When I read “Patent Pending” some years back, I thought its was a humorous precursory story to what would become known as virtual reality. Now (2018), however, I see it as a prophetic tale of augmented reality, as defined by Wikipedia:
Augmented reality (AR) is a direct or indirect live view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are "augmented" by computer-generated perceptual information, ideally across multiple sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory, and olfactory.
The humorous, tragic-comic treatment and conclusion of “Patent Pending” may well be played out in future real-life scenarios in which people attempt to augment, via full immersion, their most gratifying, or even ecstatic, experiences.
For an early pioneer in this work, see José Delgado, Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society
Arthur C. Clarke (in Tales from the White Hart)
THERE ARE no subjects that have not been discussed, at some time or other, in the saloon bar of the "White Hart" —and whether or not there are ladies present makes no difference whatsoever. After all, they came in at their own risk. Three of them, now I come to think of it, have eventually gone out again with husbands. So perhaps the risk isn't on their side at all….
I mention this because I would not like you to think that all our conversations are highly erudite and scientific, and our activities purely cerebral. Though chess is rampant, darts and shove-ha'penny also flourish. The Times Literary Supplement, the Saturday Review, the New Statesman and the Atlantic Monthly may be brought in by some of the customers, but the same people are quite likely to leave with the latest issue of Staggering Stories of Pseudoscience.
A great deal of business also goes on in the obscurer corners of the pub. Copies of antique books and magazines frequently change hands at astronomical prices, and on almost any Wednesday at least three well-known dealers may be seen smoking large cigars as they lean over the bar, swapping stories with Drew. From time to time a vast guffaw announces the denouement of some anecdote and provokes a flood of anxious enquiries from patrons who are afraid they may have missed something. But, alas, delicacy forbids that I should repeat any of these interesting tales here. Unlike most things in this island, they are not for export….
Luckily, no such restrictions apply to the tales of Mr. Harry Purvis, B.Sc. (at least), Ph.D. (probably) F.R.S. (personally I don't think so, though it has been rumoured). None of them would bring a blush to the cheeks of the most delicately nurtured maiden aunts, should any still survive in these days.
I must apologize. This is too sweeping a statement There was one story which might, in some circles, be regarded as a little daring. Yet I do not hesitate to repeat it, for I know that you, dear reader, will be sufficiently broad-minded to take no offence,
It started in this fashion. A celebrated Fleet Street reviewer had been pinned into a corner by a persuasive publisher, who was about to bring out a book of which he had high hopes. It was one of the riper productions of the deep and decadent South—a prime example of the "and-then-the-house-gave-another-lurch-as-the-termites-finished-the-east-wing" school of fiction. Eire had already banned it, but that is an honour which few books escape nowadays, and certainly could not be considered a distinction. However, if a leading British newspaper could be induced to make a stern call for its suppression, it would become a best-seller overnight.... Such was the logic of its publisher, and he was using all his wiles to induce co-operation. I heard him remark, apparently to allay any scruples his reviewer friend might have, "Of course not! If they can understand it, they can't be corrupted any further!" And then Harry Purvis, who has an uncanny knack of following half a dozen conversations simultaneously, so that he can insert himself in the right one at the right time, said in his peculiarly penetrating and non-interruptable voice: "Censorship does raise some very difficult problems doesn't it? I've always argued that there's an inverse correlation between a country's degree of civilization and the restraints it puts on its press.”
A New England voice from the back of the room cut in: "On that argument, Paris is a more civilized place than Boston.”
"Precisely," answered Purvis. For once, he waited for a reply.
"O.K." said the New England voice mildly. "I'm not arguing. I just wanted to check.”
"To continue," said Purvis, wasting no more time in doing so, "I'm reminded of a matter which has not yet concerned the censor, but which will certainly do so before long. It began in France, and so far has remained there. When it does come out into the open, it may have a greater impact on our civilization than the atom bomb.
"Like the atom bomb, it arose out of equally academic research. Never, gentlemen, underestimate science. I doubt if there is a single field of study so theoretical, so remote from what is laughingly called everyday life, that it may not one day produce something that will shake the world.
"You will appreciate that the story I am telling you is, for once in a while, second-hand. I got it from a colleague at the Sorbonne last year while I was over there at a scientific conference. So the names are all fictitious: I was told them at the time, but I can't remember them now.
"Professor—ah—Julian was an experimental physiologist at one of the smaller, but less impecunious, French universities. Some of you may remember that rather unlikely tale we heard here the other week from that fellow Hinckelberg, about his colleague who'd learned how to control the behaviour of animals through feeding the correct currents into their nervous systems. Well, if there was any truth in that story—and frankly I doubt it—the whole project was probably inspired by Julian's papers in Comptes Rendus.
"Professor Julian, however, never published his most remarkable results. When you stumble on something which is really terrific, you don't rush into print. You wait until you have overwhelming evidence—unless you're afraid that someone else is hot on the track. Then you may issue an ambiguous report that will establish your priority at a later date, without giving too much away at the moment— like the famous cryptogram that Huygens put out when he detected the rings of Saturn.
"You may well wonder what Julian's discovery was, so I won't keep you in suspense. It was simply the natural extension of what man has been doing for the last hundred years. First the camera gave us the power to capture scenes. Then Edison invented the phonograph, and sound was mastered. Today, in the talking film, we have a kind of mechanical memory which would be inconceivable to our forefathers. But surely the matter cannot rest there. Eventually science must be able to catch and store thoughts and sensations themselves, and feed them back into the mind so that, whenever it wishes, it can repeat any experience in life, down to its minutest detail.”
"That's an old idea!" snorted someone. "See the 'feelies' in 'Brave New World'."
"All good ideas have been thought of by somebody before they are realised," said Purvis severely. "The point is that what Huxley and others had talked about, Julian actually did. My goodness, there's a pun there! Aldous— Julian—oh, let it pass!
"It was done electronically, of course. You all know how the encephalograph can record the minute electrical impulses in the living brain—the so-called 'brain waves', as the popular press calls them. Julian's device was a much subtler elaboration of this well-known instrument. And, having recorded cerebral impulses, he could play them back again. It sounds simple, doesn't it? So was the phonograph, but it took the genius of Edison to think of it.
"And now, enter the villain. Well, perhaps that's too strong a word, for Professor Julian's assistant Georges— Georges Dupin—is really quite a sympathetic character. It was just that, being a Frenchman of a more practical turn of mind than he Professor, he saw at once that there were some milliards of francs involved in this laboratory toy.
"The first thing was to get it out of the laboratory. The French have an undoubted flair for elegant engineering, and after some weeks of work—with the full co-operation of the Professor—Georges had managed to pack the "play-back" side of the apparatus into a cabinet no larger than a television set, and containing not very many more parts.
"Then Georges was ready to make his first experiment. It would involve considerable expense, but as someone so rightly remarked you cannot make omelet’s without breaking eggs. And the analogy is, if I may say so, an exceedingly apt one...
"For Georges went to see the most famous gourmet in France, and made an interesting proposition. It was one that the great man could not refuse, because it was so unique a tribute to his eminence. Georges explained patiently that he had invented a device for registering (he said nothing about storing) sensations. In the cause of science, and for the honour of the French cuisine, could he be privileged to analyse the emotions," the subtle nuances of gustatory discrimination, that took place in Monsieur le Baron's mind when he employed his unsurpassed talents? Monsieur could name the restaurant, the chef and the menu—everything would be arranged for his convenience. Of course, if he was too busy, no doubt that well-known epicure, Le Compte de—
"The Baron, who was in some respects a surprisingly coarse man, uttered a word not to be found in most French dictionaries. 'That cretin!' he exploded. 'He would be happy on English cooking! No, I shall do it.' And forthwith he sat down to compose the menu, while Georges anxiously estimated the cost of the items and wondered if his bank balance would stand the strain….
"It would be interesting to know what the chef and the waiters thought about the whole business. There was the Baron, seated at his favorite table and doing full justice to his favorite dishes, not in the least inconvenienced by the tangle of wires that trailed from his head to that diabolical-looking machine in the corner. The restaurant was empty of all other occupants, for the last thing Georges wanted was premature publicity. This had added very considerably to the already distressing cost of the experiment. He could only hope that the results would be worth it.
"They were. The only way of proving that, of course, would be to play back Georges' 'recording'. We have to take his word for it, since the utter inadequacy of words in such matters is all too well-known. The Baron was a genuine connoisseur, not one of those who merely pretend to powers of discrimination they do not possess. You know Thurber's 'Only a naive domestic Burgundy, but I think you'll admire its presumption.' The Baron would have known at the first sniff whether it was domestic or not— and if it had been presumptuous he'd have smacked it down.
"I gather that Georges had his money's worth out of that recording, even though he had not intended it merely for personal use. It opened up new worlds to him, and clarified the ideas that had been forming in his ingenious brain. There was no doubt about it: all the exquisite sensations that had passed through the Baron's mind during the consumption of that Lucullan repast had been captured, so that anyone else, however untrained they might be in such matters, could savor them to the full. For, you see, the recording dealt purely with emotions: intelligence did not come into the picture at all. The Baron needed a lifetime of knowledge and training before he could experience these sensations. But once they were down on tape, anyone, even if in real life they had no sense of taste at all, could take over from there.
"Think of the glowing vistas that opened up before Georges' eyes! There were other meals, other gourmets. There were the collected impressions of all the vintages of Europe—what would connoisseurs not pay for them? When the last bottle of a rare wine had been broached, its incorporeal essence could be preserved, as the voice of Melba can travel down the centuries. For, after all, it was not the wine itself that mattered, but the sensations it evoked….
"So mused Georges. But this, he knew, was only a beginning. The French claim to logic I have often disputed, but in Georges' case it cannot be denied. He thought the matter over for a few days: then he went to see his petite dame.
" 'Yvonne, ma cheri,' he said, 'I have a somewhat unusual request to make of you….'"
Harry Purvis knew when to break off in a story. He turned to the bar and called, "Another Scotch, Drew." No-one said a word while it was provided.
"To continue," said Purvis at length, "the experiment, unusual though it was, even in France, was successfully carried out. As both discretion and custom demanded, all was arranged hi the lonely hours of the night. You will have gathered already that Georges was a persuasive person, though I doubt if Mam'selle needed much persuading.
"Stifling her curiosity with a sincere but hasty kiss, Georges saw Yvonne out of the lab and rushed back to his apparatus. Breathlessly, he ran through the playback. It worked—not that he had ever had any real doubts. Moreover—do please remember I have only my informant's word for this—it was indistinguishable from the real thing. At that moment something approaching religious awe overcame Georges. This was, without a doubt, the greatest invention in history. He would be immortal as well as wealthy, for he had achieved something of which all men had dreamed, and had robbed old age of one of its terrors….
"He also realised that he could now dispense with Yvonne, if he so wished. This raised implications that would require further thought. Much further thought.
"You will, of course, appreciate that I am giving you a highly condensed account of events. While all this was going on, Georges was still working as a loyal employee of the Professor, who suspected nothing. As yet, indeed, Georges had done little more than any research worker might have in similar circumstances. His performances had been somewhat beyond the call of duty, but could all be explained away if need be.
"The next step would involve some very delicate negotiations and the expenditure of further hard-won francs. Georges now had all the material he needed to prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he was handling a very valuable commercial property. There were shrewd business men in Paris who would jump at the opportunity. Yet a certain delicacy, for which we must give him full credit, restrained Georges from using his second—err—recording as a sample of the wares his machine could purvey. There was no way of disguising the personalities involved, and Georges was a modest man. 'Besides,' he argued, again with great good sense, 'when the gramophone company wishes to make a disque, it does not enregister the performance of some amateur musician. That is a matter for professionals. And so, ma joi, is this.' Whereupon, after a further call at his bank, he set forth again for Paris.
"He did not go anywhere near the Place Pigalle, because that was full of Americans and prices were accordingly exorbitant. Instead, a few discreet enquiries and some understanding cab-drivers took him to an almost oppressively respectable suburb, where he presently found himself in a pleasant waiting room, by no means as exotic as might have been supposed.
"And there, somewhat embarrassed, Georges explained his mission to a formidable lady whose age one could have no more guessed than her profession. Used though she was to unorthodox requests, this was something she had never encountered in all her considerable experience. But the customer was always right, as long as he had the cash, and so in due course everything was arranged. One of the young ladies and her boy friend, an apache of somewhat overwhelming masculinity, traveled back with Georges to the provinces. At first they were, naturally, somewhat suspicious, but as Georges had already found, no expert can ever resist flattery. Soon they were all on excellent terms. Hercule and Susette promised Georges that they would give him every cause for satisfaction.
"No doubt some of you would be glad to have further details, but you can scarcely expect me to supply them. All I can say is that Georges—or rather his instrument— was kept very busy, and that by the morning little of the recording material was left unused. For it seems that Hercule was indeed appropriately named….
"When this piquant episode was finished, Georges had very little money left, but he did possess two recordings that were quite beyond price. Once more he set off to Paris, where, with practically no trouble, he came to terms with some businessmen who were so astonished that they gave him a very generous contract before coming to their senses. I am pleased to report this, because so often the scientist emerges second best in his dealings with the world of finance. I'm equally pleased to record that Georges had made provision for Professor Julian in the contract. You may say cynically that it was, after all, the Professor's invention, and that sooner or later Georges would have had to square him. But I like to think that there was more to it than that.
"The full details of the scheme for exploiting the device are, of course, unknown to me. I gather that Georges had been expansively eloquent—not that much eloquence was needed to convince anyone who had once experienced one or both of his play-backs. The market would be enormous, unlimited. The export trade alone could put France on her feet again and would wipe out her dollar deficit overnight—once certain snags had been overcome. Everything would have to be managed through somewhat clandestine channels, for think of the hub-bub from the hypocritical Anglo-Saxons when they discovered just what was being imported into their countries. The Mother's Union, The Daughters of the American Revolution, The Housewives League, and all the religious organizations would rise as one. The lawyers were looking into the matter very carefully, and as far as could be seen the regulations that still excluded Tropic of Capricorn from the mails of the English-speaking countries could not be applied to this case—for the simple reason that no-one had thought of it. But there would be such a shout for new laws that Parliament and Congress would have to do something, so it was best to keep under cover as long as possible.
"In fact, as one of the directors pointed out, if the recordings were banned, so much the better. They could make much more money on a smaller output, because the price would promptly soar and all the vigilance of the Customs Officials couldn't block every leak. It would be Prohibition all over again.
"You will scarcely be surprised to hear that by this time Georges had somewhat lost interest in the gastronomical angle. It was an interesting but definitely minor possibility of the invention. Indeed, this had been tacitly admitted by the directors as they drew up the articles of association, for they had included the pleasures of the cuisine among 'subsidiary rights’.
"Georges returned home with his head in the clouds, and a substantial check in his pocket. A charming fancy had struck his imagination. He thought of all the trouble to which the gramophone companies had gone so that the world might have the complete recordings of the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues or the Nine Symphonies. Well, his new company would put out a complete and definite set of recordings, performed by experts versed in the most esoteric knowledge of East and West. How many opus numbers would be required? That, of course, had been a subject of profound debate for some thousands of years The Hindu text-books, Georges had heard, got well into three figures. It would be a most interesting research, combining profit with pleasure in an unexampled manner.... He had already begun some preliminary studies, using treatises which even in Paris were none too easy to obtain.
"If you think that while all this was going on, Georges had neglected his usual interests, you are all too right. He was working literally night and day, for he had not yet revealed his plans to the Professor and almost everything had to be done when the lab was closed. And one of the interests he had had to neglect was Yvonne.
"Her curiosity had already been aroused, as any girl's would have been. But now she was more than intrigued— she was distracted. For Georges had become so remote and cold. He was no longer in love with her.
"It was a result that might have been anticipated. Publicans have to guard against the danger of sampling their own wares too often—I'm sure you don't, Drew—and Georges had fallen into this seductive trap. He had been through that recording too many times, with somewhat debilitating results. Moreover, poor Yvonne was not to be compared with the experienced and talented Susette. It was the old story of the professional versus the amateur.
"All that Yvonne knew was that Georges was in love with someone else. That was true enough. She suspected that he had been unfaithful to her. And that raises profound philosophical questions we can hardly go into here.
"This being France, in case you had forgotten, the outcome was inevitable. Poor Georges! He was working late one night at the lab, as sual, when Yvonne finished him off with one of those ridiculous ornamental pistols which are de rigeur for such occasions. Let us drink to his memory.”
"That's the trouble with all your stories," said John Beynon. "You tell us about wonderful inventions, and then at the end it turns out that the discoverer was killed, so no-one can do anything about it. For I suppose, as usual, the apparatus was destroyed?”
"But no," replied Purvis. "Apart from Georges, this is one of the stories that has a happy ending. There was no trouble at all about Yvonne, of course. Georges' grieving sponsors arrived on the scene with great speed and prevented any adverse publicity. Being men of sentiment as well as men of business, they realised that they would have to secure Yvonne's freedom. They promptly did this by playing the recording to le Maire and le Préfet, thus convincing them that the poor girl had experienced irresistible provocation. A few shares in the new company clinched the deal, with expressions of the utmost cordiality on both sides. Yvonne even got her gun back.”
"Then when—" began someone else.
"Ah, these things take time. There's the question of mass production, you know. It's quite possible that distribution has already commenced through, private—very private—channels. Some of those dubious little shops and notice boards around Leicester Square may soon start giving hints.”
"Of course," said the New England voice disrespectfully, "you wouldn't know the name of the company." You can't help admiring Purvis at tunes like this. He scarcely hesitated.
"Le Société Anonyme d'Aphrodite," he replied. "And I've just remembered something that will cheer you up. They hope to get round your sticky mails regulations and establish themselves before the inevitable congressional enquiry starts. They're opening up a branch in Nevada: apparently you can still get away with anything there." He raised his glass.
"To Georges Dupin," he said solemnly. "Martyr to science. Remember him when the fireworks start. And one other thing —“
"Yes?" we all asked.
"Better start saving now. And sell your TV sets before the bottom drops out of the market."