Chapter 1. Hydrogen
An auburn-haired boy of twelve stood looking in at the door of ablacksmith shop and wondering why the smith sprinkled water on thefire. He stood with two girls and had an arm around each, but for themoment he had forgotten them both.
There have always been smithies, and children coming home from schoolhave loved to look in at the open door, and doubtless there has beenmany a lad of whom the girls were so fond that they were willing tostand like tame fillies while he gazed into the shop like a wonderingcolt.
In such cases the young spectators were fascinated by the brawnycourage of the smith, and by the danger of the sparks, but few wouldconclude that water will burn. This boy however did. He noticed thatthe sprinkling made the red flame sink back into the coals and thenemerge whiter and brighter. The fire was certainly feeding on water.
Presently the dazzling bar of iron was withdrawn, and the sparks beganto fall at his feet. The girls shrank back, and he laughingly drewthem away.
Now this did not happen in a village but in the city of Chicago, andin the year 1905. Marvin Mahan was the third son of Chase Mahan, amining engineer who was oftener away from home than at home. On thisMay afternoon, however, he happened not only to be in Chicago but tobe engaged in writing letters in his den, which held minerals andchemicals and included most of the top story of an old house on thenorth side.
There the small boy easily found him. The afternoon sun was pouringthrough an open window on many a mineral of which Marvin already knewthe name, but off in a corner a beam of it was running along a tableon which lay a sieve of phosphor bronze. The boy stopped and gazed atthat sieve.
“I’m looking at your rainbows.”
Marvin went over and slowly tilted the sieve toward the beam of light.The wires were pretty close together, about three hundred to the inch,and at an angle of thirty degrees the space between them was less thanthe diameter of the wire. Marvin raised and lowered the slope tillsuddenly a perfect spectrum of solar light appeared, and he turnedgrinningly toward his father.
Chase nodded and smiled.
“Some day, when I’m not making so much useless money, I’ll write alittle paper about that. You have put your finger on a new way ofmeasuring light-waves. But what the devil are you doing up here whenyou ought to be out with your nine?”
“I want to know what part of water burns?”
“Do you mean is burned?”
“Can I make some?”
“You can’t make anything. All you can do is to discover things thatGod Almighty put in the earth, and you are damned lucky if you can dothat. I ought not to teach you to swear, but this letter I’m writingis to a self-made man who rather needs to be sworn at.”
“Aren’t you a self-made man, dad?”
“No! I came to this town bare-footed, but it’s only by the grace ofGod that I’m not in jail. You’ll be doing well if you keep out of jailyourself.”
“I will, dad, but can I turn some hydrogen loose?”
“Do you want to blow a hand off?”
“I don’t mind, if I can see how the meat looks.”
“Then go and ask Norah for a marmalade jar. Get a glass one, and washthe cork.”
Marvin was off like a flash.
Chase rose and paced the room, thinking about his children andthanking God they were no worse than they were. Every one of themexcept Helen was likely to pay dearly for the energy inherited fromhis own restless self. Augustus however was safely married without anyserious explosion so far. Charles had not yet been expelled fromcollege. Helen—sweet flower—was safe in her grave. Baby Anita was forthe moment safe down stairs in her mother’s arms. But Marvin—thislovable twelve-year-old dare-devil—this imp of bottled lightning—whatof him?
Marvin’s worst escapade thus far had been to lead his tender gang intoa saloon and coax enough beer out of a law-abiding spigot toscandalize nine of the best families of the north side. That baseballteam did not exactly go home drunk, but they all went home late,having slept off the beer on the lake shore.
His usual and lesser crime was to do all the arithmetic for the bunchand so gain time for sport. He had been punished in school and out ofschool for this misdemeanor, but he would never promise not to repeatit. What could a teacher say to a beautiful boy who smiled into hereyes and declared it “anti-social” not to help the other kids!
Marvin led everything and apparently had no desire to lead anything.He led because his brain was a little quicker, his foot a littleswifter, his eye a little surer than those of any mate. He was theundisputed cockerel of the walk. As for girls—only God knew what hemight be guilty of in the course of the next ten years.
Chase lamented that his own energy seemed so little tempered in Marvinby the mother’s steadiness. It was only in fits of abstraction thatMarvin looked like the Helen Marvin whom Chase had loved these fiveand twenty years. The boy had some of the makings of a scientificgenius—the quickness and accuracy of observation, the mathematicalpower, the swift intuition—but he seemed to lack the power ofquiescence which permits a real genius to brood doggedly on a singleproblem.
Presently Marvin bounded up the steps, balancing the glass jar, withsome water in it, on the back of his left hand. Chase explained thatthe process of separating water into two gases is electrical, and thatthe simplest way to get a current is to bring zinc and sulphuric acidtogether in the water. He said that both materials could be found inthe room, and having said it returned to his writing.
There stood Marvin, left to his own devices, permitted to blow hiseyes out if he so desired.
He rolled up a strip of zinc, dropped it into the water, and corkedthe jar. Then he punched a hole and inserted a small glass funnel tolet the sulphuric in. It stood to reason that there should be anotherhole and a pipe to let the hydrogen out. He punched a second hole andinserted a piece of glass tubing.
So far, so good. It was the first time he had been allowed to monkeywith the wonderful things in that corner of the den. He took down thebottle of sulphuric and pondered. If anything went wrong, dad wouldnever let him try it again. If the acid made the water bubble and thehydrogen come out of the tube, would it be safe to light it like a gasjet? No, because there was no pressure and the flame would backfireinto the jar.
He removed the tube and bent it in the flame of a bunsen burner. Hethrust the short end back through the cork and ducked the other endinto a bowl of water. Then he poured in a little acid and watched.Sure enough, bubbles began to rise and the glass grew warm, even hotPresently corresponding bubbles appeared on the surface of the bowl.He stirred in a little soap so that he could see them better, and theycollected in iridescent masses.
Gosh, he had the stuff, but was it safe to touch it off? He sat downand ran his fingers through his chestnut curls and studied hisapparatus. Flame could not possibly backfire through solid water.Hadn’t he figured this thing out himself? So he applied a match to thesoap bubbles and was rewarded by a delightful fusillade—like a machinegun about a thousand miles away and ten years off. “Not dead yet,dad.”
“No, not yet,” smiled Chase Mahan.
Chapter 2. Helium
Three years passed, and Marvin was in the high school without havingblown his eyes out. He was distinctly tamer now, though stillafflicted with excess of leisure because his mathematics cost him solittle. He always had time for sports, and the boy of fifteen wasmadly fond of dancing.
That summer his father took him on a long prospecting trip in thewilds of Canada and watched him develop into young manhood. Everymorning they had their swim together in the pellucid purity of somelake rarely seen by the eyes of white men. All day long they searchedravine and gully, moving slowly from east to west across thecontinental formation. Every night they lay by the camp-fire andtalked about many things, sometimes about the future. It was agreedthat Marvin should be a chemist, but Chase kept drilling it in thatearly specialization was bad. He had suffered from it all his life,and wanted his boy to go slow.
Near the end of the trip the mining engineer slipped in crossing aslope of rock, and fell. When he arose, his right hand was so uselessand painful that he suspected some bones had been broken. The firstthing he did on reaching Chicago was to proceed to the hospital andhave the swollen hand radiographed. One bone was found to be split,and the sufferer was led to another room that the hand might beimmobilized.
Thus left alone with the X-ray man, Marvin plied him with questions.He so fascinated the radiographer that presently he was rewarded witha mystery even greater than that of the subtle unseen light. He wastaken into a dark closet and permitted to peer into a small instrumentcontaining salts of radium.
He saw a flight of stars, a sheaf of rays, a faint fierce sparkling!The heavy metallic radium atom was exploding! It was bombarding asmall black screen with cannon flashes!
Instantly the boy inquired why somebody did not capture the power ofthat explosion and set it to work. He was told that any suchachievement was impossible. The show was not affected by heat or cold,and would continue for a thousand years or more till the radium wasall used up.
What were those flashes? How could he learn more about them? He mustwait till he had enough physics to follow the writings of a man namedRutherford.
He was sorry to wait, but he was glad that some human being was atwork on the job. He went home full of wonder and impatience. He neverforgot the marvelous show. All through the year he kept seeing thoseimmortal fireflies charging the darkness and wasting energy. He nolonger broke the law by helping his mates with their mathematics, butspent extra time each day in reading mathematics beyond therequirements.
And so his high-school years went by. Athletics and girls, Latin andFrench and German went