Hugh Humphries was there the day the world changed forever.
One spring breakfast when he was eight, his father had told him they were going to attend the final day of the Kingsmouth Fair--the day when inventors from across Ingerwall and beyond would present their creations on stage in front of the crowd at University Square.
Hugh had only gone into the city once two years prior. The three- and four-story buildings, the cobblestone streets, the hundreds of different people he saw in a single day had been such a stark contrast to the dirt roads and gently sloping farmland of Waverton, where it was rare to see more than a dozen souls outside your household in a week.
To reach University Square on time, they would both have to get their chores done early. Mother volunteered to Hugh’s evening feedings of the cows, pigs, and chickens. Hugh raced through his chores of milking and egg-collecting, walking as briskly as he could without running lest he trip and spill the milk or break the eggs. He swept the barn, scrubbed the stove, turned the compost pile, and mended a section of fence.
By noon, the chores were done, and it was time to leave. Hugh and his father put bread, nuts, and cheese into a napkin for the road and walked the three miles down the dirt path to the Turner’s farm. Farmer Turner and his two daughters were also going and needed to deliver hay to a client in Elswich on the way, so they offered the Humphries a ride in the back of their wagon.
The sun was warm and cast shadows under the white poplar trees. The men sat in front, discussing the tasks of transitioning a farm from winter to spring. The Turner girls, who were both several years older than Hugh, braided each other’s hair into the spiral pony tail that was the fashion among country girls and fastidiously picked each stray hay fiber from their dresses, in anticipation of the bounty of young men a city like Kingsmouth had at its disposal. Hugh sat at the back of the wagon, swinging his feet over the edge, gazing at the violet wildflowers, observing the furrow pattern of the clouds that ran from horizon to horizon, laughing when the wagon’s back wheels hit a bump that lifted him off his seat.
He lived for moments like these. The world in all its simple majesty spread out before him, he just a single boy among so many species of plant, animal, insect, and the elements. They were off to see mankind’s latest and greatest inventions, and yet, to Hugh, nature itself, in its quiet way, held more technology than a mind could even guess at.
So filled with life and language was nature, so rich in unarticulated meaning and rhythm. Each creature surged with a life that clung to its own inner wisdoms, all the while keeping a shared time with each other and the elements as they all danced precisely in obedience to the rhythms of the earth and whispered in a language Hugh seemed to feel but couldn’t begin to understand.
It took two hours to reach Kingsmouth. The city was grander than Hugh remembered. Or perhaps it seemed that way only because the Fair was in the center of the city, where the buildings were far older and finer, remnants of a majestic era when architects and stoneworkers were civic artists rather than mere tradesmen.
As they moved down the main thoroughfare of the city into the heart of Kingsmouth, he also noticed that the dress of passersby changed. Instead of work clothes like aprons and muddy boots and rolled-up sleeves, ladies wore dresses of vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges and gentlemen wore suits of black, deep violet, or crimson with tall black riding boots, though of such pristine condition that Hugh didn’t suppose these men spent much time in riding.
At long last they reached University Square. Hugh didn’t know then that the venue for the Kingsmouth Fair invention competition was the Kingsmouth University central plaza, or that it was the university that sponsored and hosted these competitions, or that it was the educational destination of all aspiring inventors. He only knew that it was the most majestic sight he’d ever seen.
Grand, elegantly architected buildings of gray stone surrounded the plaza on all sides beyond a circumference of joyful maple trees in full, fresh greenery. He’d heard of the idea of school but didn’t know that this was one, that learning happened here, that ideas germinated, sprouted, and grew behind those stone walls by day and in candle-lit dormitory rooms late into the night. He didn’t know that it would one day be his sole dream to come here as a student and learn and study and have his own ideas, nor did he know that this would never happen for him.
On the far side of the plaza, a stage had been constructed for the occasion, a raised platform some five feet above the ground. A giant red curtain was drawn over most of it, leaving an uncovered portion some ten feet deep at the front.
The square teemed with people. All standing and facing the stage, the crowd ebbed and flowed and rippled and swayed like some kind of urban lake. And unlike the various stages of the city they had come through, people of all ages, colors, occupations, and ranks were gathered in one place. Farmers, shop workers, and university students mingled among the wealthy gentlemen and ladies and their attending servants, all there to see the spectacle. Police officers roamed the crowd in pairs, sauntering slowly, eyes roaming, ostensibly to maintain order and keep away pick-pockets.
Eager anticipation, all conversed with each other, the normal barriers of class and status temporarily suspended, every man and woman held fast by the same sheer thrill of what was about to happen. Each independently, and therefore jointly, basked in the expectation of some big, new thing, a premonition of a new way of life, the revelation of a new world. Each had a guess of what the inventors might present, and each, too excited to contain themselves, shared their theory with his neighbor, however distant from his normal circle of intimates and acquaintances he might be.
At the peak of the swelling anticipation, a man walked onto the stage. The crowd cheered. The man stood in the center of the stage, beaming amid the festive energy. He held a cone in his hand. When the crowd quieted, he raised the cone to his mouth and shouted, the cone amplifying his voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys! Welcome to the 95th Annual Innovation Competition of the Kingsmouth Fair!”
The applause and cheers were deafening.
Hugh remembered only a few of the presentations and only in sparse detail. One man revealed a hand-cranked washing machine. A group of four women and a boy about Hugh’s age introduced their prototype for a foot-cranked sewing machine. And watching these presentations, something began to stir within him, a wonder and a yearning.
But it was the last presentation, the finale, that astonished the world, transformed civilization, and set the course of the next nine years of Hugh’s life.
It was the last presentation of the day, and dusk had quite since begun to settle in the sky. The tall city buildings that surrounded the square produced great shadows that blocked any remaining sunlight and cast the entire crowd in shadow.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our final competitors of the day, Misters Marco Canto and Miguel de Santos.”
Onto the stage walked a stout man, with just as stout a mustache, who looked to be the age of Hugh’s father. A second man, a few years the first man’s junior and leaner with a swath of jet black hair, wheeled onto the stage a table covered in a white sheet that hid what must be their invention. The first man addressed the crowd.
“This fair is a hallmark of our society. Here we witness the progress made by humble men and women who seek to create a better world. Most often these inventions move our society forward a few steps here and a few steps there. But every so often, something truly magnificent comes along and changes everything, taking us into a future we never thought possible.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. de Santos and I present to you today not one, not two, but three new inventions!”
A murmur spread through the crowd as Mr. Canto began to pace confidently back and forth across the stage.
“Many of you have heard of electricity, the power of lightning in miniaturized form. Scientists run experiments in their labs to learn about its properties and potential applications. They generate it by rubbing certain materials together. It produces a trivial amount. They could harvest it from lightning, but that is unpredictable and available only if your home is as tall as Parliament. Hardly practical. And that great amount of electricity can only be used at the harvest site; it cannot be transferred to a different location the way you can deliver wood or coal to any home in the city. What good is that to all of you? Finally, what use is electricity to you, the common man and woman? Have the scientists created a broad application that all of us can use?”
He paused and let the question hang in the air.
“Well, the scientists haven’t done this. But we have!”
Hugh remembered the tremor of anticipation that seemed to shake him all over.
“Soon, all the world, each and every one of you, will soon be able to hold the power of lightning in the very palm of your hand!”
He gestured magnificently to the table.
“Mr. de Santos, show them the light!”
Mr. de Santos pulled the sheet from the table, revealing a monstrosity of metal and wires and balls of glass on one side of which was a hand crank, which seemed jimmy-rigged from a butter churn. Mr. Canto put on a thick glove, lifted one of the glass balls from the table, and walked to the other side of the stage. The ball remained connected to the entity on the table by a wire, which spanned the stage.
“Mr. de Santos will now generate this phenomenon by turning the hand crank. It will flow through this wire and into the glass ball in my hand.”
He raised the ball high above his head. Mr. de Santos began to turn the crank. Hugh could hear a faint whirring whine that emanated from the machine as he turned the handle with what seemed some considerable effort. Several wheels of different sizes spun in response at varying speeds.
Nothing happened. The crowd began to murmur. Someone muttered what a shame it is when an invention doesn’t work on presentation day. A woman nearby stifled a laugh. Then the miracle happened.
The ball in Mr. Canto’s hand began to glow, a pale yellow against the black curtain behind the stage.
The audience gasped. A few cried out in fear that his hand would be burned. But he held the ball of light comfortably.
Mr. de Santos churned the crank harder and harder, faster and faster, and the light grew brighter and brighter, transforming from a dull flame into a sun in his companion’s hand.
The image of Mr. Canto standing in the center of the stage with his glass ball like a star in his hand captivated every soul in the square like nothing had before in their lives: this man, no, this hero of mankind who had pulled a star from the heavens and was presenting it to his fellows.
“As you can see, one glass light is brighter than a hundred candles. A single light is enough to light an entire room. A dozen could light a ballroom as bright as at daytime. Street lamps could turn on all at once across the whole city, eliminating the need to pay lamp-lighters and candle-makers. Glass light lamps will be brighter, making our streets safer. Flameless light will make your homes and stores safer than ever before.”
Canto spoke of his envisioned countless applications. With the wire, all electricity could be conveniently produced by such generators as the one Mr. de Santos was turning and power lights all across the city.
The lurking feeling that had stirred inside Hugh throughout the earlier presentations now increased to a crescendo of pure thought and emotion that he’d never felt before, a feeling that felt like it had always been there but never before in such sharp focus and with such a power of purpose behind it, and in that moment, in that feeling, he knew with purity of thought and and utmost clarity desire and strength of will that this, this harnessing of nature’s ways to create tools for mankind, this is what he would do when he was grown.
Immediately following the presentation, reporters and investors rushed the stage, accosting Canto and de Santos with questions and offers. That night on the wagon ride home, Hugh gazed at the stars and wondered for the first time what those celestial lights were made of. It was the beginning of a fascination with the natural world and the scientific means by which one could obtain a knowledge of it.
In the years that followed that legendary presentation, Canto and de Santos, with the help of innumerable dublons invested by eager lenders, started a company, Electric Light & Power. The company manufactured glass lights and the wires to channel electricity into them. They built a giant factory on the north side of Kingsmouth to power those lights. Five years later, they presented a new invention at the Kingsmouth Fair: a small container that stored electricity for later use, which they called batteries.
The company grew and grew, and the wealth and renown of Canto and de Santos became as mighty as their great inventions. All seemed well for the two young inventors, and the future appeared to all as bright as their electric lights.
And then one day, without warning or explanation, Miguel de Santos disappeared.