History Making robots
> ||5 January 2013|
eade, Frank (I, II, and III). The first Frank Reade was created by "Noname," aka "Harry Enton," aka Harold Cohen, and debuted in “Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, or, The Terror of the West,” Boys of New York #28, 28 February 1876. The Frank Reades were collectively the most famous and successful of the Edisonade (see below) dime novel characters, and in many ways were the most representative of them, and their stories of the genre itself. Frank Reade wasn't the first Edisonade; that was Johnny Brainerd. His stories weren't the best-written; those would be Robert Toombes' Electric Bob stories. The Reades, however, had longevity, appearing in 184 stories over 23 years, and were definitely the most influential of the Edisonades.
There were three characters to bear the name: Frank Reade; his son, Frank Reade Jr.; and Frank Reade III, Reade Jr.'s son. Most of the following description will be about Frank Reade, Jr., as it was this character that appeared in 179 of the 184 Reade clan stories.
Frank Reade Sr. was created after "The Steam Man of the Prairies," starring the aforementioned Johnny Brainerd, had been reissued to some success. Frank Tousey, publisher of the Tousey family of magazines, saw how profitable "The Steam Man of the Prairies" was for his rival, the Beadle House publishers, and decided that he wanted something similar. He commissioned Harold Cohen (1854-1927) to write the story. Cohen, who had been writing for the dime novels under the pseudonym of "Harry Enton," agreed, and produced "Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains" (Boys of New York #28-36, 28 February-24 April 1876). Frank Reade, in this first set of stories, was a 16-year-old who lived in New York City. He was "of a studious nature, and quite a thinker, was pale, slim, and not over strong." He decided to construct a steam man, a slightly better version of Brainerd's. Reade, his Missouri cousin Charley Gorse, and the Steam Man go out West and have the predictable Edisonade adventures, fighting Indians, bad men, and buffalo, and enriching themselves in the process. Three sequels followed, with Reade producing more and more steam-robots, variations of steam men and steam horses, and having various adventures in the West. Cohen, however, had been forced by Tousey to use the Tousey house pseudonym of "Noname" on all four stories (there's some dispute over whether he wrote the fourth Frank Reade, Sr. story). Cohen was dissatisfied with this state of affairs, as he wanted his own pseudonym of "Harry Enton" to receive credit for the stories. Cohen and Tousey quarrelled, and Cohen quit the series, although he continued to write dime novels, including Old Cap Collier stories.
Tousey then approached Luis Senarens (1863-1939), a "Brooklynite of Cuban descent," to replace Cohen. Senarens, then only 16, had been writing various pieces for the Tousey dime novels for a few years, and had a reputation as a reliable, quick, and cheap worker. Tousey dithered a bit; he didn't want to have to meet Tousey to agree to the deal, because then his real age would be known and, he feared, Tousey would not offer him the job. They finally met and Tousey persuaded Senarens to take the job. Senarens never looked back, and went on to write around 1500 (!!) dime novels under 27 (!) pseudonyms for Tousey, including the Jack Wright stories.
(As a sidenote, Senarens became somewhat involved with Jules Verne himself. One of Senarens' first stories earned him a letter of praise from Verne, something whose effect can only be estimated. A 17-year-old receiving compliments from a titan of fantastic fiction is no small thing. Senarens might not have been so happy had he known the truth of the matter, which was that Verne had lifted some of Senarens' ideas and incorporated them into his novel, The Steam House. Verne would later on take Senarens' idea of the multivaned helicopter and incorporate it into Robur the Conqueror (see the Robur entry below). Don't feel too bad for Senarens, however--well, don't feel bad for the bigoted bastard at all, actually, but don't feel bad about his ideas being stolen by Verne. Senarens was not above stealing from Verne. Senarens used an imitation of Robur's Albatross, down to the compressed-paper material of the ship, in "Frank Reade, Jr., and His Queen Clipper of the Clouds" (Boys of New York, 2 February-6 July 1889). Verne got his own back, though, in the final Robur novel, The Master of the World, which features a flying submarine which is a direct lift from Senarens' "Over the South Pole; or, Jack Wright's Search of a Lost Explorer With His Flying Boat" (Boys' Star Library #364, 1895)).
In Senarens' first Frank Reade story, "Frank Reade Jr. and His Steam Wonder" (Boys of New York #338-350, 4 February-29 April 1879) he revealed that Frank Reade was suddenly middle-aged and a retiree in Readestown, “the smart little town where several generations of Reades had dwelt.” Reade was quite happy, enjoying his sedate lifestyle and tending to his steam-powered garden, but Reade's son, Frank Reade, Jr., was not. Jr. had drive and energy:
Frank Reade was noted the world over as a wonderful and distinguished inventor of marvelous machines in the line of steam and electricity. But he had grown old and unable to knock about the world, as he had been wont once to do.But outstripping his father was not enough for Junior, and when news comes to Readestown that an innocent man has been unfairly convicted and jailed, Junior decides to intervene, and takes his new Steam Man out West, along with Barney and Pomp, his father's two servants. (More on them below). From there he just kept adventuring, kept inventing, kept getting richer, and kept killing. Frank Jr. is described as "a fine specimen of physical young manhood, with a small, dark mustache, keen eyes, an intellectual forehead, and an athletic figure, made up of bone and sinew."
So it happened that his son, Frank Reade, Jr., a handsome and talented young man, succeeded his father as a great inventor, even excelling him in variety and complexity of invention. The son speedily outstripped his sire.
The great machine shops in Readestown were enlarged by young Frank, and new flying machines, electric wonders, and so forth, were brought into being.
Much later, in 1899, Frank Jr. was succeeded by Young Frank Reade. Young Frank's only appearance was in “Young Frank Reade and his Electric Air Ship; or, a 10,000 Mile Search for a Missing Man,” in Happy Days #261-268, 4 October-2 December 1899. In that story Frank, Jr. is suddenly old and retired, with a family of his own. Young Frank builds his own wonder-craft, a special airship, and quickly outstrips his father, as Frank Jr. did to his father, and goes off adventuring in search of a missing family friend. Young Frank, who is a virtual twin of his father, is assisted by his sister, Kate, who is spunky and resourceful and in most ways just like her brother and father and grandfather.
The Reade clan were Edisonades. One definition of the term can be found here. Another, better definition is the following, by noted SF writers & critics John Clute and E.F. Bleiler, from the magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
As used here the term "edisonade"--derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe--can be understood to describe any story which features a young US male inventor hero who uses his ingenuity to extricate himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors. The invention by which he typically accomplishes this feat is not, however, simply a weapon, though it will almost certainly prove to be invincible against the foe and may also make the hero's fortune; it is also a means of transportation--for the edisonade is not only about saving the country (or planet) through personal spunk and native wit, it is also about lighting out for the Territory. Once the hero reaches the virgin Territory, he will find yet a further use for his invention; it will serve as a certificate of ownership. Magically, the barefoot boy with cheek of tan will discover that he has been made CEO of a compliant world; for a single revelatory maxim can be discerned fueling the motor heart of the edisonade: the conviction that to tinker with is to own.I might quarrel with certain particulars of this definition, of course. There were any number of Edisonade stories set outside the United States; indeed, after the first few Edisonade stories in each major series, all of the stories were set outside the U.S. I think the nature of the Edisonade's invention should be emphasized; while the Edisonades are very good at inventing "electric rifles" and "electric cannon," their primary talent lies in inventing armed vehicles, with a new vehicle being created for each new story. And I think the nature of the Edisonade's enemies needs to be pointed out. The Edisonade’s enemies were always non-WASPs; when the Edisonade adventured inside the United States, his enemies were immigrants, blacks, Mexicans, Mormons, and Native Americans. When the Edisonade traveled outside the United States, his enemies were those of the United States itself; the October, 1891 riots in Valparaiso, Chile, between American sailors and native Chileans, had led to lasting ill-will between the United States and Chile, so the Chileans occasionally figured as the villains of an Edisonade’s story. Likewise, during the hostilities between the United States and Spain over Cuba, in 1898, the Spanish became the enemy of the Edisonades. At other times the Edisonade’s enemy was a social group or country whose international reputation, at the time, was low, so that Czarist Russia and the slave-trading Portuguese and the piratical Chinese were the Edisonade’s enemy. On the whole, however, Clute and Bleiler have summed up the nature of the Edisonade quite nicely.
Clute and Bleiler are not fans of the Edisonades, and at heart neither am I. The charges many, most lately Clute and Bleiler, have laid against the genre are true. (There's an ill-informed and pretentious fan "critic" on the Web whose objections to the Clute Encyclopedia, including Clute's Edisonade entry, are regrettably findable via Google. Pay that poltroon no mind. His objections are logically faulty, morally wrongheaded, and factually ill-informed). The Edisonade is a racist, imperialist genre full of unexamined assumptions about the superiority of the White Man and the moral righteousness of acquisitiveness and expansionism. In the hands of Senarens, as Bleiler wrote in his Science Fiction: The Early Years, the Edisonade stories "en masse...suffered visibly from this hugely prolific author's carelessness, cheap jingoism, racist stereotyping, and lackadaisical plotting." Bleiler also describes Senarens nicely when he says that Senarens "exemplified the worst in the dime-novel tradition: very bad writing, sadism, ethnic rancor, factual ignorance and an exploitational mentality. On the positive side, he led the dime novel away from eccentric inventions into a developmental stream that culminated in modern Children's SF."
The Reades are part and parcel of this tradition; neither the first nor the best of the Edisonades, they are perhaps the quintessential examples of the form. At another point Clute and Bleiler summarize the genre this way:
Stress was on iron technology, with little or no science; narratives contained random, thrilling incidents, often presented in a disjointed and puerile way. Typical social patterns were: a conscious attempt to capitalize on age conflict, with boy inventors outdoing their elders; aggressive, exploitative capitalism, particularly at the expense of "primitive" peoples; the frontier mentality, with slaughter of "primitives" (in the first Frank Reade, Jr. story Frank kills about 250 Native Americans, to say nothing of destroying an inhabited village); strong elements of sadism; ethnic rancor focused on Native Americans, Blacks, Irish, and, later, Mexicans and Jews.The Reades, as mentioned, travel around the world and have adventures nearly everywhere, from Siberia to Australia to the Andes. As Bleiler and Clute point out, much of their adventuring abroad focusses on exploitation, imperialistic ambitions, and establishing the superiority of the White Man at the bloody expense of the non-White Man. Racism and ethnic bias were an essential part of the Edisonades and of the Frank Reade stories in particular. In the world of the Frank Reades, only WASPs were civilized, with immigrants a criminous threat to the integrity of the country, Native Americans savages, Mexicans cruel “greasers,” Jews greedy and treacherous, and blacks, whether African or African-American, savages deserving of mass slaughter. In Frank Reade’s first appearance he gleefully kills over 200 Native Americans. In “The Mysterious Mirage; or, Frank Reade, Jr.’s Desert Search for a Secret City with his New Overland Chaise” (Frank Reade Library #113, 9 August 1895) a Lost Race of “original Hebrews” are found; the “original Hebrews,” who are tall, blond, and peaceful, are perfect Christians, while one of Frank’s companions, the journalist Hilton, describes “the Hebrew, the Israelite, and the Jew as all one race, dark-skinned, coarse-featured and the enemies of Christ.” When meeting Mexicans, in “Frank Reade, Jr., and his Air-Ship” (Boys of New York, 1 December 1883) Frank’s opinion is that “greasers” are cowardly, vain, stupid, and vicious, and Frank shows no compunction and no small pleasure at murdering them by the dozens.
The Frank Reade stories aren't unrelievedly negative about non-WASPs, hoewver. One bright point--well, not so dark spot, anyhow--is the portrayal of Barney O'Shea and Pomp, Frank's twin servants. Barney O'Shea is a stereotypical Irishman, loving brawling and booze, and quite lethal with his shillelagh. Pomp is an African-American, embodying most of the negative stereotypes of the time. The pair joined up with Frank Reade in his first two stories, and when Frank, Jr., went adventuring the two went with him. When Young Frank Reade went adventuring the pair went along with him. They fight with each other nearly every story, and often require rescuing by Frank, although they often help Frank, and even save his life on occasion.
There is some dispute among scholars about the Barney and Pomp, especially the latter. It is true that Pomp, despite his appearance (a description of pure racism that I can't bear to repeat here) is given some positive qualities. He genuinely cares for Frank, even even pulling a gun on a policeman so as to prevent Reade being falsely arrested. Pomp is one of the greatest horsemen who ever lived, even outracing a pack of "Indians" and outlaws, shooting them down one by one with a pistol while riding backwards. There does seem to be a genuine, if hidden, affection between Pomp and Barney Shea, despite their endless squabbling. Both are involved in the operations of the Reades' wondercrafts in a more than menial way. And both Pomp and Barney Shea are shown as being capable of feats of real heroism, inspired by fair play and patriotism. But for all that, in my view there is an implicit assumption, throughout the series, of the superiority of the WASP and the corresponding inferiority of non-WASPs. Positive aspects Pomp and Shea may have, but those do not, in my view, negate the stereotypes they are also shown as having, and there is no excusing the portrayals of the non-Pomp/Shea non-WASPs in Senarens' work. It must be conceded that Barney and Pomp are generally portrayed more positively than the character of Frycollin, in Robur the Conqueror (a nasty and wholly unexpected piece of racism, somewhat like finding the anti-Semitism in the original version of War of the Worlds) or the African-American characters in the Tom Swift series. But that is damning with faint praise.
The most important parts of the Frank Reade stories, though, isn't the racism but the adventures themselves and the inventions. The Reade stories are precursors to the science fiction of the Golden Age, in which the characterisation of the super-scientists was of secondary importance to their brand new inventions and discoveries, the Deluxe Atom Smashers and the Kzippa Particles and the Transspace Drives and the like. The object fetishism of the Frank Reade stories, with new inventions being seen as wonderful, nearly holy things, can still be seen today, in the works of technothriller writers like Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts.
All that said, though, Frank Reade's creations can be quite interesting. His Steam Man is much like that Johnny Brainerd's, only it has headlights and its wagon is not covered. Better still, it is armed, shooting "fiery missiles" which dart "hither and thither like stars of fire" from "belts of fire at the neck and waist" of the Steam Man, and its wagon is not covered. It is two feet taller and can travel at a staggering 50 miles per hour.
Reade's airship, the Cloud Cutter, is made from a bulletproof steel/aluminum alloy produced by Reade in his foundries and machine works in Readestown, USA, from which Reade hails. Naturally, the Cloud Cutter is well-armed and capable of traveling around the world, and Reade being Reade, the Cloud Cutter's decks can be electrified in case boarders take the ship, as happened when Reade took on a pack of Siberian bandits. Coincidentally, Reade also carries anti-smallpox "disinfectants," which came in handy when he and his crew discovered a plague ship adrift in the Baltic.
Reade's also got the Neptune, a special seacraft. It's a submarine shaped like a ship; it has masts and sails, and can move via steam, but when necessary Reade can seal all the hatches and doors and take it to the bottom of the sea. It's powered by "chemical generators" which also generate oxygen and consume CO2. The Neptune has electrical lights and is armed with torpedoes; it can also deliver limpet mines that Reade activates at the touch of a button. The crew of the Neptune has diving suits with square oxygen packs that allow them to travel around the sea floor.
Reade's Demon of the Clouds is similar to a flying catamaran with twin aluminum hulls, powered by an electric plant and steered by propellors and gyroscopes. In "Lost in a Comet's Tail" (Frank Reade Library #122, 13 December 1895) Reade's ship-shaped aircraft has four enormous "rotors" (helicopter blades) and is airtight; designed for undersea use, when it gets sucked into space by the pull of Verdi's comet it does double duty as a spaceship, the oxygen-generators, electric heaters, and diving suits (which double as space suits) all being just what Reade and crew needed.
These are just a few of the inventions that the Reades come up. Some others are "night pistols," automatic pistols filled with flashless powder and special bullets; nitroglycerin grenades; steam-powered and later feedless electric locomotives; several varieties of armed, fast-moving airships (including the Cloud-Cutter, the Eclipse, the Flight, the Catamaran of the Air, and the Thunderer) that are usually variations on the theme of helicopters but occasionally are proto-jets; one-person battery-powered electric flying suits (complete with wings); "electric cannon" (pneumatic machine guns); yachts and ships that double as submarines (the Sea Diver, the Rocket, and the Neptune among them); an early version of the instant camera; motorcycle-like "bicycle cars;" armed and armored "overland omnibuses;" chariot-like "electric phaetons;" and space ships (the Flash, the Saturn, and the Shooting Star).
Reade, for his part, embodies the Edisonade genre and is the best example of it. He is anti-everyone (except white male Americans); he may treat them politely, but his biases are only lightly concealed. He is a polylinguist and a wonderful inventor, with a brilliant mind capable of scientific advancements, but he is egotistical, an unashamed imperialist (indeed, Reade would see no need to apologize, for the implicit assumptions of the Edisonades are never examined by them), and a moral hypocrite; he can, in the same sentence, express an aversion for taking human life but also say "to send the black craft and her crew [of pirates--Jess] to the bottom of the sea could be no crime." The Reade stories can be fun to read, but you'll need to take a shower afterwards.