Friday, February 8, 2008

Murray Leinster's Submarine

It suddenly occurs to me that the story of Murray Leinster's submarine may well not have been committed to print yet. It's a slight thing, an anecdote. But you might find it interesting.

I met Will Jenkins, the writer who published science fiction under the pseudonym of Murray Leinster, in 1971 or '72. Leinster is best known as the man who invented the parallel worlds or alternate history story with "Sidewise in Time." A professor who knew him took me and a fellow SF fanatic along on a visit to his house, "Ardudwy," on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Oh, man, was I impressed! Jenkins/Leinster was everything a writer should be. His house was a wizard's den, crammed with books. He had an experiment-in-progress set up on his kitchen table. (He was an inventor as well as a writer.) He told fabulous stories.

This is one:

During WWII, Robert Heinlein, then working at the Philadelphia Naval yard, formed a think tank of SF writers to solve thorny and unusual problems for the military. Asimov and de Camp were part of the group and I believe that L. Ron Hubbard was too. Heinlein wanted Leinster to also be a member, but the navy brass said no, because he didn't have a high school degree. (He'd dropped out of school in the eighth grade and gotten a job in a mill, to help support his family.) Nevertheless, the group slipped him a few problems under the table.

One such problem was that submarines were easily spotted from the air by the vee-shaped wake left by their periscopes. The Navy wanted a fix.

So Leinster built a few wooden models, and experimented with them in his bathtub. Eventually, he determined that attaching long flexible strips of I forget exactly what (maybe aluminum) to the periscope would break up the wake. The info was passed back to Heinlein and so up the line.

Shortly thereafter, Leinster received what he characterized as a very polite letter from an admiral, saying that for technological reasons, the problem was now moot. (I. e., everybody had radar now, and everybody else knew it.) But that there was one thing he was wondering about. He understood that Leinster had come up with his method while playing in the bathtub and he wanted to know (and here Leinster paused, for dramatic purposes) just what he had used for the periscope?



Unknown said...

Heinlein talks a bit more about this group in his introduction to Ted Sturgeon's novel Godbody (which intro is also excerpted as the afterword in Volume III of Sturgeon's collected stories—Killdozer). He mentions that he was ordered to round up the "wildest minds" he could find. Heinlein names Sturgeon, George O. Smith, John Campbell, Leinster, Hubbard, de Camp, and Fletcher Pratt as other members of the group.

Bob Cooper

Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

Jenkins worked in the film industry. IIRC, he invented the projection system which helped the special effects in the "Dawn of Man" sequence for "2001: A Space Odyssey" (as well as many non-SF films as well).

For anybody wanting to read some of Leinster's (split personality, anyone?) science fiction, check out Baen Books Free Library in their Webscrptions service. They've released a bunch of his books as free eBooks.

Bob Hawkins said...

That's right, he invented "front projection."

He was bothered by the fact that interior shots of spaceships on TV shows like "Captain Video" were so obviously cheap sets. Given the budgets, they were going to be cheap something. So he invented a method where you could project the "set" from the camera onto a screen behind the actors.

The secret was the screen. It was coated with tiny glass spheres, which reflect almost all the light that falls on them back to the source. (Paint containing tiny glass spheres is used on traffic signs and the like, so they show up brightly in your headlights.) The projected light that fell on the actors would be reflected in all directions, and the little reflected back to the camera would be washed out by the bright studio lights.

Front projection produced better results than matte painting, without the expense. Mission accomplished! Of course, CGI has largely replaced all such methods today.

Elizabeth Jenkins DeHardit Richardson said...

I would like to convey my sincere thanks for your comments on my grandfather, Will F. Jenkins.

Unknown said...

Murray Leinster told this submarine story in his Guest of Honor Speech at the Discon 1 World Science Fiction Convention in 1963. I was 19 & there. There is a transcription of it in the Proceedings book, which I still possess. At the Discon Auction, I bought the manuscript of the Med Ship novel "This World is Taboo". Leinster signed it for me afterwards and commented, "I'm surprised someone would pay $8 for my stuff." He appeared to me to be a unpretentious, likeable man especially as he was Guest of Honor at a World Convention of his field. The introduction to his Baen Books collection "A Logic Named Joe" is somewhat in error, as it exaggerates his avoidance of public appearances.