A creature, part human, part machine, was born of a desire to end the tragedy and waste of the Great War, explains Kate Macdonald.
Created from the bodies of war-wounded soldiers for an unnamed emperor, the first modern cyborg, Soldier 241, appears in a one-act play, Blood and Iron, published in the Strand Magazine in October 1917. Like the invention of the robot three years later in 1920, the cyborg was a product of modern warfare. It was also a rare anti-war statement, challenging British law as, to prevent war continuing, Soldier 241 kills his commanding officer at the end. This remarkable work has been available to casual browsers through back issues of the Strand for nearly a century and it is listed on at least two collectors’ websites and John Clute’s online SF Encyclopaedia. Coincidentally, this issue of the Strand is available for open access viewing on a website of digitised newspapers and magazines, which also contain the first publication of works by Joseph Conrad (conradfirst.net), yet it has never been properly studied before. New research reveals that its remarkable anti-war message, delivered just after the entry of the United States into the First World War, is a reflection of public anguish. Huge numbers of men were returning from the Western Front with permanent, debilitating injuries and the public were getting nervous about the speed of unstoppable wartime scientific advances: chlorine gas in 1915, the tank in 1916 and unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.