Press "Enter" to skip to content

On Unexpected Results and Unknown Applications

The paper stays there, hanging from the wall, seemingly in defiance of gravity. Notebook in one hand, and tapping my pen to my pursed lips, I observe the stubborn piece of foolscap is not only defying the will of mother nature, but my own desire that it should be removed safely, and not at the expense of my wallpaper.

I start recording in my notebook:

“Subject: ‘Tacky-Scap’ full-scale test #1, Result: Failure, Cause: Adhesive too strong, Notes: In future, test on inconspicuous area or sacrificial surface.”

I gently place the notebook on the side table, and approach the offending decoration. Pinching from one end, I gingerly peel the paper from the wall. Slowly… Slowly… Slowly… DRAT! Ripped. Seeing as damage is now a foregone conclusion, I rip the sheet from the wall, taking wallpaper and a small chunk of plaster with it. Bones of lathe stare at me from the small but instantly noticeable hole.

A shame really. I could have envisioned a million uses for my re-usable adhesive paper sheets. I chuckle to myself. Its a good thing I tested it. I doubt very much that customers would appreciate having their notices becoming a permanent fixture. Visions of pitch fork-wielding mobs of clerks howl in my colourful imagination – people have been lynched for less.

Experimentally moving objects around my mantle in a vain attempt to cover the aberration, I think of setting aside this (temporary) dead end for a new experiment. Hmm, this plant is not quite lush enough to conceal… perhaps this clock… no too high. Ah! There! The flower portrait covers it nicely. I stand back to admire my act of concealment and slightly adjust the angle of the picture to plumb.

I smile in satisfaction. The art of concealing damage to walls, floors, and furniture due to ill-conceived acts of creativity has been honed in me since childhood and my first box of paints. Mother always did have a sharp eye, making it all the more challenging. Thankfully, she is not here.

I pick up the open jar of my adhesive paste with an aim to close it. It seems to have solidified in the last few minutes – the brush stuck fast in the milky solid. Oh dash it. The goo seems to have likewise married itself to the glass of the jar. What on earth have I created? I say that to myself all too often these days.

As my mind wanders, searching for a possible re-use for my invention, there is a rap at the front door. Placing the jar next to my neglected dinner, I calmly walk down the stairs to see who it is. Probably some customer or other. I completely forgot to open the shop today, some business woman I am.

I unbolt the door and let in a decidedly cold winter draft into my store, tickling my inadequately clothed body in the process. I shiver slightly and gaze at my visitor. Ah. Messenger. Looking resplendent in his livery. Bit overdone for a messenger to my mind.

“Delivery for E. Fairywren”

“Right inside please” I urgently usher him and his crate indoors and shut the weather out.

“Sign here.” He proffers a pen and delivery ticket, which I duly sign, and send him on his way.

“G’night Miss!” With a smile and a wave he is through the door and out into the twilight.

“Goodnight!” I call after him, then quickly close and bolt the door after him and turn to face my delivery.

Examining the tag, I squeal in delight – the glassworks, perfect! I lick my lips with anticipation. Some weeks ago, I commissioned a glass blower to render some rather precise designs – and paid handsomely for them. I hope they are good enough….

I grab a crowbar and grunt and heave as I pry open the securely fastened crate, revealing a sea of straw, paper, and horse-hair. I shove an arm into the itchy filler, probing. Finding a fist-sized shape, I gently grasp it and pull it towards the surface. Noting the splendid wrapping job, I proceed to peel the layers of paper and hair like layers of onion skin with the gusto of a child on Christmas morning. I simply love to receive new parts.

Finally the first piece is revealed. I almost gasp at its beauty. Simplistic yes, but exacting in its craftsmanship. The object is cylindrical in shape, hollow, with one rounded end narrowing to a thin pipette at the top. The opposite end narrows slightly in diameter and the bottom end being open. The material itself is thick boro-silicate tempered glass, and crystal clear. Looking closely, I examine its surface in minute detail. It twinkles in the lamplight, reflecting everything, including a quite distorted image of my face. I giggle at the thought of my nose actually being that large.

Grasping it gently from its pipette, I flick a finger nail against the impossibly smooth surface. A gentle note fills my ears, wavering with its harmonics and resonating for a good few seconds.

“Most impressive!” I gasp, marvelling at its precise perfection.

My tubes have arrived. I drape a piece of soft velvet on my desk and reverently place the piece upon it, careful to ensure it will not roll off the table, and dive again into the crate looking for the other piece. Retrieving a smaller package, I open it to reveal a short glass tube with one wide, fluted end. Setting it upright beside the tube, I pull open a desk drawer and retrieve a strange metal construction.

At first glance, it looks like junk. Fabricated of leftover bits of wire and metal, more like a sculpture from a mad artist than something with a purpose. A loosely-wound coil of tungsten forms its core, surrounded by a very fine metal mesh.

It is a bit of whimsy, at best. An idea to make light bulbs last far longer by providing a “sink” for the intense heat and energy produced by heating the tungsten to incandescence. I test-assemble the three pieces and gaze skeptically upon it, turning it over in my hands. If I am right, this bulb could last a hundred years and burn brighter too.

Thinking of the adhesive debacle I had left, forgotten, upstairs in my sitting room, I hope that by the end of the evening I will have produced something more than an extremely expensive light bulb.

I clear my desk of its stacks of misfiled papers and other flammable objects and prepare my work surface. Almost as an afterthought, I draw the curtains to keep out prying eyes – a simple precaution to avoid an argument at the patent office. I lay out the equipment I need: an stand with padded clamps and a crank, a blowtorch, several pairs of pliers, other assorted small hand tools, and my vacuum pump.

Just as I hunt for the various fittings and tubes necessary, a black form appears suddenly on the crowded desk. I gasp with surprise and catch my new tube, just as it was rolling off the table.

“Stupid cat” I mumble. Always coming on the desk at exactly the wrong moment. I pick her up with an aim to throw her out, so she may cause trouble in the less delicate streets, but relent when she commences purring. I sigh in resignation and give her a few strokes of her well-groomed fur.

“You, will stay out of my way miss. I can’t have you catching on fire.” I continue to half-heartedly scold her while conveying her to the nearest plushy chair. I know she will stay there for some hours at least.

I stare at the crowded desk and tap my pen on its edge. It always seems easier when I read about it, that is for sure. I suspect that my lofty ideas have outstripped my skills once again. I calmly talk to myself reviewing the steps, cautioning myself against danger and gather the resolve. I will make the attempt.

Securing my goggles over my face, I light the torch and begin the tedious process of fabricating a light-bulb. Heat the glass, turn, heat, turn, pinch a bit, heat turn. My brow is swimming with perspiration, more from the intense concentration rather than the heat of the torch. Several times I have to scold myself – patience, and keep my eyes and mind on my work. After blasting the glass joint with the torch, I make one final pinch and seal the slender trio of electrodes into the glass. Following my instructions, I turn the torch down and gently heat the new joint, preventing it from cooling too fast. With pliers, I place the assembly into the open tube end, clamp it in pace and proceed to heat edge where they meet. Heat and turn, heat and turn endlessly….

Finally, I close the valve on the torch and admire my handiwork. The newly-sealed joint slowly fades from a dull orange to brown. Shame about the burn marks, its decidedly less attractive than it once was. A little lumpy in places but no cracks, no catastrophic failures. For the first time today, i am pleased. Using padded tongs, I transfer my assembled apparatus to an insulation blanket and roll it up to slowly cool.

I open the door to allow some air in and step outside. Lighting a small china pipe I allow my mind to wander. How things have changed. This pipe for instance. Picked up the hobby from the pubs. Certainly not lady like. My mother would go spare if she saw me. Yet, so satisfying. When the breathable smog is not thick enough, the pearly smoke from the – whatever this leaf is – fills the gap.

I also never thought I’d be dabbling in glasswork. A far cry from my books and my pens, my slide rules and calculus tables. This city has a strange effect on me. Caught up in its energy I feel I need to do something. Attempt the impossible. Tweak the nose of the devil while stealing his purse. A sly smile forms and I let out a puff of acrid tobacco, coughing violently for my trouble. Apparently I had puffed to hard – the smoke was too hot. Perhaps this particular change isn’t the best of ideas. I tap the pipe out and leave the odious instrument on the stoop.

As I prepare to retire for the evening, I say to myself: “Tomorrow I will try. It may not be the impossible, but it will be a damn miracle if this works.”

I wake early the next morning, too eager to sleep and rush downstairs in my dressing gown. on the desk is the rolled blanket. Inside is.. well, we shall see. Carefully unrolling the blanket, I do not hear the tinkle of broken glass. As the last fold falls away I am delighted to discover a completely intact bulb.

With that fear out of the way, and the needs of the morning taken care of, I ignore the morning paper and instead re-read my instructions between mouthfuls of cheese danish and sips of tea. I place the tube in the clamps and attach a rubber hose to the pipette, whose other end terminates in the vacuum pump. I start the miniature steam engine pump and listen to the delightful racket it makes while evacuating the air from my tube. Briefly, a fine mist is present on the inside of the glass – the moisture vaporizing quickly.

The gauge approaches zero and I remember to put on my goggles. I watch with apprehension, half expecting the glass to shatter from the pressure. I sincerely hope not. Amongst other reasons, I had neglected to don my apron and fear my dressing gown is not up the task of stopping flying glass fragments. I wait and watch. The gauge is moving very slowly now – never quite reaching zero. I was told to expect this. Finally, judging it to be enough, I close the valve on the pump and shut it down. I again re-light the torch and heat the pipette, stretching it very slowly. It glows orange, then red, becoming stringy as I pull it further away. Finally, it breaks off, leaving a nice point. To my joy, I have an intact bulb.

After dressing and another pot of tea, and feeling more human, I clean up my work area. Depositing the now unneeded apparatus and tools on the floor I mount my tube in a wooden socket and affix it to my test board. Humming to myself like I’m baking a cake – threading wires through terminals – making connections. This is the fun part. After making a few final checks against my scribbled schematics, and calibrating my voltmeter – I am ready.

I look down at the metal box affixed low on the wall behind my desk. Stamped in its cast iron case in huge letters: “Aetheric Power & Engineering Company” and “Danger – High Voltage – Risk of Fatal Shock”. I open the circular metal flap concealing the contacts. I thread a thick power cable into its socket and connect the other end to the two spade terminals on my test block. I carefully close the knife switch with a carefully placed finger and flinch – expecting an arc. Nothing.

Laughing at my own forgetfulness, I rummage in my desk for the cash box and deposit a couple of coins in the box. The sound of some internal mechanics follow my deposit and an indictor flag shows green on the panel. My desk lamp – the only electric light I own – winks on, illuminating the desk. I shut it off, hoping to discern any change in my tube.

I lick my lips in nervous apprehension and close the knife switch. A mild spark heralds the close with a brief “pop” and a tiny puff of vaporized metal. I turn the knob on my adjustable auto-transformer, slowly increasing the voltage. With one eyeball on the tube and the other on my voltmeter, I watch it climb with bated breath. A decidedly high-pitched whine emanates from the device as I detect the first dull glow from the filament behind the mesh. I record the starting voltage quickly, and continue to turn the knob. As expected, the filament gets brighter in direct proportion to the increase in voltage.

Already seeing purple, I save my eyes the trouble and partially close the irises in my goggles. The room darkens and the focus is on the orange-hot metal inside the tube. I continue to turn, slowly to not shock the filament. Each passing turn I marvel – its working. Already twice as bright as a standard light bulb and no sign of burning out – fantastic. I record my readings in my notebook, looking for the optimal setting. This could replace the arc-light.

I keep turning, the whine gets louder, the filament brighter, casting meshed shadows on the walls in defiance of the daylight. Hmm, that whine will be a problem. Have to look into eliminating that. Would be quite intolerable during a dinner or show. Still, at ten times the brightness of an ordinary bulb… I wonder if I can go higher?

As often happens when tempting fate, the unexpected occurs. With goggled eyes locked on my invention, my grasping for the adjustment knob knocks over a screwdriver.

“No” I say simply, as I watch the screwdriver fall in slow motion towards my un-insulated testing apparatus. Knowing better than to try and catch it, I hurl myself backwards expecting the worst.

The screwdriver lands and is followed immediately by a loud bang and a flurry of sparks. I shriek and shield myself. As the smoke clears I am surprised again. Not only am I intact, but so is my apparatus – and its still working. I visually examine the spontaneous new circuit. The screwdriver has been arc-welded onto two contacts, shorting them. Appears to be the mesh lead, now an anode instead of a cathode. That’s bizarre, how is it possible it still functions? I never in a million years would have wired it that way, yet here it is – glowing brightly.

The bright glow seems to have moved beyond incandescence and lessened in apparent brightness, now emitting an intense blue glow. The bulb itself is radiating great amounts of heat and my teeth are practically chattering from the whine.

After my initial shock, my attention is called toward a faint ticking sound. Looking about, I note it is the galvanometer, its needle moving wildly at the very bottom of its range, seemingly at random. Wait, not at random:

tick tick tick ta-tick tick ta-tick tick tick

Something in my being screams that its too ordered to be random. Shocked, confused, and a little excited, I scribble down the pattern, which seemed consistent in its regularity, though progressive in its pattern – a message? No, how could that be possible. I adjust the transformer, increasing the voltage thus amplifying this “signal”. The needle now moved easily and I hastily jotted down readings – how bizarre is this?

I watch, astonished as the the needle performs its now orderly dance, sweeping gracefully from one reading to the next … far too ordered.

After scribbling two pages of data, the novelty of this unknown “signal” began to wane from my consciousness. Astounding surely, but what does it mean? Have I merely created a light-bulb that spouts nonsensical galvanometer readings? Am I receiving wireless telegraphy? have I inadvertently tapped into the Aether? or is this merely an oscillation caused by inductance?

I pen out some quick calculations on a whim, carefully noting the readings. Now this is impossible, they don’t add up consistently. Shaking my head and believing my math to be in error, I run them again. And again, and again. Each time the equation falls apart. I stare balefully at the device:

“You sir, are in direct violation of Ohm’s law.”

The device, of course, was silent apart from its annoying whine and cheerily continued to spout impossible readings.


All goes dark. I smell the acrid odour of burning electronics as my eyes hunt for the source of the issue. Looking down at the power service panel I note the usual green “READY” sign has been replaced with “OVERLOAD”.

“Well, that’s it” I sigh, now feeling exhausted. Its just as well. My more adventurous side is urging that I locate a more stable power source – perhaps the power station itself – while the more rational starts thinking of graphs that need plotting, calculations run, and professionals to consult. This is definitely out of my experience. Metaphysics is not my field.

Of one thing I am certain, whatever this device is, there is more to it than illumination.

((I am aware that a number of various types of vacuum tubes both mundane and aetheric are floating about New Babbage, still it seems to me that these semi-conductors should still be a very new thing – the first purpose built diode tube wasn’t until 1904 with the Fleming Valve, though Edison patented the general effect in 1880, not knowing what it was and never capitalizing on it. I was inspired to write this from this video:

thoroughly fascinating ))

Spread the love


  1. MacKnight Culdesac MacKnight Culdesac March 7, 2012

    A fascinating story, and very well written.  

    (I think the term “variac” may be anachronistic, though.  Wikipedia says, in an article on Autotransformers:  “From 1934 to 2002, Variac was a U.S. trademark of General Radio for a variable autotransformer intended to conveniently vary the output voltage for a steady AC input voltage. In 2004, Instrument Service Equipment applied for and obtained the Variac trademark for the same type of product.”  It’s a bit like saying “Kleenex” when you mean tissue, but before the Kleenex brand existed.  A tiny blemish on an otherwise very entertaining story.  Sorry to pick nits.)

    • Erica Fairywren Erica Fairywren March 7, 2012

      Thank you :)

      ((Oh very interesting! I should have done more fact-checking… Thanks for this, learn something new every day! I will read the article.  I will probably go back replace variac with a more general term.))

  2. Erica Fairywren Erica Fairywren March 11, 2012

    ((Amended to remove the trade-name “variac”. Thanks to Mr. Culdesac. also changed power company’s name after consultation with Miss Falcon)) 

Leave a Reply