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Title:      The Disintegration Machine (1927)
Author:     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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Title:      The Disintegration Machine (1927)
Author:     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

PROFESSOR CHALLENGER was in the worst possible humour. As I stood at
the door of his study, my hand upon the handle and my foot upon the
mat, I heard a monologue which ran like this, the words booming and
reverberating through the house:

'Yes, I say it is the second wrong call. The second in one morning. Do
you imagine that a man of science is to be distracted from essential
work by the constant interference of some idiot at the end of a wire?
I will not have it. Send this instant for the manager. Oh! you are the
manager. Well, why don't you manage? Yes, you certainly manage to
distract me from work the importance of which your mind is incapable
of understanding. I want the superintendent. He is away? So I should
imagine. I will carry you to the law courts if this occurs again.
Crowing cocks have been adjudicated upon. I myself have obtained a
judgement. If crowing cocks, why not jangling bells? The case is clear.
A written apology. Very good. I will consider it. Good morning.'

It was at this point that I ventured to make my entrance. It was
certainly an unfortunate moment. I confronted him as he turned from
the telephone--a lion in its wrath. His huge black beard was
bristling, his great chest was heaving with indignation, and his
arrogant grey eyes swept me up and down as the backwash of his anger
fell upon me.

'Infernal, idle, overpaid rascals!' he boomed. 'I could hear them
laughing while I was making my just complaint. There is a conspiracy
to annoy me. And now, young Malone, you arrive to complete a
disastrous morning. Are you here, may I ask, on your own account, or
has your rag commissioned you to obtain an interview? As a friend you
are privileged--as a journalist you are outside the pale.'

I was hunting in my pocket for McArdle's letter when suddenly some new
grievance came to his memory. His great hairy hands fumbled about
among the papers upon his desk and finally extracted a press cutting.

'You have been good enough to allude to me in one of your recent
lucubrations,' he said, shaking the paper at me. 'It was in the course
of your somewhat fatuous remarks concerning the recent Saurian remains
discovered in the Solenhofen Slates. You began a paragraph with the
words: "Professor G. E. Challenger, who is among our greatest living

'Well, sir?' I asked.

'Why these invidious qualifications and limitations? Perhaps you can
mention who these other predominant scientific men may be to whom you
impute equality, or possibly superiority to myself?'

'It was badly worded. I should certainly have said: "Our greatest
living scientist,"' I admitted. It was after all my own honest belief.
My words turned winter into summer.

'My dear young friend, do not imagine that I am exacting, but
surrounded as I am by pugnacious and unreasonable colleagues, one is
forced to take one's own part. Self-assertion is foreign to my nature,
but I have to hold my ground against opposition. Come now! Sit here!
What is the reason of your visit?'

I had to tread warily, for I knew how easy it was to set the lion
roaring once again. I opened McArdle's letter. 'May I read you this,
sir? It is from McArdle, my editor.'

'I remember the man--not an unfavourable specimen of his class.'

'He has, at least, a very high admiration for you. He has turned to
you again and again when he needed the highest qualities in some
investigation. That is the case now.'

'What does he desire?' Challenger plumed himself like some unwieldy
bird under the influence of flattery. He sat down with his elbows upon
the desk, his gorilla hands clasped together, his beard bristling
forward, and his big grey eyes, half-covered by his drooping lids,
fixed benignly upon me. He was huge in all that he did, and his
benevolence was even more overpowering than his truculence.

'I'll read you his note to me. He says:

"Please call upon our esteemed friend, Professor Challenger, and ask
for his co-operation in the following circumstances. There is a
Latvian gentleman named Theodore Nemor living at White Friars
Mansions, Hampstead, who claims to have invented a machine of a most
extraordinary character which is capable of disintegrating any object
placed within its sphere of influence. Matter dissolves and returns to
its molecular or atomic condition. By reversing the process it can be
reassembled. The claim seems to be an extravagant one, and yet there
is solid evidence that there is some basis for it and that the man has
stumbled upon some remarkable discovery.

"I need not enlarge upon the revolutionary character of such an
invention, nor of its extreme importance as a potential weapon of war.
A force which could disintegrate a battleship, or turn a battalion, if
it were only for a time, into a collection of atoms, would dominate
the world. For social and for political reasons not an instant is to
be lost in getting to the bottom of the affair. The man courts
publicity as he is anxious to sell his invention, so that there is no
difficulty in approaching him. The enclosed card will open his doors.
What I desire is that you and Professor Challenger shall call upon
him, inspect his invention, and write for the Gazette a considered
report upon the value of the discovery. I expect to hear from you


'There are my instructions, Professor,' I added, as I refolded the
letter. 'I sincerely hope that you will come with me, for how can I,
with my limited capacities, act alone in such a matter?'

'True, Malone! True!' purred the great man. 'Though you are by no
means destitute of natural intelligence, I agree with you that you
would be somewhat overweighted in such a matter as you lay before me.
These unutterable people upon the telephone have already ruined my
morning's work, so that a little more can hardly matter. I am engaged
in answering that Italian buffoon, Mazotti, whose views upon the
larval development of the tropical termites have excited my derision
and contempt, but I can leave the complete exposure of the impostor
until evening. Meanwhile, I am at your service.'

And thus it came about that on that October morning I found myself in
the deep level tube with the Professor speeding to the North of London
in what proved to be one of the most singular experiences of my
remarkable life.

I had, before leaving Enmore Gardens, ascertained by the much-abused
telephone that our man was at home, and had warned him of our coming.
He lived in a comfortable flat in Hampstead, and he kept us waiting
for quite half an hour in his ante-room whilst he carried on an
animated conversation with a group of visitors, whose voices, as they
finally bade farewell in the hall, showed that they were Russians. I
caught a glimpse of them through the half-opened door, and had a
passing impression of prosperous and intelligent men, with astrakhan
collars to their coats, glistening top-hats, and every appearance of
that bourgeois well-being which the successful Communist so readily
assumes. The hall door closed behind them, and the next instant
Theodore Nemor entered our apartment. I can see him now as he stood
with the sunlight full upon him, rubbing his long, thin hands together
and surveying us with his broad smile and his cunning yellow eyes.

He was a short, thick man, with some suggestion of deformity in his
body, though it was difficult to say where that suggestion lay. One
might say that he was a hunchback without the hump. His large, soft
face was like an underdone dumpling, of the same colour and moist
consistency, while the pimples and blotches which adorned it stood out
the more aggressively against the pallid background. His eyes were
those of a cat, and catlike was the thin, long, bristling moustache
above his loose, wet, slobbering mouth. It was all low and repulsive
until one came to the sandy eyebrows. From these upwards there was a
splendid cranial arch such as I have seldom seen. Even Challenger's
hat might have fitted that magnificent head. One might read Theodore
Nemor as a vile, crawling conspirator below, but above he might take
rank with the great thinkers and philosophers of the world.

'Well, gentlemen,' said he, in a velvety voice with only the least
trace of a foreign accent, 'you have come, as I understand from our
short chat over the wires, in order to learn more of the Nemor
Disintegrator. Is it so?'


'May I ask whether you represent the British Government?'

'Not at all. I am a correspondent of the Gazette, and this is
Professor Challenger.'

'An honoured name--a European name.' His yellow fangs gleamed in
obsequious amiability. 'I was about to say that the British Government
has lost its chance. What else it has lost it may find out later.
Possibly its Empire as well. I was prepared to sell to the first
Government which gave me its price, and if it has now fallen into
hands of which you may disapprove, you have only yourselves to blame.'

'Then you have sold your secret?'

'At my own price.'

'You think the purchaser will have a monopoly?'

'Undoubtedly he will.'

'But others know the secret as well as you.'

'No, sir.' He touched his great forehead.

'This is the safe in which the secret is securely locked--a better
safe than any of steel, and secured by something better than a Yale
key. Some may know one side of the matter: others may know another. No
one in the world knows the whole matter save only I.'

'And these gentlemen to whom you have sold it.'

'No, sir; I am not so foolish as to hand over the knowledge until the
price is paid. After that it is I whom they buy, and they move this
safe' he again tapped his brow 'with all its contents to whatever
point they desire. My part of the bargain will then be done--
faithfully, ruthlessly done. After that, history will be made.' He
rubbed his hands together and the fixed smile upon his face twisted
itself into something like a snarl.

'You will excuse me, sir,' boomed Challenger, who had sat in silence
up to now, but whose expressive face registered most complete
disapproval of Theodore Nemor, 'we should wish before we discuss the
matter to convince ourselves that there is something to discuss. We
have not forgotten a recent case where an Italian, who proposed to
explode mines from a distance, proved upon investigation to be an
arrant impostor. History may well repeat itself. You will understand,
sir, that I have a reputation to sustain as a man of science--a
reputation which you have been good enough to describe as European,
though I have every reason to believe that it is not less conspicuous
in America. Caution is a scientific attribute, and you must show us
your proofs before we can seriously consider your claims.'

Nemor cast a particularly malignant glance from the yellow eyes at my
companion, but the smile of affected geniality broadened his face.

'You live up to your reputation, Professor. I had always heard that
you were the last man in the world who could be deceived. I am
prepared to give you an actual demonstration which cannot fail to
convince you, but before we proceed to that I must say a few words
upon the general principle.

'You will realize that the experimental plant which I have erected
here in my laboratory is a mere model, though within its limits it
acts most admirably. There would be no possible difficulty, for
example, in disintegrating you and reassembling you, but it is not for
such a purpose as that that a great Government is prepared to pay a
price which runs into millions. My model is a mere scientific toy. It
is only when the same force is invoked upon a large scale that
enormous practical effects could be achieved.'

'May we see this model?'

'You will not only see it, Professor Challenger, but you will have the
most conclusive demonstration possible upon your own person, if you
have the courage to submit to it.'

'If!' the lion began to roar. 'Your "if," sir, is in the highest
degree offensive.'

'Well, well. I had no intention to dispute your courage. I will only
say that I will give you an opportunity to demonstrate It. But I would
first say a few words upon the underlying laws which govern the

'When certain crystals, salt, for example, or sugar, are placed in
water they dissolve and disappear. You would not know that they have
ever been there. Then by evaporation or otherwise you lessen the
amount of water, and lo! there are your crystals again, visible once
more and the same as before. Can you conceive a process by which you,
an organic being, are in the same way dissolved into the cosmos, and
then by a subtle reversal of the conditions reassembled once more?'

'The analogy is a false one,' cried Challenger. 'Even if I make so
monstrous an admission as that our molecules could be dispersed by
some disrupting power, why should they reassemble in exactly the same
order as before?'

'The objection is an obvious one, and I can only answer that they do
so reassemble down to the last atom of the structure. There is an
invisible framework and every brick flies into its true place. You may
smile, Professor, but your incredulity and your smile may soon be
replaced by quite another emotion.'

Challenger shrugged his shoulders. 'I am quite ready to submit it to
the test.'

'There is another case which I would impress upon you, gentlemen, and
which may help you to grasp the idea. You have heard both in Oriental
magic and in Western occultism of the phenomenon of the apport when
some object is suddenly brought from a distance and appears in a new
place. How can such a thing be done save by the loosening of the
molecules, their conveyance upon an etheric wave, and their
reassembling, each exactly in its own place, drawn together by some
irresistible law? That seems a fair analogy to that which is done by
my machine.'

'You cannot explain one incredible thing by quoting another incredible
thing,' said Challenger. 'I do not believe in your apports, Mr. Nemor,
and I do not believe in your machine. My time is valuable, and if we
are to have any sort of demonstration I would beg you to proceed with
it without further ceremony.'

'Then you will be pleased to follow me,' said the inventor. He led us
down the stair of the flat and across a small garden which lay behind.
There was a considerable outhouse, which he unlocked and we entered.

Inside was a large whitewashed room with innumerable copper wires
hanging in festoons from the ceiling, and a huge magnet balanced upon
a pedestal. In front of this was what looked like a prism of glass,
three feet in length and about a foot in diameter. To the right of it
was a chair which rested upon a platform of zinc, and which had a
burnished copper cap suspended above it. Both the cap and the chair
had heavy wires attached to them, and at the side was a sort of
ratchet with numbered slots and a handle covered with indiarubber
which lay at present in the slot marked zero.

'Nemor's Disintegrator,' said this strange man, waving his hand
towards the machine.

'This is the model which is destined to be famous, as altering the
balance of power among the nations. Who holds this rules the world.
Now, Professor Challenger, you have, if I may say so, treated me with
some lack of courtesy and consideration in this matter. Will you dare
to sit upon that chair and to allow me to demonstrate upon your own
body the capabilities of the new force?'

Challenger had the courage of a lion, and anything in the nature of a
defiance roused him in an instant to a frenzy He rushed at the
machine, but I seized his arm and held him back.

'You shall not go,' I said. 'Your life is too valuable. It is
monstrous. What possible guarantee of safety have you? The nearest
approach to that apparatus which I have ever seen was the
electrocution chair at Sing Sing.'

'My guarantee of safety,' said Challenger, 'is that you are a witness
and that this person would certainly be held for manslaughter at the
least should anything befall me.'

'That would be a poor consolation to the world of science, when you
would leave work unfinished which none but you can do. Let me, at
least, go first, and then, when the experience proves to be harmless,
you can follow.'

Personal danger would never have moved Challenger, but the idea that
his scientific work might remain unfinished hit him hard. He
hesitated, and before he could make up his mind I had dashed forward
and jumped into the chair. I saw the inventor put his hand to the
handle. I was aware of a click. Then for a moment there was a
sensation of confusion and a mist before my eyes. When they cleared,
the inventor with his odious smile was standing before me, and
Challenger, with his apple-red cheeks drained of blood and colour, was
staring over his shoulder.

'Well, get on with it!' said I.

'It is all over. You responded admirably,' Nemor replied. 'Step out,
and Professor Challenger will now, no doubt, be ready to take his

I have never seen my old friend so utterly upset. His iron nerve had
for a moment completely failed him. He grasped my arm with a shaking

'My God, Malone, it is true,' said he. 'You vanished. There is not a
doubt of it. There was a mist for an instant and then vacancy.'

'How long was I away?'

'Two or three minutes. I was, I confess, horrified. I could not
imagine that you would return. Then he clicked this lever, if it is a
lever, into a new slot and there you were upon the chair, looking a
little bewildered but otherwise the same as ever. I thanked God at the
sight of you!' He mopped his moist brow with his big red handkerchief.

'Now, sir,' said the inventor. 'Or perhaps your nerve has failed you?'

Challenger visibly braced himself. Then, pushing my protesting hand to
one side, he seated himself upon the chair. The handle clicked into
number three. He was gone.

I should have been horrified but for the perfect coolness of the
operator. 'It is an interesting process, is it not?' he remarked.
'When one considers the tremendous individuality of the Professor it
is strange to think that he is at present a molecular cloud suspended
in some portion of this building. He is now, of course, entirely at my
mercy. If I choose to leave him in suspension there is nothing on
earth to prevent me.'

'I would very soon find means to prevent you.'

The smile once again became a snarl. 'You cannot imagine that such a
thought ever entered my mind. Good heavens! Think of the permanent
dissolution of the great Professor Challenger vanished into cosmic
space and left no trace! Terrible! Terrible! At the same time he has
not been as courteous as he might. Don't you think some small

'No, I do not.'

'Well, we will call it a curious demonstration. Something that would
make an interesting paragraph in your paper. For example, I have
discovered that the hair of the body being on an entirely different
vibration to the living organic tissues can be included or excluded at
will. It would interest me to see the bear without his bristles.
Behold him!'

There was the click of the lever. An instant later Challenger was
seated upon the chair once more. But what a Challenger! What a shorn
lion! Furious as I was at the trick that had been played upon him I
could hardly keep from roaring with laughter.

His huge head was as bald as a baby's and his chin was as smooth as a
girl's. Bereft of his glorious mane the lower part of his face was
heavily jowled and ham-shaped, while his whole appearance was that of
an old fighting gladiator, battered and bulging, with the jaws of a
bulldog over a massive chin.

It may have been some look upon our faces--I have no doubt that the
evil grin of my companion had widened at the sight--but, however
that may be, Challenger's hand flew up to his head and he became
conscious of his condition. The next instant he had sprung out of his
chair, seized the inventor by the throat, and had hurled him to the
ground. Knowing Challenger's immense strength I was convinced that the
man would be killed.

'For God's sake be careful. If you kill him we can never get matters
right again!' I cried.

That argument prevailed. Even in his maddest moments Challenger was
always open to reason. He sprang up from the floor, dragging the
trembling inventor with him. 'I give you five minutes,' he panted in
his fury. 'If in five minutes I am not as I was, I will choke the life
out of your wretched little body.'

Challenger in a fury was not a safe person to argue with. The bravest
man might shrink from him, and there were no signs that Mr. Nemor was
a particularly brave man. On the contrary, those blotches and warts
upon his face had suddenly become much more conspicuous as the face
behind them changed from the colour of putty, which was normal, to
that of a fish's belly. His limbs were shaking and he could hardly

'Really, Professor!' he babbled, with his hand to his throat, 'this
violence is quite unnecessary. Surely a harmless joke may pass among
friends. It was my wish to demonstrate the powers of the machine. I
had imagined that you wanted a full demonstration. No offence, I
assure you. Professor, none in the world!'

For answer Challenger climbed back into the chair.

'You will keep your eye upon him, Malone. Do not permit any

'I'll see to it, sir.'

'Now then, set that matter right or take the consequences.'

The terrified inventor approached his machine. The reuniting power was
turned on to the full, and in an instant, there was the old lion with
his tangled mane once more. He stroked his beard affectionately with
his hands and passed them over his cranium to be sure that the
restoration was complete. Then he descended solemnly from his perch.

'You have taken a liberty, sir, which might have had very serious
consequences to yourself. However, I am content to accept your
explanation that you only did it for purposes of demonstration. Now,
may I ask you a few direct questions upon this remarkable power which
you claim to have discovered?'

'I am ready to answer anything save what the source of the power is.
That is my secret.'

'And do you seriously inform us that no one in the world knows this
except yourself?'

'No one has the least inkling.'

'No assistants?'

'No, sir. I work alone.'

'Dear me! That is most interesting. You have satisfied me as to the
reality of the power, but I do not yet perceive its practical

'I have explained, sir, that this is a model. But it would be quite
easy to erect a plant upon a large scale. You understand that this
acts vertically. Certain currents above you, and certain others below
you, set up vibrations which either disintegrate or reunite. But the
process could be lateral. If it were so conducted it would have the
same effect, and cover a space in proportion to the strength of the

'Give an example.'

'We will suppose that one pole was in one small vessel and one in
another; a battleship between them would simply vanish into molecules.
So also with a column of troops.'

'And you have sold this secret as a monopoly to a single European

'Yes, sir, I have. When the money is paid over they shall have such
power as no nation ever had yet. You don't even now see the full
possibilities if placed in capable hands hands which did not fear to
wield the weapon which they held. They are immeasurable.' A gloating
smile passed over the man's evil face. 'Conceive a quarter of London
in which such machines have been erected. Imagine the effect of such a
current upon the scale which could easily be adopted. Why,' he burst
into laughter, 'I could imagine the whole Thames valley being swept
clean, and not one man, woman, or child left of all these teeming

The words filled me with horror--and even more the air of exultation
with which they were pronounced. They seemed, however, to produce
quite a different effect upon my companion. To my surprise he broke
into a genial smile and held out his hand to the inventor.

'Well, Mr. Nemor, we have to congratulate you,' said he. 'There is no
doubt that you have come upon a remarkable property of nature which
you have succeeded in harnessing for the use of man. That this use
should be destructive is no doubt very deplorable, but Science knows
no distinctions of the sort, but follows knowledge wherever it may
lead. Apart from the principle involved you have, I suppose, no
objection to my examining the construction of the machine?'

'None in the least. The machine is merely the body. It is the soul of
it, the animating principle, which you can never hope to capture.'

'Exactly. But the mere mechanism seems to be a model of ingenuity.'
For some time he walked round it and fingered its several parts. Then
he hoisted his unwieldy bulk into the insulated chair.

'Would you like another excursion into the cosmos?' asked the

'Later, perhaps--later! But meanwhile there is, as no doubt you know,
some leakage of electricity. I can distinctly feel a weak current
passing through me.'

'Impossible. It is quite insulated.'

'But I assure you that I feel it.' He levered himself down from his

The inventor hastened to take his place.

'I can feel nothing.'

'Is there not a tingling down your spine?'

'No, sir, I do not observe it.'

There was a sharp click and the man had disappeared. I looked with
amazement at Challenger. 'Good heavens! Did you touch the machine,

He smiled at me benignly with an air of mild surprise.

'Dear me! I may have inadvertently touched the handle,' said he. 'One
is very liable to have awkward incidents with a rough model of this
kind. This lever should certainly be guarded.'

'It is in number three. That is the slot which causes disintegration.'

'So I observed when you were operated upon.'

'But I was so excited when he brought you back that I did not see
which was the proper slot for the return. Did you notice it?'

'I may have noticed it, young Malone, but I do not burden my mind with
small details. There are many slots and we do not know their purpose.
We may make the matter worse if we experiment with the unknown.
Perhaps it is better to leave matters as they are.'

'And you would--'

'Exactly. It is better so. The interesting personality of Mr. Theodore
Nemor has distributed itself throughout the cosmos, his machine is
worthless, and a certain foreign Government has been deprived of
knowledge by which much harm might have been wrought. Not a bad
morning's work, young Malone. Your rag will no doubt have an
interesting column upon the inexplicable disappearance of a Latvian
inventor shortly after the visit of its own special correspondent. I
have enjoyed the experience. These are the lighter moments which come
to brighten the dull routine of study. But life has its duties as well
as its pleasures, and I now return to the Italian Mazotti and his
preposterous views upon the larval development of the tropical

Looking back, it seemed to me that a slight oleaginous mist was still
hovering round the chair. 'But surely--' I urged.

'The first duty of the law-abiding citizen is to prevent murder,' said
Professor Challenger. 'I have done so. Enough, Malone, enough! The
theme will not bear discussion. It has already disengaged my thoughts
too long from matters of more importance.'


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