lexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, developed the first working telephone in March of 1876. They unveiled the new device to the public a few months later. In the intervening months, as the inventors worked to perfect the telephone's signal and make it more presentable for public scrutiny, Watson began to notice some rather unusual sounds emanating from the device. He spent hours late at night in their laboratory listening to "stray electric currents" reverberating across the wires and "speculating as to their cause" (Watson 81). As he notes in his autobiography,
One of the most common sounds was a snap, followed by a grating sound that lasted two or three seconds before it faded into silence, and another was like the chirping of a bird. My theory at this time was that the currents causing these sounds came from explosions on the sun or that they were signals from another planet. They were mystic enough to suggest the latter explanation but I never detected any regularity in them that might indicate they were intelligent signals. (Watson 81)
The sounds Watson describes here could have been simple static, the kind of static still prevalent on telephone lines today. However, his description of snapping and grating sounds bears a close resemblance to the so-called "Very Low Frequency" or VLF signals that W.H. Preece first described in an article for Nature magazine in 1894 (Preece 554). These signals, which resemble long whistles or grating snaps, are naturally-occurring electromagnetic radio signals that emanate from lightning storms, the aurora borealis, and the Earth's magnetic field. [For more information on VLF, or to hear examples of VLF signals, visit Stephen P. McGreevy's web site at http://www.auralchorus.com.]
If Watson's sounds were, in fact, VLFs, then he probably was, as he claimed, "the first person who ever listened to static currents" (Watson 82). More than this, his initial theories—that the sounds "came from explosions on the sun" or arose "from the same source as the static that afflicts the modern radio" (Watson 82)—were proved correct. In the 1930s, while conducting experiments designed to effectively mask the electrical nature of the telephone's signal and to allow the telephone to function with perfect clarity, Karl Jansky and his colleagues at Bell Laboratories discovered that this interference, in fact, was produced not by the phone lines themselves but by background microwave radiation, which exists throughout the universe. Jansky and others later devised specific instruments (radio telescopes) to capture, study, and analyze the information contained in these stellar signals (Burke and Graham-Smith 274).
By inventing radio astronomy, Jansky and others effectively proved Watson's "explosions on the sun" hypothesis correct. However, even Watson’s more far-fetched conclusion, that the sounds “were from another planet,” has its supporters among radio astronomers in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, an organization “developed in the late 1980s...to detect evidence of technological civilizations that may exist on planets orbiting other stars" (SETI). SETI uses radio telescopes in Australia, Puerto Rico, and New Mexico to scan and record high-resolution microwave signals to detect patterns that might suggest intelligence.
Watson's contributions to radio science and to radio astronomy have never been acknowledged, for the simple reason that he kept these experiments to himself and only wrote about them long after the events had transpired, and long after others had heard these sounds and had studied them in far greater detail than Watson ever did. Nevertheless, Watson's early studies are significant today not only because they occurred long before anyone else had thought to listen and contemplate electronic noise, but also because they foreshadowed a deep cultural fascination with electricity and electronic noise. This fascination stretches from F.T. Marinetti's Futurist manifestoes, which extolled the virtues of mechanical power and celebrated the noises of modern life, to the many shortwave radio enthusiasts, who have, over the years, subsumed themselves in baths of static, waiting and listening for that elusive shard of sense to bubble through, to anyone who has every cheered at a guitar solo at a rock concert, especially when the guitarist, à la Hendrix, churns out feedback loops that boil the ears, to the world of electronic music today, which is centered almost exclusively on transforming the snaps and clicks that Watson heard so long ago into a new form of micro-music. However, this fascination with electronic noise is perhaps nowhere better represented than in science fiction, where the sounds of bleeps, hums, buzzes, and pops are routinely linked to the mystery and the power of imagined alien civilizations or the technological might of humans as they race into space. The 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, for example, gains much of its impact from Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score, which sounds far more alien than the sets of the imaginary alien planet, Altair-4, where the story takes place. Likewise, much of the mystery and enigmatic terror in Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris emanate from the ever-present background hums of the otherwise silent, empty spaceships and space stations featured in these works.
One of the more interesting examinations of electricity and electrical sound in science fiction can be found in the 1960s television program, The Outer Limits. Although cancelled during its second season, many critics consider this ABC show the classic SF-anthology series, a distinction due largely to the top-flight performances by Cliff Robertson, Donald Pleasance, Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, and others, and due to the exceptional writing by producers Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano and by professional science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison. The show, like so many SF shows produced during the Cold War, had its share of evil, bug-eyed monsters bent on taking over or destroying the world. However, these monsters were usually only cosmetic decoration. The show's real focus, as Jeffrey Sconce notes, is "television's own powers of annihilation, frequently dwelling on an electronic presence that manifested itself as a form of 'oblivion' or 'electro-limbo'" (Sconce 136).
Indeed, the power and mystery of electricity and electrical "presences" is at the center of just about every episode of The Outer Limits. In "The Zanti Misfits" and "The Mice," for example, electricity is the means by which human beings communicate with alien species. In "Corpus Earthling" and "ZZZZZ," electricity enables communication with other life forms. In "Borderlands," scientists use electrical power to generate a force field that creates a doorway into another dimension. Electricity speeds up evolution in "The Sixth Finger," fuses the minds of a scientist and a maniac in "The Human Factor," and allows the government to eavesdrop on unsuspecting civilians in "O.B.I.T." Electricity even gives the main character in "The Man with the Power" the power to move objects with his mind—to the point where his own subconscious desires become electrical storms that seek to destroy those who annoy him. In all of these episodes, electricity is seen as a mysterious and dangerous power, a power that human beings desire to use and exploit, but also a power that is difficult to control or understand. Electricity, in short, is not simply a source of power; it is also a source of temptation, a means by which human beings can control the very forces of nature.
This desire for control is reinforced at the start of each episode through the title sequence, which is certainly one of the most unusual in television history. Beginning with at tiny dot in the center of a black screen, a voice proclaims,
As this introduction suggests, the dominant themes of The Outer Limits are manipulation and control, but who is controlling what here? Ostensibly, it is the show's creators controlling you, the audience, and that is certainly true in a literal sense. However, their powers are mediated by the televisual medium and, by extension, electricity itself. They control you only because they control the electrical signals that give shape and sound to these episodes. This dependency on electrical power for narrative control comes through most clearly at the end of the opening sequence with the introduction of the logo [Fig. 1], which consists of a simple, oscillating sine wave surrounding the words "The Outer Limits." This visual image is accompanied by the hissing sound of a sine wave. The logo suggest science and electricity in their most elemental forms, the science studied in laboratories and hospitals by men in white coats who examine these wavy lines and read significance into them.
This logo links directly to the metaphorical link between electrical control of television signals and the show's narrative control of our imaginations. Ironically, the logo's origin is linked not to television but to radio. The logo is first seen in the program's premiere episode, “The Galaxy Being," which tells the story of Allan Maxwell (played by Cliff Robertson), an engineer for a radio station in Cotterfield, California. As the introduction sequence concludes, the oscillating wave of the logo recedes but does not disappear entirely, and moves from our television screen to the television screen in the center of what we learn to be Maxwell's laboratory (which is also the transmitter for a radio station). As the scene opens, Maxwell is exploring a strange microwave signal of “three dimensional static”—a signal that appears, at first, to emanate from a distant galaxy. However, as Maxwell discovers, this is no ordinary signal; rather, it is an alien being from the galaxy of Andromeda, a nitrogen-based life form (as opposed to carbon-based life forms like human beings) that exists solely as electromagnetic waves. The being, this intelligent form of electricity, is a television program.
That is, we see the alien as a television image. However, as Maxwell manipulates the radio controls, he also listens (through a set of headphones) to what appears to be radio noise. We, the audience, can hear this noise in the background; it appears to have no discernible structure to it, but, because Maxwell is listening so carefully, we must assume that it means something. Soon after, a tone—a screeching, high-pitched wail—emerges from the radio static. At once, Maxwell puts the headphones away and focuses on the television screen, where the waves are replaced by a blurred image that resembles a fuzzy, white ghost. Eventually, it takes the form of the Galaxy Being, who looks, if anything, like an overexposed, white, and glowing C3PO [Fig. 2].
At this point, the alien is simply an image on a television screen. However, the being’s entrance onto the screen is accompanied by a high-pitched whine. At first, the sound seems to be the audio residue of the being’s physical form—the background noise of the lab. However, as the wave metamorphoses into an alien creature, it becomes clear that this noise, this audio signal, is also the alien—the alien in its raw state, just as the sounds made by a modem are the raw data of a binary signal. As with a modem’s signal, the alien’s raw data is an indecipherable mess until it is translated into a discernible form. The television screen effectively translates the alien’s visual information. However, it is not until Maxwell manages to hook up a rudimentary computer to the radio signal that he is able to communicate with the alien. After Maxwell plugs a few cables together and turns on a few switches, he announces to the alien (into a microphone that, presumably, translates his speech into a code the alien can understand), “Try to form your thoughts into word patterns using binary system. My computer can translate your pulses into my language.”
And then we hear the alien speak. “Who...are...you?” it asks Maxwell, in a deep, echoing, warbling voice that churns out each word with a slow, methodical cadence.
Maxwell replies, “My name is Alan Maxwell. I am transmitting from a station on the third planet in the solar system, Earth.”
“Are you receiving dimensional image?” asks the alien.
“I am scanning the microwaves coming from somewhere beyond the constellation Pegasus,” says Maxwell.
And so on. In its entirety, the total exchange lasts a good six minutes—which is a very long time for a fifty-minute television program. Each question is posed slowly and carefully, and each reply is delivered in a deliberate, systematic way. If the alien does not understand a word or an idea, it states that it does not understand; Maxwell then carefully explains the concept to his guest so that the guest can then answer the question. For example, when Maxwell asks whether the alien’s culture experiences death, it replies, “Explain death.” Maxwell explains the term; then the alien replies, “Death is property of carbon cycle in three dimensions...no death in our dimension...electromagnetic waves go on to infinity.”
There is a reason for this deliberate pacing. The questions Maxwell poses—what is the universe? What is death? What is God?—are the kinds of questions humanity has wanted to ask someone for thousands of years. Rushing through any one question would trivialize the information conveyed, rendering it less significant and somewhat suspect. In turn, the being’s words must be carefully set forward in order to emphasize to the audience that they are important: they reveal the very secrets of the universe.
We learn, for instance, that wars on his world are forbidden, and it is for this reason that contact with three-dimensional beings like humans is not allowed. As the alien says, “You are danger to other galaxies.” We learn that the alien is from a four-dimensional world whose numbers and ideas do not directly correspond to anything in the three-dimensional world we inhabit. However, although death does exist, we learn that human brain waves will continue living on to infinity. Most importantly, we learn the alien’s concept of god: “Electromagnetic forces underlying all...Electromagnetic force is intelligent. Matter, space, time...all the same... Infinity is god...god infinity...all the same.” In other words, god is electricity (or electricity is god) because electromagnetic forces are infinite, intelligent, and control and direct matter, space, and time. The alien creature is created out of these electrical forces; hence, the alien creature is, technically, a god.
However, this is an unusual god. It is composed of the same kind of electrical forces humans use to bake cookies or watch TV; it is received and “downloaded” to Maxwell’s laboratory using equipment created by and controlled by a human being (Maxwell himself); and it communicates metaphysical information about death and deities using the very technologies humans use to communicate with each other. The being exists to us not as a product of another dimension but a product of Maxwell’s lab and Maxwell himself. In short, while the alien “god” might be a physical being, the wish that shaped Maxwell’s search for and discovery of that being is grounded in the desire to see in electrical signals both something that transcends their physical properties and something that goes beyond human understanding.
This link between science and metaphysics is common in fictional accounts of scientists; in fact, the link can be traced back to the origin of the term "science." Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, "the word science ... meant knowledge acquired by study" (Chapple 1), with "knowledge" defined in the classical sense as the understanding of both the physical and metaphysical realms. In many ways, science was part of what was generally called philosophy, which is a term suggesting a comprehensive (gestalt) acquisition of knowledge. Science was perceived as the domain of wealthy amateurs who had the time and resources to engage in serious research (Haynes 104). These scientists, as Roslynn Haynes notes, could be saviors or villains, heroes or demons. On the side of the saviors are figures such as "Britain's national treasure" (Haynes 50). Issac Newton, whose Principia "demonstrated the predictive abilities of science and released scientists from the need to seek mystical causes for phenomena they had previously been unable to understand, such as gravity. It tamed the hitherto random and hostile universe into a well-oiled and entirely reliable clockwork model" (Haynes 54). By giving names to fundamental scientific principles, Newton demystified certain aspects of science. Moreover, by demonstrating the universality of nature and its laws, he reconciled Christianity's belief in a personal god with the logical and rational rules governing science.
While Newton was deified, other scientists were perceived as dangerous figures whose knowledge could conceivably destroy or pervert the forces of nature. These scientists were often regarded as eccentrics whose isolation from human society led to dangerous tampering with forces beyond their control. This "mad scientist" was common in the literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; in fact, this figure is still common in novels and movies today (witness Brent Spiner's Dr. Brakish Okun in Independence Day). The most notable "mad scientist," however, is Mary Shelly's Dr. Frankenstein, whose isolation from others leads to "his suppression of emotional relationships and aesthetic experiences and the delusion that his work is being pursued in the interests of society, when in fact the real goals are power and fame; above all, he fails to foresee and take responsibility for the results of his research" (Haynes 5). Rather than attempting to understand the laws of nature, Frankenstein sought to reshape these laws according to his own will.
To an extent, Maxwell is both Newton and Frankenstein. As we learn, he is admired and loved by those around him: his wife, Carol, his brother, and the citizens of Cotterfield. In fact, before the conversation with the alien, we learn that Maxwell is to receive a community service award at a banquet thrown by the town leaders. However, Maxwell, like Frankenstein, places his own scientific explorations above everything else. When Carol arrives to take him to the banquet, he does not want to leave. Carol, however, forces him to go by threatening to bring the banquet up to the laboratory. Maxwell relents, but he does not disengage the connection. Rather, he implores the alien to wait for him, and, despite the alien's objections, Maxwell leaves with the alien still stuck in the television screen.
Of course, when Maxwell leaves, problems arise. The replacement DJ at the radio station boosts the station’s signal, causing the alien’s link to his home planet to be disrupted and his containment within the laboratory equipment to be severed. As a result, the alien leaps out of the television screen, into the laboratory, and out the door. As with most films involving visitors from outer space, the galaxy being’s introduction into an unsuspecting society is met with screams, gunshots, and death. However, in this case, the actual terror is the electrical power of the alien’s body. Whoever approaches the alien is instantly electrocuted. The electrocutions continue until Maxwell learns of the troubles, rushes to the alien, is (for some reason) not electrocuted, and explains the problem to his new friend. By now, however, the police and military have been roused, leading to the inevitable confrontation scene between the being, Maxwell, and Carol holed up in the lab and the military and the townspeople outside.
This two-sided struggle results in the revelation of the being’s godlike and, suddenly, Christ-like nature to the world at large. At one point, the military shoot at the three in the lab, and Carol is hit. Like any good Christ-figure, the being heals her [Fig. 3] using his powers (he hovers over her, we see a bright light, and she is healed). We then learn that the being’s link to its home world has been permanently shattered, and, in order to save those on Earth from his uncontrollable powers, it must sacrifice himself. Before he goes, however, the alien admonishes the military and townspeople to rescind their violent ways. “Do not use force,” it announces through a speaker Maxwell set up outside his lab. “There are powers in the universe beyond anything you know.” To prove this, it destroys the radio tower that originally “downloaded” him to Earth. When the destruction is complete, it continues: “You must explore, reach out...go and give thought to the mysteries of the universe.” With this, the galaxy being says good-bye to Maxwell, exclaims, “End of transmission,” and fades out just as he faded in.
“The Galaxy Being” premiered on September 16, 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and less than three months before John F. Kennedy's assassination. The being's comments about force, about humans being a danger to themselves and to other galaxies, and about the need for humans to explore the universe’s mysteries seem more like comments on the political landscape of the time, the potential for nuclear holocaust, and the space race than directives for humanity’s future contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. The episode, then, can quite easily be read as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers lurking in our modern world. Further, the being's very existence—first as a television image, then as a walking ball of electricity—suggests both the powers and the dangers inherent in our technologies. The galaxy being is, literally, a god created out of electronic media. In a sense, it is television. Like television, the being's goal is communication: to share, to entertain, and to inform. Like television, the being is an electrical force that is harnessed by human beings. And just as television exerts a power over viewers, so too does the being exert a power over those who come near it. Of course, in the case of the galaxy being, this power is literal: it breaks free of its confinement within the television screen and ends up killing several people, destroying a radio station, and threatening the rest of California.
The being's jump out of the television screen and into real life has been emulated many times (most notably in Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and in David Cronenberg's Videodrome). In each of these cases, the transformation of electricity into matter functions as a metaphor for the magical or supernatural forces that seem to create and control television transmissions. What makes "The Galaxy Being" so different from these other critiques of television is the extent to which the magical forces of electricity and television are centered in, and on, the seemingly magical manipulation of sound. In this work, Maxwell is a wizard, studying the music of the spheres, manipulating the technologies at his disposal, and bringing the very secrets of the universe to life in his laboratory. Maxwell's key tools are the sounds of oscillating waves as they stream into his radio station; they act like wizard's potions, which, when mixed correctly, will let loose a magical spell. The spell is, of course, the galaxy being, but it is also a largely visual being, centered around a television screen and, hence, part of a medium that Maxwell, a radio station operator, has less control over. Importantly, the being's final, Christ-like sacrifice, which prevents further destruction, is less a suicide than a reversal from his visual form back into a radio signal. The being, after all, insisted that energy is eternal; it cannot die, but merely change form. When the being says, "End of transmission," it fades out of sight but does not fade away. It returns to its electromagnetic origin and becomes part of the background microwave radiation that exists throughout the universe.
It is peculiar that the first episode of a television program would be set in a radio station. Perhaps Leslie Stevens, the author of "The Galaxy Being," used radio because of the connections between radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Or perhaps the ABC executives didn't like the idea of an alien being manifesting itself inside a television station. Whatever the reason, the end product is a fascinating glimpse into life during the Cold War, when things like television were considered magical boxes, inspiring both awe and trepidation. Our view of television today is very different. We are likely to see television not as a magical force but as an entertainment center. But television's power over us is greater than ever. It's therefore worthwhile to look into television's history and to see a program like The Outer Limits, which examines headfirst television's power over our minds and our hearts. Maxwell's privileging of science over family and community is emblematic of a culture that is more obsessed with building bigger weapons and better televisions than it is with building a stronger bond between our neighbors and ourselves. The narrator, at the close of the episode, echoes these sentiments: "The planet Earth is a speck of dust, remote and alone in the void. There are powers in the universe inscrutable and profound. Fear cannot save us; rage cannot help us. We must see the stranger in a new light, the light of understanding. And to achieve this, we must begin to understand ourselves and each other."
Burke, Bernard F. and Francis Graham-Smith. An Introduction to Radio Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1997.
Chapple, J.A.V. Context and Commentary: Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century. London: MacMillan Education Ltd., 1986.
“The Galaxy Being.” The Outer Limits. Screenplay by Leslie Stevens. Dir. Stevens. Prod. Joseph Stefano. Perf. Cliff Robertson, William O. Douglas, Jr., Jacqueline Scott, Lee Philips, Burt Metcalfe. Videocassette. MGM/UA, 1995. Originally aired in 1963.
Haynes, Rosalyn. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientists in Western Literature. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1994.
Preece, W.H. "Earth Currents." Letter. Nature April 12, 1894: 554.
Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham & London: Duke U. Press, 2000.
"SETI Institute—Frequently Asked Questions." September 27, 1997. http://www.seti-inst.edu/faq.html.
By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2002-10-28