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Twelve Stories and a Dream

1. Filmer
In truth the mastery of flying was the work of thousands of men-- this man a suggestion
and that an experiment, until at last only one vigorous intellectual effort was needed to
finish the work. But the inexorable injustice of the popular mind has decided that of all
these thousands, one man, and that a man who never flew, should be chosen as the
discoverer, just as it has chosen to honour Watt as the discoverer of steam and
Stephenson of the steam-engine. And surely of all honoured names none is so grotesquely
and tragically honoured as poor Filmer's, the timid, intellectual creature who solved the
problem over which the world had hung perplexed and a little fearful for so many
generations, the man who pressed the button that has changed peace and warfare and
well-nigh every condition of human life and happiness. Never has that recurring wonder
of the littleness of the scientific man in the face of the greatness of his science found such
an amazing exemplification. Much concerning Filmer is, and must remain, profoundly
obscure--Filmers attract no Boswells--but the essential facts and the concluding scene are
clear enough, and there are letters, and notes, and casual allusions to piece the whole
together. And this is the story one makes, putting this thing with that, of Filmer's life and
death.
The first authentic trace of Filmer on the page of history is a document in which he
applies for admission as a paid student in physics to the Government laboratories at South
Kensington, and therein he describes himself as the son of a "military bootmaker"
("cobbler" in the vulgar tongue) of Dover, and lists his various examination proofs of a
high proficiency in chemistry and mathematics. With a certain want of dignity he seeks to
enhance these attainments by a profession of poverty and disadvantages, and he writes of
the laboratory as the "gaol" of his ambitions, a slip which reinforces his claim to have
devoted himself exclusively to the exact sciences. The document is endorsed in a manner
that shows Filmer was admitted to this coveted opportunity; but until quite recently no
traces of his success in the Government institution could be found.
It has now, however, been shown that in spite of his professed zeal for research, Filmer,
before he had held this scholarship a year, was tempted, by the possibility of a small
increase in his immediate income, to abandon it in order to become one of the nine-
pence-an-hour computers employed by a well-known Professor in his vicarious conduct
of those extensive researches of his in solar physics--researches which are still a matter of
perplexity to astronomers. Afterwards, for the space of seven years, save for the pass lists
of the London University, in which he is seen to climb slowly to a double first class
B.Sc., in mathematics and chemistry, there is no evidence of how Filmer passed his life.
No one knows how or where he lived, though it seems highly probable that he continued
to support himself by teaching while he prosecuted the studies necessary for this
distinction. And then, oddly enough, one finds him mentioned in the correspondence of
Arthur Hicks, the poet.
 
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