The World Set Free

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The World Set Free is a 1914 novel by H.G. Wells which is famous for its description of "atomic bombs." One passage reads:

Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands. Yet the broad facts must have glared upon any intelligent mind. All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape. Every sort of passive defense, armor, fortifications, and so forth, was being outmastered by this tremendous increase on the destructive side. Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city. These facts were before the minds of everybody; the children in the streets knew them.

Scientists of the day understood that the natural radioactive decay of radium released an extremely large quantity of energy, but the rate of release was very slow—dribbling out, as it were, over thousands of years. In Wells' novel, a scientist discovers a way of accelerating the process.

Wells' fictional "atomic bombs," however, still released energy much more slowly than real nuclear weapons: his bombs have only the explosive force of ordinary high explosive, but they "continue to explode" for days. His explanation of how the bombs were supposed to work was pure science-fiction double-talk. However, the novel served as an inspiration to Leo Szilard, who in 1933 invented or discovered the principles of the chain reaction.

Wells was fascinated by radioactivity, and in his novel Tono-Bungay wrote:

To my mind radio-activity is a real disease of matter. Moreover, it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence. It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions. When I think of these inexplicable dissolvent centres that have come into being in our globe--these quap heaps are surely by far the largest that have yet been found in the world; the rest as yet mere specks in grains and crystals--I am haunted by a grotesque fancy of the ultimate eating away and dry-rotting and dispersal of all our world. So that while man still struggles and dreams his very substance will change and crumble from beneath him. I mention this here as a queer persistent fancy. Suppose, indeed, that is to be the end of our planet; no splendid climax and finale, no towering accumulation of achievements, but just--atomic decay!
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