as the Professor approached the electric man. “Mr. Jones” was a triumph of scientific skill. Internally and even on the outside he looked marvelously realistic. The face was made of some composition, and although the expression never altered, it would have deceived anyone. The body was dressed in a vest and “shorts,” and the wiry-looking legs, which were the chief part of the apparatus, had taken up two years of the Professor’s time before he was perfectly satisfied with them.
The electric man was taken, arm in arm with the Professor, to the front of the house, and then put through his paces. There was nothing about the walk of Mr. Jones to suggest irregularities.
“I s’pose he can go round a circular track?” queried Jem Gannett anxiously.
“Yes. All I have to do is to adjust this lever. Then he describes a perfect circle. Watch him.”
The automaton began to walk round and round the lawn, with a stately tread, his head thrown a little backwards, and his arms swinging naturally.
“There’s ‘undreds an’ ‘undreds in it,” ejaculated the amazed trainer. “We’ll make a fortune in the bets alone, without counting prizes. Let’s see him trot.”
The Professor pulled one of the levers over slightly, and Mr. Jones broke into a quick trot.
“If this ain’t great, I’ll eat my ‘at,” observed Jem with entire satisfaction. “Let’s see ‘im do a ‘undred yards in ten seconds, and I’ll die ‘appy.”
Another twist of the lever, and Mr. Jones began to run as fast as any human being ever covered the track on foot. His style was faultless, and he was as cool as a cucumber.
“‘Ow long will ‘e keep up without doin’ hisself an injury, Professor?”
“About ten hours,” said the maker of Mr. Jones contentedly.
“Can ‘e go any faster?”
“There is practically no limit to his speed. It all depends on how far you twist the lever.”
There was silence for a while as Mr. Jones described small circles, and then Jem Gannett scratched his head again in perplexity.
“That is right enough in its way,” the trainer remarked very slowly, “but it just occurs to me that if this mechanical gent starts running somebody’s got to run after him to stop him, and if you think people’s going to be taken in when you have to kind of persuade a sprinter to ease up by digging ‘im in the back you’ve mistook.”
The Professor smiled blandly.
“That is the simplest part of the whole affair,” he said. “A sprinter always has to cross the tape at the finish. The least pressure on the front of Mr. Jones stops the work entirely, and he falls forward exactly like a man who has collapsed. But even if the tape gave no pressure you or I would be a little beyond the winning post, and by extending a hand on his chest as he passed, would fetch him down in a perfectly natural fall. Just try it on him.”
Mr. Gannett, feeling the thing was eerie in the extreme, had some diffidence in approaching the runner as he passed. It seemed almost impossible to believe that the figure was not a real, living being.
He put his hand out and touched Mr. Jones lightly on the chest, half expecting the automaton to turn round angrily and ask him what he meant by taking liberties. Instead, Mr. Jones threw up his hands in a most life-like fashion, lurched a step or two forward, exactly like an athlete who has spent his last ounce of strength, and fell down. The only movement left was a heaving of the chest.
Round eyed, and a trifle pale with excitement, Mr. Gannett looked down at the prostrate form.
“Mr. Jones is the greatest thing that ever ‘appened,” he declared enthusiastically. “There’s a mint of money in it. But what ‘appens to him after he’s fallen at the end of the race?”
The Professor made a comical face.
“You, Mr. Gannett, as his trainer, naturally got to his side first. You put your arm through his – so, press this lever, and he walks off with you as meekly as a lamb, like this.”
Mr. Jones had arisen, with assistance, and as he strolled across the lawn he appeared as fresh as ever.
“There’s just one thing, Professor. ‘Ow about the start?”
“I had thought of that. Being deaf, poor thing, Mr. Jones cannot hear the pistol, so I have to stand near him, and he breaks away when I touch him on the back.”
“Let’s enter him for the mile race at the Puddimore sports next week, Professor.
It’ll be a sort of preliminary canter, just to see how he works in public. P’raps we can get an odd bet on, too.”
“An excellent idea. I leave the details to you.”
Thus was Mr. William Jones, the deaf and dumb athlete, launched upon his career. His trainer spent most of his time during the next few days looking up forthcoming athletic meetings, both at home and abroad.
“It’s like backing a dead cert, every time,” he remarked with joy to the Professor. After all, his enthusiasm was not to be wondered at for Mr. Gannett was the first trainer, in all time, who could send his man to the post, knowing with absolute certainty that he could not be beaten. The two conspirators got up early every morning and, in the dim twilight, gave Mr. Jones a good five furlongs sprint, so that they could be sure of handling wins neatly in public.
“ ‘E’s a marvel,” was the verdict of Mr. Gannett, “and ‘e doesn’t even need rubbing down after the race,” he added with a chuckle.
The Puddimore sports were the chief athletic event of the year in the district, and there was always a big crowd there. The Professor thought Mr. Jones should go down in a cab, but the trainer, not being quite sure how the mechanical man would get out of the vehicle, insisted that they should walk down to the ground. Mr. Jones, accordingly, strolled along in a heavy overcoat, one of the trainer’s arms resting lovingly on his.
“It’s a circular track, Professor, so you’ll have to fix up ‘is pacin’ accordin’.”
“That’s very simple. Fortunately it is nearly a perfect circle. In future it would be safer to run him only on the straight, I think.”
“We orter have just a little bet on this, Professor, for luck. If you’ll hand me a tenner I’ll get it on, maybe at evens. I’ve one or two friends here who will fix that up, but we can’t expect more than evens, as nobody knows Mr. Jones’s form. ‘E’s a dark ‘orse, and there’s only six in the field.”
The mile race was the event of the day. Two of the competitors were well known in the athletic world, and it was generally considered that the result would rest between them, until it leaked out that Jem Gannett was backing his own man. Jem was regarded as a wily individual, and the experts began to wonder whether he was going to spring a surprise on them with his mysterious Mr. Jones. The odds were shortened accordingly.
By the time the six starters were lined up, Mr. Gannett was in a state of nervous prostration. He had hit the biggest thing of his life, but he felt terribly anxious.
Something of his anxiety spread to the usually placid mind of Professor Edicombe. During all the years of his patient work on Mr. Jones he had merely regarded his creation in a scientific light. It was only when he stood at his automaton’s side, awaiting the crack of the pistol, that he realized the full possibilities in front of him. For the first time in his life the Professor grew nervous. His hand was unsteady even before the pistol went off, and at the critical moment he pulled the lever a couple of notches too far.
Neither Puddimore nor any other place had ever seen a race start in such an amazing way.
Mr. William Jones burst away at the rate of over thirty miles an hour!
For a full ten seconds the vast crowd held its breath, spell-bound, and then a mighty roar went up. In a few moments Mr. Jones had a clear lead of fifteen to twenty yards. The world had never seen such a runner. He was tearing round the track as fast as a horse could gallop.
“The man must be mad. He can’t keep up that pace for a mile,” exclaimed the mayor of Puddimore who had risen from his seat in sheer astonishment. But the mayor was mistaken, for once in his life. Mr. William Jones tore along like a greyhound, his step never varying. There were two laps to the mile, but the deaf mute had completed the first lap before the rest of the field had got half way round. The crowd yelled in frenzy.
There were only two people in that vast concourse who felt they did not quite know what was going to happen. One was Professor Edicombe and the other was Mr. Jem Gannett.
“You’ve gorn an’ done a nice thing,” said the trainer lugubriously, with both eyes glued on the astonishing runner in the distance. “Perhaps you’ll tell me ‘ow you’re going to explain away this wunnerful performance?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Mr. Gannett. I must leave it to you. You’re his trainer. Here he comes. He’s going a bit fast, and I hope the tape will stop him.”
“ ‘An if it don’t?”
“Well, you are more athletic than I am, Mr. Gannett. Perhaps you would not mind putting your hand on his chest.”
“It’s a nice mess, anyway. When I undertook to train Mr. Jones I never bargained for havin’ to stand in front of a runaway locomotive that’s beaten all known and unknown records.”
An ear-splitting shout showed that the astonishing runner had won the mile, but the most extraordinary part of the race was that he did not stop at the tape. With his head thrown back, and displaying no sign whatever of fatigue, he shot past and started on his third lap. Mr. Gannett tried to tap him on the chest, but the automaton was going at such a rate that he missed him.
“Let him go,” shouted hundreds of voices. A man who could run a mile at that speed and then evince no desire to stop was too good a sight to lose.
“I beg of you, Mr. Gannett, think what we had better do,” said the Professor.
The trainer’s brows were puckered.
“It seems that there’s two courses open to us,[“] he said. “One is to ‘op it, and leave Mr. Jones running till his works get rusty. On the other ‘and, we might let Mr. Jones run a bit longer, and you and me could go round with the ‘at, as we’ve created a bit of astonishment.”
“I’m getting very afraid of discovery,” aid the Professor nervously. “It would be a serious thing for me.”
“An’ what about me? D’you expect I’d be able to get my living if this got round? Here he comes again. Get out of the way. I’ll have another shot.”
But Mr. Gannett’s luck was out. Five times Mr. Jones tore round the course, his speed increasing if anything, and every man in the grounds was hoarse with shouting.
At the end of the fifth lap Mr. Gannett was waiting for the runner with a grim face. The affair was getting serious. People were saying that the man would drop dead, and that he ought to be stopped.
The little trainer stood as firm as a rock and caught Mr. Jones squarely on the chest with his hand. It was in vain, but the impact was so great that Jem turned a somersault. The Professor ruefully helped him to his feet.
“His blessed stoppin’ works have gorn wrong,” gasped the trainer, and then he stood still with his eyes bulging out of his head. The runner had turned off the circle and was now making a bee-line for the cliffs.
“The shock of your hand has altered one of the levers,” exclaimed the Professor in a shaky voice. “Mr. Gannett, I fear Mr. Jones is going too near the cliff.”
The sports were forgotten, and a vast multitude left the stands to flock after the vanishing figure.
* * * * * *
Mr. Gannett and the Professor were sitting together some hours afterwards.
“I cannot express my sorrow in words,” aid the scientist in broken accents. “Let me look at that evening paper again?”
Without a word the little trainer handed him the sheet, and the Professor read the story once more:
RUNNER GOES MAD.
BEATS ALL RECORDS: TRAGIC SEQUEL.
Puddimore witnessed the eighth wonder of the world to-day. William Jones, a runner hitherto unknown to fame, won the mile race in a marvelous fashion, covering the distance at the rate of 33 miles an hour; and then he continued his astonishing performance by going round and round the track at the same pace.
It had never been conceived that any human being could run at anything like that speed. There is every reason to believe, however, that William Jones achieved the feat in a fit of madness. His trainer tried to stop him several times, and after the fifth lap the two had a terrific fight. With Herculean force Jones hurled Mr. Gannett half a dozen yards and made a frantic dash for the open country. It was only too clear by then that the unfortunate athlete had become demented. An enormous crowd ran after him, but he soon out-distanced the fastest runners and headed straight for the cliffs.
Only one man was present at the terrible scene which ended the historic run. He was a farm labourer who happened to be standing there.
“I saw the runner coming at me,” he states, “like an express train. He seemed fairly to fly over the ground. I shouted to him to mind the cliff, but he took no notice. There was madness in his eyes as he rushed past, quite close to me.
“He went to the highest part of the cliff, and then with a horrid shriek flung himself right over into the sea, two hundred feet below. He seemed to go on running even while he was falling through space, but when he touched the sea he sank like a log.”
At the place where William Jones committed this rash act there is a strong current, and it is feared his body would soon be carried miles out to sea.
* * * * * *
There was something suspiciously like tears in the eyes of the Professor as he laid the paper down.
“To think that the product of ten years’ labour should end itself by committing suicide!” he said sadly.
“P’raps it’s as well for me and you, Professor, that there ain’t no chance of the body bein’ found,” commented Mr. Gannett. And then the pair lapsed into moody silence.
Every robot story from that era has the same ending, the mechanical man – or woman – unstoppably amok, a cogent comment on modern technological “advances.” Robots wouldn’t be menaces until after World War I. The elimination of the evidence is another common gimmick. Sadly, The Black Cat did not illustrate its stories and neither did the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph. An artist’s conception of Mr. Jones whizzing past the other runners would be a true relic. Try watching Chariots of Fire on fast-forward. It’ll be the closest we’ll ever get.
Steve Carper writes for The Digest Enthusiast; his story “Pity the Poor Dybbuk” appeared in Black Gate 2. His website is flyingcarsandfoodpills.com. His last article for us was Two, Count ‘Em, Two Nazi Robot T-Rexes.