The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"A New Accelerator" (1901)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“A New Accelerator” was written by H.G. Wells and was published in The Strand (Dec. 1901). Although Wells (1866-1946) is known today primarily for his science fiction, during his lifetime he was one of the most prolific, versatile, and popular writers in the English language.
In “A New Accelerator,” the brilliant scientist Professor Gibberne tries to discover a drug that "stimulates all round, that wakes you up for a time from the crown of your head to the tip of your great toe, and makes you go two--or even three to everybody else's one."1 Gibberne is a man with a "Mephistophelian touch to his face," a questing intellect and a "great and deserved" reputation for his work on the "action of drugs upon the nervous system.” He succeeds in creating the drug, which he calls the “accelerator” because of its effect on the nervous system. Gibberne and the nameless narrator (implicitly Wells himself) drink the accelerator and become superhumanly fast. For the half-hour that the effects of the drug last Gibberne and the narrator move so fast that the entire world is frozen in motion. Moving so quickly has its drawbacks, however, and at the end of the story Gibberne is planning on marketing the drug in stepped doses and is working on a "Retarder" to dilute the drug's potency.
“A New Accelerator” is an entertaining, intelligently-plotted story which anticipates modern comic books in its portrayal of super-speed. Wells does not portray the drug as being an unalloyed benefit and describes some of the negative consequences of super-speed. Gibberne, by running about at super-speeds, creates such wind friction that his clothes smolder and his white linen trousers are browned, and the narrator says "if we had run we should, I believe, have burst into flames. Almost certainly we should have burst into flames!"2 As the drug progresses both Gibberne and the narrator feel worse and begin to sweat excessively, and when the narrator flops down on the ground, as the drug wears off, he burns the turf beneath him.
Unfortunately, Wells allows his own biases to creep into the story, stating that “It seemed to me that so far Gibberne was only going to do for any one who took his drug exactly what Nature has done for the Jews and Orientals, who are men in their teens and aged by fifty, and quicker in thought and act than we are all the time.”3 Wells’ antisemitism was a somewhat more virulent form of the common anti-Jewish bigotry of the era—he put antisemitic caricatures in The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, and he blamed the existence of antisemitism on the Jewish failure to assimilate.4
As mentioned, “A New Accelerator” is an anticipation of modern superheroes’ super-speed. In fact, “A New Accelerator” appeared in the middle of the late nineteenth century surge in fiction featuring characters with superhuman abilities. While fiction about such characters goes back to “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (circa 2100 B.C.E.), the concept of the superpowered heroic protagonist as a commercially viable trope is a nineteenth century creation. Starting with Walter Scott’s The Black Dwarf (1816), the nineteenth century saw a wide variety of fictional superheroes: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gray Champion (see: “The Gray Champion”), the heroes of various Rosicrucian and Theosophical works of fiction, Harlan Halsey’s Old Sleuth (see: The Old Sleuth Mysteries) and the dime novel detectives influenced by him, psychically-empowered heroes, and scientifically-empowered heroes.5 “A New Accelerator” is a typical example of these stories, set apart from the others in part because it was a short story rather than a novel (the typical type of superhero text at the turn of the century) and in part because of the story’s focus on the superpower. Superpower fiction at the turn of the century, works like Luther Marshall’s Thomas Boobig (1895) and the various stories in magazines of the “Physical Culture” movement,6 customarily used superpowers as a plot device and vehicle for driving the story forward. They did not make acquiring and using the superpower the central plot of the story. In this regard “A New Accelerator” stands as a prototypical superhero origin story of the sort that would become common in comic books in the 1930s and 1940s.
Print: H.G. Wells, “A New Accelerator,” Best Science Fiction Stories of H.G. Wells. Mineola, NY: Dover Press, 2018.
1 H.G. Wells, “A New Accelerator,” Twelve Stories and a Dream (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 163.
2 Wells, “A New Accelerator,” 177.
3 Wells, “A New Accelerator,” 163.
4 See Brian Cheyette, “H.G. Wells and the Jews: Antisemitism, Socialism, and English Culture,” Patterns of Prejudice 22, no. 3 (1988): 22-35.
5 For more on this trend, see Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 123-144.
6 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 172-174.