The World Set Free is a novel published in 1914 by H. G. Wells. The book is considered to foretell nuclear weapons. It had appeared first in serialized form with a different ending as A Prophetic Trilogy, consisting of three books: A Trap to Catch the Sun, The Last War in the World and The World Set Free.
A constant theme of Wells's work, such as his 1901 nonfiction book Anticipations, was the effect of energy and technological advance as a determinant of human progress. The novel begins: "The history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal."
Scientists of the time were well aware that the slow natural radioactive decay of elements like radium continues for thousands of years, and that while the rate of energy release is negligible, the total amount released is huge. Wells used this as the basis for his story. In his fiction,
The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933.
As demonstrated above, Wells did have some knowledge of atomic physics, and William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederick Soddy's discovery of the disintegration of uranium; Soddy's book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt praises The World Set Free.
The physicist Leó Szilárd read the book in 1932, the same year the neutron was discovered. In 1933 he conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction, and filed for patents on it in 1934.
In Wells's story, the "atomic bombs" have no more power than ordinary high explosive—but they "continue to explode" for days:
Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.
Wells offers the following explanation of how the bombs are supposed to work:
Those used by the Allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb was a blazing continual explosion.
Wells further wrote:
Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands[...] All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing[...]There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape[...]Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it[...]Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city.
Wells viewed war as the inevitable result of the Modern State; the introduction of atomic energy in a world divided resulted in the collapse of society. The only possibilities remaining were "either the relapse of mankind to agricultural barbarism from which it had emerged so painfully or the acceptance of achieved science as the basis of a new social order." Wells's theme of world government is presented as a solution to the threat of nuclear weapons. It is possible that several years of nuclear terrorism could frighten world leaders so much that they are willing to consider a one world government, seeking "peace and safety", for example.
From the first they had to see the round globe as one problem; it was impossible any longer to deal with it piece by piece. They had to secure it universally from any fresh outbreak of atomic destruction, and they had to ensure a permanent and universal pacification.