The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees is a novel by L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The protagonist is a boy named Rob Joslyn. His age is not specified. Baum dedicated the book "To My Son, Robert Stanton Baum," who was born in 1886 and would thus have been about fifteen at the time it was published. Rob is an electrical experimenter whose father encourages him and sees that he "never lacked batteries, motors or supplies of any sort." A "network of wires soon ran throughout the house". He loses track of the elaborately interconnected wires, and trying to get a cardboard house to light up, he "experimented in a rather haphazard fashion, connecting this and that wire blindly and by guesswork, in the hope that he would strike the right combination." There is a bright flash, and a being who calls himself the Demon of Electricity appears. He tells Rob that he has accidentally "touched the Master Key of Electricity" and is entitled to "to demand from me three gifts each week for three successive weeks." Rob protests that he does not know what to ask for, and the Demon agrees to select the gifts himself. Over the next two weeks, Rob experiences adventures exploring the use of the Demon's gifts, but eventually concludes that neither he nor the world is ready for them. On the third week, Rob rejects the Demon's gifts and tells him to bide his time until humankind knows how to use them. The Demon leaves. With a light heart, Rob concludes that he made the right decision.
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By L. Frank Baum
When Rob became interested in electricity his clear-headed father considered the boy's fancy to be instructive as well as amusing; so he heartily encouraged his son, and Rob never lacked batteries, motors or supplies of any sort that his experiments might require.
He fitted up the little back room in the attic as his workshop, and from thence a net-work of wires soon ran throughout the house. Not only had every outside door its electric bell, but every window was fitted with a burglar alarm; moreover no one could cross the threshold of any interior room without registering the fact in Rob's workshop. The gas was lighted by an electric fob; a chime, connected with an erratic clock in the boy's room, woke the servants at all hours of the night and caused the cook to give warning; a bell rang whenever the postman dropped a letter into the box; there were bells, bells, bells everywhere, ringing at the right time, the wrong time and all the time. And there were telephones in the different rooms, too, through which Rob could call up the different members of the family just when they did not wish to be disturbed.
His mother and sisters soon came to vote the boy's scientific craze a nuisance; but his father was delighted with these evidences of Rob's skill as an electrician, and insisted that he be allowed perfect freedom in carrying out his ideas.
"Electricity," said the old gentleman, sagely, "is destined to become the motive power of the world. The future advance of civilization will be along electrical lines. Our boy may become a great inventor and astonish the world with his wonderful creations."
"And in the meantime," said the mother, despairingly, "we shall all be electrocuted, or the house burned down by crossed wires, or we shall be blown into eternity by an explosion of chemicals!"
"Nonsense!" ejaculated the proud father. "Rob's storage batteries are not powerful enough to electrocute one or set the house on fire. Do give the boy a chance, Belinda."
"And the pranks are so humiliating," continued the lady. "When the minister called yesterday and rang the bell a big card appeared on the front door on which was printed the words: 'Busy; Call Again.' Fortunately Helen saw him and let him in, but when I reproved Robert for the act he said he was just trying the sign to see if it would work."
"Exactly! The boy is an inventor already. I shall have one of those cards attached to the door of my private office at once. I tell you, Belinda, our son will be a great man one of these days," said Mr. Joslyn, walking up and down with pompous strides and almost bursting with the pride he took in his young hopeful.
Mrs. Joslyn sighed. She knew remonstrance was useless so long as her husband encouraged the boy, and that she would be wise to bear her cross with fortitude.
Rob also knew his mother's protests would be of no avail; so he continued to revel in electrical processes of all sorts, using the house as an experimental station to test the powers of his productions.
It was in his own room, however,--his "workshop"--that he especially delighted. For not only was it the center of all his numerous "lines" throughout the house, but he had rigged up therein a wonderful array of devices for his own amusement. A trolley-car moved around a circular track and stopped regularly at all stations; an engine and train of cars moved jerkily up and down a steep grade and through a tunnel; a windmill was busily pumping water from the dishpan into the copper skillet; a sawmill was in full operation and a host of mechanical blacksmiths, scissors-grinders, carpenters, wood-choppers and millers were connected with a motor which kept them working away at their trades in awkward but persevering fashion.
The room was crossed and recrossed with wires. They crept up the walls, lined the floor, made a grille of the ceiling and would catch an unwary visitor under the chin or above the ankle just when he least expected it. Yet visitors were forbidden in so crowded a room, and even his father declined to go farther than the doorway. As for Rob, he thought he knew all about the wires, and what each one was for; but they puzzled even him, at times, and he was often perplexed to know how to utilize them all.
One day when he had locked himself in to avoid interruption while he planned the electrical illumination of a gorgeous pasteboard palace, he really became confused over the network of wires. He had a "switchboard," to be sure, where he could make and break connections as he chose; but the wires had somehow become mixed, and he could not tell what combinations to use to throw the power on to his miniature electric lights.
So he experimented in a rather haphazard fashion, connecting this and that wire blindly and by guesswork, in the hope that he would strike the right combination. Then he thought the combination might be right and there was a lack of power; so he added other lines of wire to his connections, and still others, until he had employed almost every wire in the room.
Yet it would not work; and after pausing a moment to try to think what was wrong he went at it again, putting this and that line into connection, adding another here and another there, until suddenly, as he made a last change, a quick flash of light almost blinded him, and the switch-board crackled ominously, as if struggling to carry a powerful current.
Rob covered his face at the flash, but finding himself unhurt he took away his hands and with blinking eyes attempted to look at a wonderful radiance which seemed to fill the room, making it many times brighter than the brightest day.
Although at first completely dazzled, he peered before him until he discovered that the light was concentrated near one spot, from which all the glorious rays seemed to scintillate.
He closed his eyes a moment to rest them; then re-opening them and shading them somewhat with his hands, he made out the form of a curious Being standing with majesty and composure in the center of the magnificent radiance and looking down upon him!
Rob was a courageous boy, but a thrill of fear passed over him in spite of his bravest endeavor as he gazed upon the wondrous apparition that confronted him. For several moments he sat as if turned to stone, so motionless was he; but his eyes were nevertheless fastened upon the Being and devouring every detail of his appearance.
And how strange an appearance he presented!
His jacket was a wavering mass of white light, edged with braid of red flames that shot little tongues in all directions. The buttons blazed in golden fire. His trousers had a bluish, incandescent color, with glowing stripes of crimson braid. His vest was gorgeous with all the colors of the rainbow blended into a flashing, resplendent mass. In feature he was most majestic, and his eyes held the soft but penetrating brilliance of electric lights.
It was hard to meet the gaze of those searching eyes, but Rob did it, and at once the splendid apparition bowed and said in a low, clear voice:
"I am here."
"I know that," answered the boy, trembling, "but WHY are you here?"
"Because you have touched the Master Key of Electricity, and I must obey the laws of nature that compel me to respond to your summons."
"I--I didn't know I touched the Master Key," faltered the boy.
"I understand that. You did it unconsciously. No one in the world has ever done it before, for Nature has hitherto kept the secret safe locked within her bosom."
Rob took time to wonder at this statement.
"Then who are you?" he inquired, at length.
"The Demon of Electricity," was the solemn answer.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Rob, "a demon!"
"Certainly. I am, in truth, the Slave of the Master Key, and am forced to obey the commands of any one who is wise and brave enough--or, as in your own case, fortunate and fool-hardy enough--to touch it."
"I--I've never guessed there was such a thing as a Master Key, or--or a Demon of Electricity, and--and I'm awfully sorry I--I called you up!" stammered the boy, abashed by the imposing appearance of his companion.
The Demon actually smiled at this speech,--a smile that was almost reassuring.
"I am not sorry," he said, in kindlier tone, "for it is not much pleasure waiting century after century for some one to command my services. I have often thought my existence uncalled for, since you Earth people are so stupid and ignorant that you seem unlikely ever to master the secret of electrical power."
"Oh, we have some great masters among us!" cried Rob, rather nettled at this statement. "Now, there's Edison--"
"Edison!" exclaimed the Demon, with a faint sneer; "what does he know?"
"Lots of things," declared the boy. "He's invented no end of wonderful electrical things."
"You are wrong to call them wonderful," replied the Demon, lightly. "He really knows little more than yourself about the laws that control electricity. His inventions are trifling things in comparison with the really wonderful results to be obtained by one who would actually know how to direct the electric powers instead of groping blindly after insignificant effects. Why, I've stood for months by Edison's elbow, hoping and longing for him to touch the Master Key; but I can see plainly he will never accomplish it."
"Then there's Tesla," said the boy.
The Demon laughed.
"There is Tesla, to be sure," he said. "But what of him?"
"Why, he's discovered a powerful light," the Demon gave an amused chuckle, "and he's in communication with the people in Mars."
"Why, the people who live there."
"There are none."
This great statement almost took Rob's breath away, and caused him to stare hard at his visitor.
"It's generally thought," he resumed, in an annoyed tone, "that Mars has inhabitants who are far in advance of ourselves in civilization. Many scientific men think the people of Mars have been trying to signal us for years, only we don't understand their signals. And great novelists have written about the Martians and their wonderful civilization, and--"
"And they all know as much about that little planet as you do yourself," interrupted the Demon, impatiently. "The trouble with you Earth people is that you delight in guessing about what you can not know. Now I happen to know all about Mars, because I can traverse all space and have had ample leisure to investigate the different planets. Mars is not peopled at all, nor is any other of the planets you recognize in the heavens. Some contain low orders of beasts, to be sure, but Earth alone has an intelligent, thinking, reasoning population, and your scientists and novelists would do better trying to comprehend their own planet than in groping through space to unravel the mysteries of barren and unimportant worlds."
Rob listened to this with surprise and disappointment; but he reflected that the Demon ought to know what he was talking about, so he did not venture to contradict him.
"It is really astonishing," continued the Apparition, "how little you people have learned about electricity. It is an Earth element that has existed since the Earth itself was formed, and if you but understood its proper use humanity would be marvelously benefited in many ways."
"We are, already," protested Rob; "our discoveries in electricity have enabled us to live much more conveniently."
"Then imagine your condition were you able fully to control this great element," replied the other, gravely. "The weaknesses and privations of mankind would be converted into power and luxury."
"That's true, Mr.--Mr.--Demon," said the boy. "Excuse me if I don't get your name right, but I understood you to say you are a demon."
"Certainly. The Demon of Electricity."
"But electricity is a good thing, you know, and--and--"
"I've always understood that demons were bad things," added Rob, boldly.
"Not necessarily," returned his visitor. "If you will take the trouble to consult your dictionary, you will find that demons may be either good or bad, like any other class of beings. Originally all demons were good, yet of late years people have come to consider all demons evil. I do not know why. Should you read Hesiod you will find he says:
'Soon was a world of holy demons made, Aerial spirits, by great Jove designed To be on earth the guardians of mankind.'"
"But Jove was himself a myth," objected Rob, who had been studying mythology.
The Demon shrugged his shoulders.
"Then take the words of Mr. Shakespeare, to whom you all defer," he replied. "Do you not remember that he says:
'Thy demon (that's thy spirit which keeps thee) is Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable.'"
"Oh, if Shakespeare says it, that's all right," answered the boy. "But it seems you're more like a genius, for you answer the summons of the Master Key of Electricity in the same way Aladdin's genius answered the rubbing of the lamp."
"To be sure. A demon is also a genius; and a genius is a demon," said the Being. "What matters a name? I am here to do your bidding."
Familiarity with any great thing removes our awe of it. The great general is only terrible to the enemy; the great poet is frequently scolded by his wife; the children of the great statesman clamber about his knees with perfect trust and impunity; the great actor who is called before the curtain by admiring audiences is often waylaid at the stage door by his creditors.
So Rob, having conversed for a time with the glorious Demon of Electricity, began to regard him with more composure and less awe, as his eyes grew more and more accustomed to the splendor that at first had well-nigh blinded them.
When the Demon announced himself ready to do the boy's bidding, he frankly replied:
"I am no skilled electrician, as you very well know. My calling you here was an accident. So I don't know how to command you, nor what to ask you to do."
"But I must not take advantage of your ignorance," answered the Demon. "Also, I am quite anxious to utilize this opportunity to show the world what a powerful element electricity really is. So permit me to inform you that, having struck the Master Key, you are at liberty to demand from me three gifts each week for three successive weeks. These gifts, provided they are within the scope of electricity, I will grant."
Rob shook his head regretfully.
"If I were a great electrician I should know what to ask," he said. "But I am too ignorant to take advantage of your kind offer."
"Then," replied the Demon, "I will myself suggest the gifts, and they will be of such a character that the Earth people will learn the possibilities that lie before them and be encouraged to work more intelligently and to persevere in mastering those natural and simple laws which control electricity. For one of the greatest errors they now labor under is that electricity is complicated and hard to understand. It is really the simplest Earth element, lying within easy reach of any one who stretches out his hand to grasp and control its powers."
Rob yawned, for he thought the Demon's speeches were growing rather tiresome. Perhaps the genius noticed this rudeness, for he continued:
"I regret, of course, that you are a boy instead of a grown man, for it will appear singular to your friends that so thoughtless a youth should seemingly have mastered the secrets that have baffled your most learned scientists. But that can not be helped, and presently you will become, through my aid, the most powerful and wonderful personage in all the world."
"Thank you," said Rob, meekly. "It'll be no end of fun."
"Fun!" echoed the Demon, scornfully. "But never mind; I must use the material Fate has provided for me, and make the best of it."
"What will you give me first?" asked the boy, eagerly.
"That requires some thought," returned the Demon, and paused for several moments, while Rob feasted his eyes upon the gorgeous rays of color that flashed and vibrated in every direction and surrounded the figure of his visitor with an intense glow that resembled a halo.
Then the Demon raised his head and said:
"The thing most necessary to man is food to nourish his body. He passes a considerable part of his life in the struggle to procure food, to prepare it properly, and in the act of eating. This is not right. Your body can not be very valuable to you if all your time is required to feed it. I shall, therefore, present you, as my first gift, this box of tablets. Within each tablet are stored certain elements of electricity which are capable of nourishing a human body for a full day. All you need do is to toss one into your mouth each day and swallow it. It will nourish you, satisfy your hunger and build up your health and strength. The ordinary food of mankind is more or less injurious; this is entirely beneficial. Moreover, you may carry enough tablets in your pocket to last for months."
Here he presented Rob the silver box of tablets, and the boy, somewhat nervously, thanked him for the gift.
"The next requirement of man," continued the Demon, "is defense from his enemies. I notice with sorrow that men frequently have wars and kill one another. Also, even in civilized communities, man is in constant danger from highwaymen, cranks and policemen. To defend himself he uses heavy and dangerous guns, with which to destroy his enemies. This is wrong. He has no right to take away what he can not bestow; to destroy what he can not create. To kill a fellow-creature is a horrid crime, even if done in self-defense. Therefore, my second gift to you is this little tube. You may carry it within your pocket. Whenever an enemy threatens you, be it man or beast, simply point the tube and press this button in the handle. An electric current will instantly be directed upon your foe, rendering him wholly unconscious for the period of one hour. During that time you will have opportunity to escape. As for your enemy, after regaining consciousness he will suffer no inconvenience from the encounter beyond a slight headache."
"That's fine!" said Rob, as he took the tube. It was scarcely six inches long, and hollow at one end.
"The busy lives of men," proceeded the Demon, "require them to move about and travel in all directions. Yet to assist them there are only such crude and awkward machines as electric trolleys, cable cars, steam railways and automobiles. These crawl slowly over the uneven surface of the earth and frequently get out of order. It has grieved me that men have not yet discovered what even birds know: that the atmosphere offers them swift and easy means of traveling from one part of the earth's surface to another."
"Some people have tried to build airships," remarked Rob.
"So they have; great, unwieldy machines which offer so much resistance to the air that they are quite useless. A big machine is not needed to carry one through the air. There are forces in nature which may be readily used for such purpose. Tell me, what holds you to the Earth, and makes a stone fall to the ground?"
"Attraction of gravitation," said Rob, promptly.
"Exactly. That is one force I refer to," said the Demon. "The force of repulsion, which is little known, but just as powerful, is another that mankind may direct. Then there are the Polar electric forces, attracting objects toward the north or south poles. You have guessed something of this by the use of the compass, or electric needle. Opposed to these is centrifugal electric force, drawing objects from east to west, or in the opposite direction. This force is created by the whirl of the earth upon its axis, and is easily utilized, although your scientific men have as yet paid little attention to it.
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