Witt, Otto

Tagged: Author | Editor

(1875-1923) Swedish mining engineer, publisher and author. Witt's father was an engineer at the copper mine in Falun; Witt followed in his footsteps, studying technology in Norrköping, then at Technische Universität Bergakademie in Freiberg, Germany. After working in Norway and Finland he returned to Sweden in 1912 to fulfil his other ambitions: to be an inventor and a writer. Although Witt had published some fiction before he turned to writing full-time, his energy was impressive. In the eleven years remaining before his untimely death at 48 he founded, published and wrote the entire contents of a Magazine in addition to publishing well over thirty books, performing lecture tours around the country and contributing some 300 essays and articles to various Magazines and newspapers.

In his collection Tekniska sagor för stora och små ["Technical Fairy Tales for Big and Small"] (coll 1914) Witt introduced what he called "the technical fairy tale": Fabulations in which both natural phenomena (lightning, the Sun) and human Inventions (matchsticks, pencils, metal alloys) are both personified and explained simply and amusingly in a manner reminiscent of traditional fairy tales. Quite possibly the success of his book – soon followed by a further collection on facts and implements associated with the ongoing Great Was – inspired Witt to start a magazine. Hugin: tidskrift för naturvetande i roande form ["Hugin: Periodical of Natural Science in Amusing Form"] was launched in April 1916 and claimed to be published weekly, but in fact managed only 85 regular issues (most of them numbered as double, triple or even quadruple issues; issues varied in page count, from 24 to 32 or more, but not in any direct proportion to the numbering) during the roughly 200 weeks until its demise in January 1920. Witt himself claimed a circulation of some 15,000, which if true means that the magazine was enormously successful (Sweden in 1920 had fewer than 6 million inhabitants). With each issue the readers also received a 16-page segment of a novel, as a separate serial. Both the entire magazine content and the accompanying novels were written by Witt, including – particularly during the first year or two – many of the advertisements, since another of Witt's innovations was to have advertisers' Products play the lead in full-page "technical fairy tales": "normal advertisements via their conspicuous design try to force people to read them; the Hugin advertisements, by hiding something of interest, want to entice the audience into studying them", Witt argued. Hugin has been called the first Swedish SF Magazine, but this is greatly overstating the truth; it may possibly be called a Proto SF magazine, as some of the accompanying serials as well as a handful of the short stories published in the magazine proper were sf. However, the main content of the magazine itself was not fiction, but popular science articles.

Many of Witt's novels, however, clearly were didactic sf, virtually always featuring an innovative engineer as hero while conservative and impractical theoretical Scientists play the role of fools or even Villains. In Jordens inre ["The Inside of the Earth"] (1912), set in Russia 1910-1940, the aim is to improve the climate of Siberia. A company is formed to dig a giant mineshaft in order to use geothermal energy; this project is supported by all leading scientists, but is ridiculed by the brilliant engineer Pompowski, who – backed in secret by the Tsar – creates an artificial Gulf Stream by warming the water of Siberian rivers. The mineshaft company goes bankrupt without any success; but Pompowski's scheme creates ice-free harbours where new Cities and industries are built. In the related Det mystiska ljuset ["The Mysterious Light"] (1912), the Tsar asks Pompowski to also provide winter daylight to Siberia, which he does; again, traditional scientists ridicule his ideas and are shown up as ivory-tower fools.

Other novels were more far-flung. In Witt's first, De sista människorna ["The Last Humans"] (1911), the engineer hero travels 20,000 years into the future, when mankind is nearing extinction, both animal and plant life is long gone and most natural resources have vanished, all consequences of earlier thoughtless exploitation. However, the twentieth-century engineer manages to move the Earth's orbit closer to the Sun, melting the glaciers that cover most of the planet to create a cleansing flood, while humanity survives in a floating City and acquires new energy and passion for life. The novel is markedly inspired by the writings of German naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a disciple of Darwin who coined the term Ecology (but also, unfortunately, was a leading proponent of biological racism). As World War One progressed on the European continent, Witt gradually began expressing a marked nationalistic fervour, exemplified for instance in the almost absurd scene in his novel Hur månen erövrades ["How the Moon Was Conquered"] (1915), where a Swedish engineer constructs the first Spaceship and after landing on the Moon is greeted by a chance phenomenon of lighting:

"The Swedish flag!" And indeed. The snow was a deep blue, and its blue hue deepened further in the vicinity of the yellow light. The first thing to greet their arrival on the Moon was the blue and yellow Swedish flag.

Apart from his sf, Witt wrote numerous detective novels, often with plots hinging on technical or scientific facts or discoveries and almost always burdened by long popular-science explanations. In many ways, his love of engineering and knowledge, and enthusiastic attempts to popularize them, makes him a Swedish version of the young Hugo Gernsback; sadly, just as with Gernsback's own fiction, that of Otto Witt is hardly possible to read today with any great enjoyment. [J-HH]

Otto Holjer Witt

born Falun, Sweden: 1875

died Stockholm, Sweden: October 1923

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