Context changes things. In 1907, the concept of a clockwork man was innovative, a device before its time. In
fact, Frank L. Baum created his character Tik Tok before the word “robot” was first used to describe “a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions.” It was Karel Capek, a Czech writer, first coined the term from the Slavic word robota, which means “servitude” or “forced labor.” Capek’s work wasn’t translated into English until 1921. Tik Tok, who first appeared in Ozma of Oz, is preceded only by Edward S. Ellis’s Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) as an early example of a robot in literature.
Imagination, hope and wonderful is what appealed to children who read Baum’s books at the turn of the 20th century. When you go to see Oz, the Great and Powerful this weekend, or even if you don’t, try to imagine what the Oz stories meant to their original readers. The legacy of the Wizard of Oz didn’t start when Judy Garland stepped into a color movie screen wearing her ruby slippers. That was hardly the first technological innovation associated with the enterprise. The magic of Oz began on the American prairie in South Dakota in 1900 when Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum would go on to imagine a lot of things before they happened. Take for instance, Princess Langwidere who habitually changed her face, much in anticipation of the later end of the 20th century’s plastic surgery craze.
Of course, it’s easy to forget life might have been like for a girl from a Kansas farm in 1900 and her world is probably best illustrated by some of the everyday things that would be invented during the years the book gained its original readership.
Radio (1901) – The later Oz books are all said to be wireless telegraphic transmissions from Oz, which had been closed to outside visitors.
Gas-powered cars (1901) – Originally called “Mercedes.” Uncle Henry and Aunt Em would have had a horse and buggy. And just think, the escalating price of gas is nothing compared to what horses can eat.
Vacuum cleaners (1901) – Aunt Em probably hated beating rugs and sweeping, but she lived during an era when most women were too busy with manual household labor to develop crazy inventions like this.
Nintendo games (1902) – Okay, this one is a bit of stretch, but Dorothy probably wouldn’t have thought Kansas so dull if the Japanese playing card makers had already gone global.
Air conditioners (1902) – Though traveling via hot air balloon might have been rather breezy, the invention of the air conditioner ensured no one had to mess up their hair just to stay cool.
Crayons (1903) – A lot of Baum’s imagery focused on the bleak grey colorless world of Kansas compared to the colorful brilliantly bright world of Oz. No wonder. Dorothy didn’t have a box of crayons.
Tanks (1903) – Before World War I and World War II came the invention of tanks. It’s hard to imagine a world where the horrors of the holocaust and the atom bomb
Zeppelin (1901) and airplane travel (1903) – Contrary to popular belief, Zeppelins were relatively safe means of travel – as long as you didn’t use jet fuel for surface paint – and vastly more practical than hot air balloons.
Tea bags (1904) – Even when relaxing on a hot un-airconditioned summer afternoon after beating rugs, aunt Em had strain her own tea by hand.
Tractors (1904) – Of course, Uncle Henry had his own set of problems. Working the farm could not have been more difficult without a tractor and consequence of a failed crop was often starvation. No pressure.
Electric toaster (1906) – Perhaps the toaster is the first sign of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry entering modernity, as we know it. Cornflakes and toast for breakfast.
Plastic (1907) – If Baum had been writing later in the 20th century, he might have imagined Oz much differently. Plastics would have changed Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s life, too.
Electric washing machines (1907) – Likely Dorothy would have had to help was the dishes every night.
Paper cups (1908) – The invention of paper cups both marks the beginning of an era of convince and plants the seeds of environmentalism. When Dorothy left home, there were still glaciers. Only, it took a long time to travel by horse and buggy to go see them.
Instant coffee (1909) – With a toaster, Corn Flakes and instant coffee, breakfasts had finally become manageable. While living at Aunt Em’s, Dorothy probably had eggs for breakfast from her chicken Billina who later traveled with her to Oz.
The Oz series contained inventions and ideas often ahead of their time. Read today, they seem just whimsical and silly, not potential blueprints for today’s inventors. And though authors continued to write books about Oz all through the 20th century, at some point, they shifted from being innovative and daring tales of adventure to nostalgic stories of a safer and distant past.
But, to truly appreciate what the stories meant to children of that era, we have to look to the edge of science fiction
today. Whatever devices authors use to rationalize the existence of the unbelievable, whether like robots or like Corn Flakes, the ideas must create a world that challenges us to believe in them. That spark of imagination is what Oz made the stories unforgettable. And had Aunt Em been alive then, she might have taken her niece’s book and burned it if the girl didn’t wake up to feed the chickens in time. Although, it was possible, though unlikely, Uncle Henry might have a flashlight that Dorothy could use to read under the covers. That was invented in 1899.
Carrie Bailey is an information professional and independent author currently living in North Carolina with her teenage son. She is the author of Bungle of Oz, a novella featuring the glass cat of Oz’s adventures in the Land of Ev.