Filby

The second element of RESHAPE investigates the relationship between the real and the imaginary in late-nineteenth century visions of science and technology. “Filby” examines the interplay of the world as seen, experienced, imagined and hoped for.

Focusing on the years 1895-97 and drawing on popular accounts from the period, the main strands of “Filby” include: the early writings of H.G. Wells, the development of early cinema, the discovery of X-rays, the wireless telegraphy work of Marconi, and the “force engine” of Stephen Emmens – a machine for making gold.

In the early months of 1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells was serialised in the New Review. The story is framed by two dinner parties at the inventor’s house in Richmond. The only guest to be mentioned by name is “Filby” and it is the central conceit of my own book that Filby reports the story to Wells who then writes the novel with which we are familiar (much the same as we might imagine Watson telling Doyle of Sherlock Holmes). Filby then becomes our fictional witness for the real events of the period.

In those same months that The Time Machine was being serialised the Lumieres, Robert Paul, Birt Acres and others were developing the technology of early cinema. There is, therefore, a synchronicity of real and imagined technologies for the manipulation of time – a synchronicity that would find further expression in the patent for a time-machine simulator that was filed by Paul later in the year. By the time that the story was published as a book in June, Marconi was experimenting with wireless telegraphy, something which he would demonstrate publicly the following year. Moreover, on the same day that the Lumiere brothers held their first public demonstration of the cinematographe, Roentgen would publish his discovery of x-rays, a discovery which would quickly become a public sensation.

Thus in a very short time the public were presented with a range of seemingly fantastic technologies each with a rich mixture of real and imagine possibilities – technologies for travelling in time, making pictures come alive, drawing on invisible forces to communicate and for looking through solid objects.

In his description of the demonstration model for the time-machine Wells says that it had “an odd twinkling appearance…as though it was in some way unreal”. Similarly the full-scale time-machine was said to be “a thing of brass, ebony, ivory, and translucent glimmering quartz”, a substantial-looking mass that “swayed like a bough shaken by the wind” when it is touched. These are the qualities which “Filby” aims to achieve: a translucent glimmering that leaves the reader wondering if it is in some way unreal; substantial but sways like a bough in the wind.

Extracts of work in progress can be found here:

Filby? Who is Filby?

Ice on the Thames