One of the more interesting evenings in early 1906 Santa Rosa was the presentation by “the Wizard of Electricity” Reno B. Welbourn, a popular science speaker on the Lyceum and Chautauqua lecture circuits. What he demonstrated were machines that are toys today and principles which now are shown at high school science fairs, but in 1906, this was all gee-whiz stuff.
The review that appeared in the Press Democrat was skimpy, but a fuller description of “In the Year 2000” appeared in the Aug. 6, 1910 Nebraska State Journal. Welbourn blew a whistle into a microphone to power a light bulb; used an early version of the fax machine to transmit a picture of the President; and what was probably the dramatic highlight of the show, used a magnesium flare to simulate the sun, powering a solar cell to drive a motor, likely similar to this model Stirling engine. Not that the future would be a utopia; Welbourn also demonstrated weaponry, including a noiseless gun equipped with a silencer, and showed how explosives could be detonated at a distance using a solar cell.
Little of this tech was cutting edge, even in 1906; some inventions were already a decade old or more, such as the photovoltaic selenium cell and the fax (which he probably called a “scanning phototelegraph“). What made the presentation unique was how he tied each demonstration into wireless technology, either radio or Nikola Tesla’s experimental near field power transmission.
The wireless electricity angle never came to pass because the effect didn’t really work beyond laboratory conditions (good demonstration video here) but that wouldn’t be known until years later, and Welbourn can’t be faulted for believing the kinks would be ironed out someday. And Tesla was eventually proven right, in a way; his predictions of a wireless global communications network sounds very much like the real world that came about in the 21st century.
But Welbourn did overreach in his predictions of how all this would be tied together. According to the Nebraska paper, “airships and trains might be driven with power generated miles away and sent through the air…in the future a traveler in the Andes, far away from home, might cook his supper over an electric stove deriving its heat from Niagara power.” The newspaper also reported, “Electricity was generated from sound and a light was made to glow with the force of sound. A motor was driven by the same force. The sound was made by a whistle and an acoustic engine which was in tune with the whistle made the wheels turn. ‘The time will come soon,’ the speaker declared, ‘when a man will play a fiddle on his back porch while the music saws wood.’ The light generated was shown in a small bulb.”
Welbourn was obviously a good speaker, a good scientist, and a man of wit. His lecture also included a demonstration of a water engine (probably an early version of Tesla’s bladeless turbine), and predicted it would be the power generator of the future. But, he reassured readers of the Santa Rosa Republican, “he did not want to create any uneasiness among the wood dealers in Santa Rosa at the present time.”
WIZARD OF ELECTRICITY
Reno B. Welbourn Will Speak Here on Thursday Night
“In the Year 2000” is to be the topic of the lecture in this city on Thursday evening by Reno B. Welbourn. Mr. Welbourn is familiarly known as the “Wizard of Electricity,” and it is said that this effort will be one that will be very attractive and instructive for old and young. It is one of the attractions of the Lyceum course. The lecture will be delivered in the Athenaeum.
“In the Year 2000” is Mr. Welbourn’s greatest work. It was prepared at the request of hundreds of people from all parts of the country. The invariable questions brought forth by the previous efforts, night after night, were: “Why not give is a bit of prophecy, and show us what scientists are doing for the future[?] Why not let us into the secrets of the laboratory that we may cross the borderland of discovery and see in the experimental stage the wonderful things which future generations will be most likely to make practical?” The American people have always craved prophecy. The magazines are full of it. They recognize that all progress depends upon the ability of the people to look ahead and see what is coming. And so it came about that “In the Year 2000” was produced; but it required five years of unremitting labor to do it.
During these five years Mr. Welbourn enlisted the attention of some of the greatest men of science in the world, and was fortunate enough to secure the personal assistance of Nikola Tesla, Lord Kelvin, Sir William Crookes, Signor Marconi, and many others both in this country and Europe. No better testimonial of Mr. Welbourn’s ability and standing could possibly be written. He prophesies that those things will be which must be. He meets the great problems of life face to face and shows, by the most wonderful experiments ever produced on the lyceum stage, how they are going to be solved.– Press Democrat, January 2, 1906
“TWO WIZARDS IN ONE TOWN”
Welbourn Connects His Name with that of Burbank in Pleasant Manner
Reno B. Welbourn, the wizard of electricty, arrived in Santa Rosa this morning and is spending the afternoon seeing the city, and arranging his outfit for the entertainment this evening.
In speaking on various matters in his room today, he seemed pleased with the fact that he was in the city of Luther Burbank, and ended with the saying, “Two wizards in one town.” Welbourn is a very interesting person to talk with, and is full of the experiences he has had with meeting most of the great scientists of the world. Speaking of the entertainment he stated that since he started on this tour he has been compelled to eliminate many of the numbers of the program as at first announced, but that he has replaced them with numbers that are far superior to the others.
Considerable was said during the conversation about the statement that he would illustrate the burning of water, and he said that this feature of the program would be presented, and that whether it would be the coming fuel or not was not for him to say, though he firmly believes that it will be realized some day. However, he did not want to create any uneasiness among the wood dealers in Santa Rosa at the present time. He is a firm believer in the future of the electric energy and looks forward to the day when it will be the material used for the lights, cooking and heating purposes of the public.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 4, 1906
ELECTRICITY IN YEARS TO COME
An Instructive Lecture Delivered by Reno Welbourn Last Night
There was a large and appreciative audience present at the Athenaeum on Thursday evening when Reno B. Welbourn, “The Wizard of Electricity,” delivered his lecture “In the Year 2000.” The lecture was an illustration of the development of electricity. All of the various uses to which wireless electricity has already been put in the commercial world was shown. Wireless telegraph, telephone, fire and burglar alarms, automatic signals and lights, and the transmission of power were a few of the wonders demonstrated for the benefit of the audience.
The lecturer also explained sound, music, and light power which would run a motor, and numerous other marvels of present day knowledge of electricity which he declared would be worked into practical use in the years to come.– Press Democrat, January 5, 1906