The Story of the e-meter Pt 1: The Inventor

MathisonThe inventor of the e-meter wrote extensively for a wide range of pulp magazines, but preferred to be remembered for his unremarkable contributions to early Science Fiction.

His invention is said to have made it’s first appearance in one of those stories, where it functioned as a kind of ‘lie detector’.

When he originated a pseudo-therapy (which resembled psychoanalysis) he enhanced its credibility with a ‘real’ e-meter.

This ‘electropsychometer’ was an electrical device that (he claimed) could indicate mental states.In actual fact, it only measured skin resistance, and functioned only as a pseudo-scientific prop.

The inventor promoted his ‘therapy’, and started to sell training and e-meters.  At a time when science was starting to transform everyday life it seemed credible that, with the aid of new technology, ordinary people could perform professional services – like psychotherapy – without extensive training.

He made regular sales, and his ‘practice’ prospered.

The inventor was NOT L Ron Hubbard.

volney mathison profileThe e-meter was invented by a man called Volney G Mathison. He developed it to support his own fringe psychotherapy, which shared many of the features of Dianetics.

Mathison probably  joined an early “Dianetic Foundation” because of the similarities between Hubbard’s ideas and his own. It was a mistake. His distinctive device was appropriated by Hubbard, after a struggle, and passed off as his own invention.

However, neither individual was as original as they might have liked to think they were – in this period, a thriving ecology of fringe therapies and self-help systems were evolving, to fill the intellectual space opened up by the new mass media, publishing and radio.

Volney’s “Visualization Therapy”, and Hubbard’s “Dianetics” were but one of many practices which exploited pseudo-scientific devices to lend credibility to their claims. Most of them are now extinct and forgotten. Dianetics and Scientology are not original. Their only distinctive feature is that they have survived to the present day.

This character of fringe ideas in this period (and especially their use of  technological props) was probably influenced by the rapid scientific advances that were taking place – and the optimistic attitude the public had toward them. People trusted science and technology to improve everyday life.

In America, this included the expectation science would democratise society.  It seemed feasible that anything (even psychotherapy) could be somehow taken from the hands of professional elites and given to the people in an ‘automated’ form.

To understand how this social and historical background led to the creation of fringe therapies and devices like the e-meter, it is probably best to begin at the beginning, and examine what is know of Volney Mathison’s life.

By His Bootstraps

Mathison’s parents emigrated from Denmark to the US in the 1870s, and worked as day labourers on a cotton ranch in Texas. Volney was born on August the 13th 1897 in what he described as,

[…] a dugout – a hole in the ground with a sod roof over it.

The Aberee December 1956

SS GreylockIn about 1918, a 21-year-old Mathison began working as a maritime radio operator. He served on several cargo ships (including the SS Greylock left) in the waters of Washington, Oregon, British Colombia, California and Alaska.

He had lifted himself out of poverty by his own efforts. His life, so far,  exemplified the popular idea that, in America, a man could achieve anything with a little talent and hard work.

He was also a poster child for technological optimism. The new technology of radio had gifted Mathison with his opportunity for a better life. This was a lesson he was to apply again, with mixed success, in later life.

A New Venture

pulp magazinesLife as a radio operator on a cargo vessel, in an era when radio was a new technology, was not crowded with incident.  The radio operator spent most of his professional life listening for infrequent messages – a sort of human voicemail.

Mathison needed something to occupy his active mind – and found it as pulp magazine author.

At this time there was still a mass market for disposable fiction printed on cheap paper. Hundreds of publications printed stories in a bewildering variety of genres and sub-genres –  detective fiction, ‘flying’ stories, westerns, sea stories and (at this time) the beginnings of science fiction.

Although the pulp industry would soon be undermined, first by broadcast radio and they by television, it remained the predominant form of mass entertainment for many years.

The pulp magazines had an insatiable demand for content. To satisfy this, you did not have to be a great writer – or even a workmanlike one. The less demanding publications were only concerned with filling the issue, at rates sometimes less than a penny  a word.

Mathison had some commercial success selling approximately 100 stories, including serials. They were principally westerns and sea stories, sometimes published under the dashing pseudonym of, “Dex Volney”. His tales rejoiced in titles like,

  • “Alaskan Shanghai”  (Adventure Feb 1 1931)
  • “The Last Days of the Pagoda”  (People’s Magazine Jul 15 1924)
  • “The Silver Fox” (Sea Stories Magazine Mar, Apr, May, Jun 1924)

His first sale, was, “The Radio Rescue” which was published in “Sea Stories”  October 5, 1922 and in 1924 he achieved the distinction (for a pulp writer) to have one of serial works published as a book –  “The Radio buster, Being Some of the Adventures of  Samuel Jones, Deep Sea Radio Operator”.

 Science Fiction and Fictional Science

Science and invetion SF numberA number of Mathison’s stories were published in a pulp magazine created by another immigrant and self-made man, Hugo Gernsback.

Gernsback was born in Luxembourg in 1884 When he arrived in the US in 1884 he created a number of enterprises, finally finding success in the first mail order service for radio parts and equipment – the “Electro Importing Company.”

From publishing a radio parts catalogue, it was a short step to creating  a variety of other publications which reflected the technological optimism of the age – publications with titles like,

  • “Modern Electrics”
  • “The Electrical Experimenter”
  • “Science and Invention”
  • “Radio News”

The covers of “Science and Invention” show a magazine concerned with technology – including predictions concerning new developments which were highly speculative (and imaginatively illustrated). It was a small step from this to writing fictional accounts of imagined future technology.

In August 1923 Gernsback published a “Scientific Fiction Number” of “Science and Invention”. The success of this experiment encouraged him to publish a pulp magazine containing  stories that belonged to a new genre, which would become know as ‘Science Fiction’.

The First Mention of the e-meter – Not

Mathison’s story “The Mongolians Ray”, is Radiobusterrepresentative of his work. It was published in Gersnback’s “Amazing stories” for June 1929.

As it features the adventurous radio operator/debunker Samuel Jones, it was probably later collected in Mathison’s book, “The Radio Buster”.

Wikipedia quote Forest J Ackerman and Brad Linaweaver, from their book  “Worlds of Tomorrow”1,  as follows

In this story, [Mathison] created the fictional device that shortly after the introduction of Dianetics, morphed into reality as the E-meter employed today to supposedly reveal the personalities of individuals interested in becoming ‘clears’ in the Dianetic regimen.

They propose that, in the same way that much of Scientology ‘religious doctrine’ is re-purposed pulp science fiction, the e-meter also emerged from literary fantasy. This is a seductively appealing idea for critics.

In our next thrilling episode, read The Mongolian’s Ray for yourself and learn that Ackerman and Linaweaver are completely wrong.

1Ackerman, Forrest J.; Brad Linaweaver (2004). Worlds of Tomorrow: The Amazing Universe of Science Fiction Art. Collectors Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-888054-93-4.

 

 

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