John Taine
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Radium Age SF


The protagonist of the 1931 science fiction novella Seeds of Life, by JOHN TAINE (Eric Temple Bell, 1883–1960), is an ugly and stupid lab technician who — having attempted suicide via X-rays — is transformed into a gorgeous genius. This superman invents wireless energy transfer devices, but does not use them to benefit mankind. Unlike Spider-Man or the Flash, among other Golden Age comic-book superheroes with similar origin stories, he regards the human race with scorn; it transpires that his energy devices will issue “dysgenic” rays capable of devolving unborn children into reptiles! Taine’s The Iron Star (1930) is another ripping yarn, in which an African expedition discovers that a species of ape are actually humans who devolved after exposure to a strange meteorite. The author of these fun Radium-Age science fictions was a Scottish-born American mathematician who taught at the University of Washington and the California Institute of Technology; Bell polynomials and the Bell numbers of combinatorics are named after him. Though often described as one of the first real scientists to write science fiction, Taine’s predictions were not particularly accurate. The Seeds of Life superman, for example, is — we’re told — “a partial, accidental anticipation of the more sophisticated and yet more natural race into which time and the secular flux of chance are slowly transforming our kind.”

* I haven’t yet read The Purple Sapphire (1924), The Gold Tooth (1927), or Quayle’s Invention (1927).


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alfred Adler, and Buster Crabbe.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Psychonaut (1874–83) and Modernist (1884–93) Generations.

MORE RADIUM AGE SF: HiLoBooks homepage! | What is Radium Age science fiction? | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912 | Radium Age Science Fiction Poetry | Enter Highbrowism | Bathybius! Primordial ooze in Radium Age sf | War and Peace Games (H.G. Wells’s training manuals for supermen) | Radium Age: Context series | J.D. Beresford | Algernon Blackwood | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Karel Čapek | Buster Crabbe | August Derleth | Arthur Conan Doyle | Hugo Gernsback | Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Cicely Hamilton | Hermann Hesse | William Hope Hodgson | Aldous Huxley | Inez Haynes Irwin | Alfred Jarry | Jack Kirby (Radium Age sf’s influence on) | Murray Leinster | Gustave Le Rouge | Gaston Leroux | David Lindsay | Jack London | H.P. Lovecraft | A. Merritt | Maureen O’Sullivan | Sax Rohmer | Paul Scheerbart | Upton Sinclair | Clark Ashton Smith | E.E. “Doc” Smith | Olaf Stapledon | John Taine | H.G. Wells | Jack Williamson | Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz | S. Fowler Wright | Philip Gordon Wylie | Yevgeny Zamyatin



Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.