Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Radium Island: A short story by Maurice Wilkins, aged eleven


Sometimes when working in an archive it is possible to stumble upon items that are truly unexpected, such as ‘Radium Island’. This charming story by a schoolboy Maurice Wilkins (written circa 1928 when he was eleven years old) tells of the adventure of Hugh O'Brien and Ronald Chrisp as they try to escape 'Radium Island'. What makes Radium Island interesting is not only its prescient title, given Maurice Wilkins' later work on the atom bomb "Manhattan Project", but also the classically boyish obsession with comics, new technology and war. It predates the first of W E Johns’ ‘Biggles’ stories by around four years.



Title page of Radium Island: The short story was written in a school exercise book for Wlyde Green College, Birmingham, the school Wilkins attended when his family moved to Birmingham and was probably written in 1928 (according to the older Maurice's recollection when he would have been eleven). The "Plan" refers to a map of Radium Island that can see be seen below. 


Map of Radium Island: This rather technical looking map of Radium Island could almost be mistaken for an authentic representation until you notice some of the captions such as "where the duel was fought" or "sign of the green dagger". However, if you were to try to find "Radium Island" using the longitude and latitude readings you would actually find the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

As the above map suggests Maurice Wilkins was quite a meticulous and technically adapt schoolboy. Already at this age he was creating model boats, cars and planes in his father's workshop inspired to some extent by the magazine The Modern Boy, with its reporting of powerful fast new machines like the one time like "world record breaking car Major Segrave's 1000 horsepower Sunbeam". This fascination with science and technology crops up throughout the story, including this oddly accurate geological description of the presence of radium:

"Chrisp was sitting looking blankly at the wall, when all of a sudden he sprang up and grabbed O'Brien by the shoulder and made him look at the shining vein of carnotite which yields radium situated in the opposite wall!"

For all non-geologists, carnotite is the mineral deposit that contains both uranium and radium ore. Who knew? Maurice Wilkins aged eleven.

Beginning of Radium Island where Chrisp and O'Brien are held captive by the natives on the island but discover Radium in their prison

Illustration of airplane: One of three drawings of airplanes in the story. Rather wonderfully, the text describes how he had bought the plane broken from an adventurer who had "bad luck with it" and reconstructed, then flew it, ran out petrol, crashed, was rescued, mended it again and then did not use it again for lack of petrol. 


No comments:

Post a Comment