POLIOPOLIS AND POLIOLAND. 1900
James Macdonald Chaney (1831-1909)
Gus Heins, mechanic par excellence, has a secret dream. He wants to soar to the North Pole in a balloon. His best friend, the narrator of the story, lost track of him due to job constraints after they both graduated from college. But seven years afterwards, they met fortuitously and resumed their former friendship. During the interval, Gus's father had died and left him a large farm in the midwest. Seizing the opportunity to realize his dream, Gus had erected a very large barn and a fully-equipped machine shop and used them to initiate the construction of a balloon. The narrator had recently been fired from his job and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to help his friend achieve his goal. The penultimate product was a sizable balloon with two ten foot wings that flapped, powered by a 33 lb. gas engine made of aluminum, a rudder fabricated from steel and brass and a basket about eight feet square to hold them and their accouterments.
They set off on May 18 and made rapid progress toward Baffin Island. On the way they pin-pointed the location of the magnetic pole, partly through use of a planetarium: a device invented by Gus that indicated the positions of the planets, moon and stars in relationship to any location on the Earth's surface. (This instrument was very similar to the Antikythera orrery discovered just off a Greek island in 1901). Using the planetarium as a guide, they steered the balloon toward the North Pole, noting the extensive fields of water in a "solidified condition" as they floated above the polar seas. Several hundred miles later the atmospheric temperature seemed to be alleviating and they soon saw that the ice had vanished. Flying over the open ocean, they espied a large island in the distance and as they approached it, they saw people scattering away from their proposed landing site. But, curiousity overwhelming their fear, a crowd soon collected around the descending balloon. Gus lit up his pipe and, smelling the tobacco, the people were reassured that the balloonists were actually human. The island was about 125,000 square miles in area with a population of a million persons. Agriculture was the principal employment, but there were extensive forests of large conifers as well; one tree topping 367 feet. Deer, dogs, sheep and fish were abundant and there were seams of precious metals and coal to be found as well. The citizenry had emigrated five hundred years earlier from Northern Europe, mainly due to economic conditions; they were trying to get away from what they regarded as oppressive dominance by the upper classes. Sic: "the general tendency of the laws is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer".
"Yustavus", a local engineer, befriended them and invited them to stay at his house, which was a prison-like edifice made of stone blocks. The two adventurers noted that Yus was possessed of a telescope and a sextant that had been left by a polar expedition some fifty years previously. Friendships developed with the local inhabitants and the visitors soon were accepted as honored guests. Yus's daughter, Marie, showed interest in the planetarium and other instruments belonging to the newcomers, and Gus went out of his way to demonstrate how they were used. Gus also was able to invent a few labor-saving devices to ease the life of the people. He built a self-shuttling system adaptable to any loom which greatly increased the ease and production rate of woolen cloth. He showed them what a gas engine was like and engineered a lathe for machining screws.
There was a bone of contention in the land, however, involving the official coinage. Two systems were used, with silver constituting one level of value and gold coins a superior one. The government tried to pass a law declaring that the gold standard was to be the official purchasing medium, while silver was relegated to a lower status. The people soon realized that the end result would cause the already rich citizens to become richer and would place the lower classes in dire poverty. A revolution occurred soon afterwards, during which five conniving politicians were arrested and four of them hung. (I can't help but think this episode had something to do with the "Gold Standard" question that was occupying the media at that time).
At this point the story takes a sharp left hand turn in front of traffic and dedicates itself to explaining how the planetarium works. Marie, being very interested in astronomy, learns how to locate all the planets in the solar system at any given time, such information being particularly useful in a land where six months of the year were dark and six months were sunny. As a moment's reflection would indicate, during the "summer", the sun would circle around the pole without sinking, and during the winter gradually vanish. Anyway, the book ends with Marie spotting the planet Saturn, which would be observable for the nest 23 years.
This was a very peculiar book. Why Chaney suddenly decided to not write an ending to his story is somewhat of a mystery. He was a Presbyterian Minister for 53 years and maybe he found himself caught in a trap of sorts, writing about the intensely scientific realities of the solar system and not paying attention to what he was being paid for. It was pretty well written, and the explanations of the planetarium were accurate and complicated, but maybe he just got tired of writing. Anyway, it was interesting and quizzical...