L. Frank Baum’s Cautionary Tale About the Gifts of Electricity

It's no Wizard of Oz, but The Master Key has unique charms

8 min read

A book titled The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale by L. Frank Baum. On the cover, a male sits in a chair while a vibrant light shines at him.

L. Frank Baum's The Master Key, published in 1901, was inspired by the public's fascination with electricity and electrification.

Collections of the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

The American writer L. Frank Baum is best known for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels. In those books and numerous other works, he wove together magic, adventure, and nature into fantastic tales that were beloved of children and adults alike. Occasionally, Baum also drew inspiration from technology. Nowhere is that more evident than in his 1901 novel The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees.

 Historical black-and-white image of a mustachioed man in a hat sitting at a typewriter at a table outside.L. Frank Baum is remembered today for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels.UtCon Collection/Alamy

The book plays up both the promise and the perils of what was still a very new technology. The protagonist is a young boy named Rob Joslyn, who was loosely based on Baum's 15-year-old son, Robert. Both boys, real and fictional, were enthusiastic electrical experimenters. And Baum himself, who was 45 years old when the book was published, had witnessed the dawn of the great electrification of America. Born in 1856, Baum was raised in upstate New York, in homes lit by candles and gaslight. As an adult, he and his wife, Maud, and their young children lived briefly in the drought-stricken Dakota Territory, in Aberdeen, before they settled in Chicago in 1891.

It was an exciting time to be in America's second largest city, a place seemingly fueled by ambition and audacious dreams. Twenty years after the Great Chicago Fire destroyed most of the city, it was preparing to host the World's Columbian Exposition. On 1 May 1893, U.S. president Grover Cleveland officially opened the extravaganza by pressing a golden telegraph key that symbolically switched on 100,000 incandescent lights. Among the other electrical inventions on display were hot plates, fans, bells, bed warmers, radiators, and a complete model electrical kitchen, according to Hubert Howe Bancroft's 1893 Book of the Fair.

Colored lithographic postcard labeled "Electrical Building\u2014World's Columbian Exposition." A large ornate building on a body of water filled with small boats.At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, the many wondrous uses of electricity were highlighted.Library of Congress

And so the Baums witnessed the electrical transformation of Chicago. Frank Baum was establishing himself as a popular writer and moved his family into a modern house. There, his son Robert was allowed to pass wires through the walls and experiment with electricity .

In The Master Key, Rob Joslyn does likewise. He fits every door in his family's house with electric bells and buzzers, including one on the mailbox to announce the arrival of a letter. (That latter innovation, the electric mailbox, was happening for real around that time.) Rob's father encourages his son's passion, seeing electricity as the future of civilization. His mother frets that he might burn the house down with all his crossed wires.

Baum might have seen some truth in both parents' perspectives, for in the book, the tangled mess of wires is what jump-starts the plot. Somehow, in his random connections, Rob accidentally strikes the "master key of electricity," thereby calling forth the Demon of Electricity. Similar to the genie stuck in Aladdin's lamp, the demon is slave to the master key, forced to obey the commands of anyone who unlocks its power.

For years, the reader learns, the demon has silently scorned the works of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla for their trifling inventions and their poor grasp of the potential of electricity. Though the demon hoped that a "wise and brave man" would summon him forth so that he could impart his wisdom, he got Rob.

The demon is obligated to offer Rob his usual deal: three wishes a week for a period of three weeks. Rob can't think of anything to wish for—seriously, nothing? I found that plot point hard to believe. Instead, the demon offers to create three gifts for him each week. Adventure and near-disaster ensue.

Wondrous gifts of electricity foreshadow real-life inventions

The demon's gifts must have seemed more magical than electrical to readers of the day. But at least some of them aren't too far removed from actual modern-day devices.

One of the first gifts Rob receives is a wristwatch transportation device, called the indicator, that allows its wearer to travel through the air in any direction quickly and easily. The device clearly belongs in the world of fantasy as it does not obey the laws of physics. Baum injects a note of realism by making the gadget prone to breaking when dropped. It's as if he anticipated my unfortunately regular experience with mobile phones. Rob, though, is a curious tinkerer, and he manages to repair the indicator, if imperfectly. At times, he can only fly short distances. At other times, he lands in the wrong place.

Baum thought this unmediated access to information was more truthful and reliable than the interpretation of events through newspapers.

Another gift is an electric tube that shoots a current and renders an enemy unconscious for one hour, with no lingering ill effects except a slight headache. It's a kind of Taser, in other words. (The actual Taser draws its name from a slightly later juvenile fiction adventure book: Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle.) The demon offers this invention as an alternative to guns, which, he tells Rob, are wrong because humans have no right to take a life, even in self-defense. But the demon recognizes that not everyone shares his aversion to killing, because he also bestows on Rob a Garment of Protection, an electrically powered shirt that repels bullets, swords, and physical assaults.

I was really taken by the demon's gift of a Record of Events, a small box through which the viewer can watch any event currently happening anywhere in the world. Baum had predicted live streaming but with a better user interface than anything I have ever seen. "It's—it's like knowing everything," murmurs Rob. The Record also records any major event that happened in the last 24 hours for later viewing. According to Baum biographer Katharine M. Rogers, this was a technological idea that showed up elsewhere in the writer's work as Ozma's Magic Picture and Glinda's Book of Records. Baum thought this unmediated access to information was more truthful and reliable than the interpretation of events through newspapers.

The final gift Rob receives is a Character Marker, a pair of spectacles that reveals to the wearer the innate qualities of anyone in view: good or evil, wise or foolish, kind or cruel. It does this by projecting letters onto the person's forehead. Historian Jeremy M. Norman considers the Character Marker an early foreshadowing of augmented-reality devices, and it definitely seems like a low-tech version of Google Glass or the new Facebook-backed Ray-Ban Stories. Rob refrains from using the glasses to inspect the characters of his family, and he also stops the president of France from using them to reveal the letters on Rob's own forehead. The demon may consider Rob a foolish boy, but he occasionally shows some real wisdom.

The Master Key's subtext: Tech has consequences

After bestowing his gifts each week, the demon disappears, and Rob is left to his own devices, as it were. He uses the wristwatch to travel to a variety of places, only some of which are planned: Boston, a pirate ship somewhere in the Atlantic, England, Yarkand (which today is a predominantly Uyghur settlement in China).

In each place, something usually goes terribly wrong, and Baum sometimes leans on extreme stereotypes of foreigners and "others" to make things even worse. In that sense, he was very much a White man of his time. Before he became a bestselling author, Baum was a newspaperman, and he wrote editorials for The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, calling for the extermination of all indigenous people in North America. The Master Key stops short of suggesting such inhumanity, but modern-day readers still may bristle at the book's racism and cultural caricatures.

When Rob decides to travel to Havana, for instance, he somehow ends up in Brava, the smallest inhabitable island of the Cape Verde archipelago. In Baum's telling, the inhabitants are barbarous, nearly naked cannibals, with shark teeth piercing their ears and noses and long hair tied up Pebbles Flintstone–style with bones. Rob is quickly taken captive and bound with ropes.

Some of the book's color illustrations tend to add to the stereotypes, while others are just quietly absurd and delightful. Drawn by the renowned illustrator Fanny Young Cory right at the start of her career, they were a stylistic departure from her previous work, which featured cherubic youngsters. Cory also supplied the delicate line drawings at the beginning and ends of most of The Master Key's chapters. (The illustration below as well as the book cover at top are from a first edition at the Bakken Museum, in Minneapolis.) She went on to illustrate several more books and short stories for Baum. In the 1920s, Cory became one of America's first female syndicated cartoonists with the single-panel Sonnysayings, followed by the Little Miss Muffet strips, which she never really enjoyed, because Miss Muffet's adventures were never as exciting as the trouble that boys like Rob Joslyn got into.

Color illustration from the book shows an older man with a thin mustache gripping the edge of a cobbled roof. A pair of pants and shoes at the top left indicate a person in the air. The text says \u201cThe eyes of the Frenchman were actually protruding from their sockets.\u201dFanny Young Cory created The Master Key's whimsical illustrations, including this one of the protagonist making an airborne escape.Collections of the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

Despite having a female illustrator, the book doesn't otherwise break new ground when it comes to the portrayal of girls and women. All we ever learn about Rob's sister and mother is that they don't see the point in progress through electricity; they're otherwise peripheral to the story. That's a little puzzling, because in Baum's own life, he championed women's rights. Baum's wife was the daughter of Matilda Josyln Gage, who spent her life advocating for women, Native Americans, and people of African descent (both enslaved and free). During his newspaper career, Baum wrote numerous editorials supporting women's suffrage. And in the Oz series, he creates an entire world ruled by women. Perhaps he was simply more comfortable imagining women in power in magical kingdoms than in Earthly ones.

Back to Brava: Rob manages to cut his ropes and escape from the cannibals. (It will come as no surprise that he survives all of his misadventures.) And as Rob continues to hop around the globe, he ends up advising the king of England and the president of France, getting entangled in ethnic conflicts in Asia, and even encountering a mythical bird the size of a horse with talons more powerful than a tiger's claws. He lands in trouble, even when he is desperately trying to avoid it, but sometimes his root goodness shows through, such as when he rescues two shipwrecked sailors and conveys them from a deserted island to the Oregon coast. Throughout his journey, Rob meets unscrupulous men who want to buy or steal the demon's inventions, but he manages to keep them safe. Young as he is, Rob can see that the technology could be corrupted in the hands of someone with ill intent.

At one point, the Demon of Electricity becomes angry about Rob's misadventures and admonishes the boy for his foolishness. After all, the demon had lofty ambitions for Rob and the rest of mankind. But Rob Joslyn is not a hero. He is a typical American boy of average intelligence who is enthusiastic, reckless, and unworldly. He does not have enough life experience to make sound choices. And who could blame him? The electrical gifts are so far removed from the technology of that era, and the demon never bothers to instruct him in their proper use. It's a wonder that Rob doesn't end up doing more harm, to himself and to others.

Eventually, Rob realizes that he is out of his depth, for when the demon shows up at the beginning of the third week, Rob politely but firmly refuses to accept his gifts. And there the book ends.

The Magic Key was well received. It had at least two printings during its first two years and remained popular for some time after that. Baum regretted not leaving room for a sequel. We can only wonder what other feats of electricity he might have explored. In the preface to The Master Key, Baum speculates that in the future, one or two of the demon's inventions might actually come to be. And yet he seems to recognize that his world was not prepared for this futuristic technology. Are we ready now?

Part of a continuing serieslooking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

An abridged version of this article appears in the November 2021 print issue as "Electricity's Perilous Narrative Arc."

The Conversation (1)
William Fabrey
William Fabrey23 Nov, 2021

So he thought at one point that indigenous people should be exterminated, yet his mother -in-law fought for indigenous rights. I wonder if she made him see the light?