The Greatest Thing Before Sliced Bread

I’m listening to an audiobook of Garrett P. Servis‘ early space opera Edison’s Conquest of Mars and, despite it’s premier place in the history of science fiction, it is a truly woeful read. The story is an unauthorised sequel to H. G. Wells famous War of the Worlds featuring the great inventor Thomas Alva Edison who not only saves the earth but takes the battle to the Martians on their home soil thanks to his remarkable electric inventions. Needless to say, Edison loved it and Wells hated it.

This story contains so many firsts that shaped the subsequent direction of science fiction. In fact, the genre did not yet exist by this name. The stories which featured Edision and his miraculous inventions were known at this time Edisonades. Here’s a brief list of the tropes that appear in the story:

  • alien abductions,
  • “air-tight suits” for walking in vaccuum environments,
  • the Pyramids having been built,
  • ship-to-ship battles in space,
  • oxygen pills
  • harmonic disintegrator rays, and
  • “reversing the polarity” of Edison’s electric-powered ships’ engines to escape an inevitable doom

This all brings me to another point of fascination the book holds for me – the persona of Edison himself. The nineteenth century folk, Edison was the very embodiment of light of science and the march of progress. There was nothing that his prolific inventiveness could not achieve. The amount of technological marvels he created in a very short space of time astounded the world and etched deeply in the public consciousness the idea of science as the great cure for our bestial condition. The list of stuff the man invented which we now take for granted is quite amazing.

The closest thing we have now to the Cult of Edison is the idolising of Einstein’s Brain, although even this is fading into the mists of history.

Listening to Edison’s Conquest of Mars and knowing a little about Roland Barthes’ famous essay “Einstein’s Brain,” I’m interested in how the god of science batton passed from person to person throughout history and most recently has passed from Edison to Einstein.

Which brings me to the title of this post. We all know that the latest invention is referred to as “the best thing since sliced bread.” The question I had answered for me serveral years ago now is what did we use in that part of the phrase before the automatic bread slicer (not one of Edison’s toys) was invented?

About ten or so years ago, I was reading an article in a facsimile of Times from 1908 which guessed at the cause of the unusual atmospheric effects we now know were caused by the Tunguska Explosion. In a small ad at the bottom of the page was a product (I can’t even remember what it was) proudly described as the “best thing since pasteurised milk.”

Now you know.