The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Professor Vehr's Electrical Experiment" (1885)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Professor Vehr’s Electrical Experiment” was written by Robert Duncan Milne and first appeared in Argonaut (Jan. 24, 1885). Milne (1844-1899) was a San Franciscan journalist and writer whose alcoholism first destroyed his substantial talent and then directly contributed to his death. During his heyday Milne was the best of the surprisingly large number of science fiction writers in end-of-the-century San Francisco.
Professor Vehr, a brilliant and irascible scientist, conducts a number of experiments which give him control over “many of the phenomena commonly associated with occultism.”1 He also discovers a method of transmitting humans from location to location via telephone wires. Through the use of an elaborate set of machines, Vehr reduces the body of a friend into pure energy, sends him to New Orleans, has him reconstructed there (through the same set of machines) and then repeats the process, bringing the friend and his lover back to San Francisco...except that they never reach San Francisco, and are “dispersed into the ether.”2
“Professor Vehr’s Electrical Experiment” is in most respects an average late-Victorian science fiction story of the American school, albeit more intelligently conceived and executed than most of its competitors. (Milne was, as John Clute wrote, “one of the first genuinely extrapolative thinkers to work in the field.”3). Stylistically it is in no way memorable. But its central idea, that of an electrical matter transmitter, is another matter. “Professor Vehr’s Electrical Experiment” was published in 1885, just before the start of the “War of Currents” between Thomas Edison’s direct current-based Edison Electric Light Company and George Westinghouse’s alternate current-based Westinghouse Electric Company. Milne does not specify which type of current Vehr’s machines use, but instead anticipates the widespread distribution of electricity (so that someone like Professor Vehr would have nearly unlimited access to it).
Too, Milne takes the Spiritualist idea of traveling long distances by psychic teleportation and mechanizes it into matter transmission–an early example of the practice of twentieth- and twenty-first-century science fiction writers of converting non-science fictional concepts into science fiction via the use of vaguely-described machines and the cry of “SCIENCE!”4 Milne was not the first nineteenth-century science fiction writer to portray mechanical matter transmission–Edward Page Mitchell did it eight years before in his “The Man Without a Body” (1877), with both Mitchell and Milne portraying the matter transmission as resulting in a horrible accident.5
Finally, “Professor Vehr’s Electrical Experiment” is also representative of another trend in nineteenth-century science fiction: “In early matter transmitter stories by British and American authors, antagonists with German names, or at least possessing an identifiably exotic characteristic, are common, harking not only back to literary antecedents or contemporaries such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also symbolizing the threat of cultures that have their own imperial investments, such as Bismarck’s Germany.”6
Print: Robert Duncan Milne, Into the Sun and Other Stories. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1980.
1 Robert Duncan Milne, “Professor Vehr’s Last Experiment,” in Into the Sun and Other Stories (Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1980), 85.
2 Milne, “Professor Vehr’s Last Experiment,” 94.
3 John Clute, “Milne, Robert Duncan,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Feb. 11, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/milne_robert_duncan
4 “SCIENCE!” being of course the stereotypical shouted explanation in the American pulp magazines of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s when someone questions how a particularly fantastic machine or vehicle is powered.
5 Stephen Webb, All the Wonder That Would Be: Exploring Past Notions of the Future (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2017), 240.
6 Sean Williams, “The ‘Murdering Twinmaker’: Putting Into Context an Overlooked Icon of Science Fiction,” (Thesis, University of Adelaide, 2013), 13n6.