It doesn’t matter how many times I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Disintegration Machine,” do I constantly bat the quandary back and forth in my mind. It is set up perfectly for an ethical and technological debate that we can even have this very day.
“The Disintegration Machine” is a story featuring Doyle’s famous character Professor Challenger. The professor is described as a lion of a man with a full beard and a rotund physique. One day, he is interrupted by the young journalist, Malone, to go investigate a machine designed by Latvian inventor, Theodore Nemor.
Matter dissolves and returns to its molecular or atomic condition. By reversing the process it can be reassembled.
Always the skeptics, Malone and Challenger only believe the machine’s capabilities once Malone is zapped into invisibility and correctly restructured à la Star Trek-styling. The somewhat cantankerous Professor Challenger even has a go but is ultimately annoyed when Dr. Nemor decides to re-atomize him with certain features missing, e.g., the Professor’s oft described lion-like beard.
The three men discuss what the endgame will be for the disintegration machine and Dr. Nemor discloses that an unnamed European country has purchased the exclusive rights to the invention, which has the ability to be utilized as a disastrous weapon. With the cunning wit of a Doyle protagonist, Professor Challenger is able to fool Dr. Nemor into entering the machine and with the flip of a switch, the doctor is disintegrated. Professor Challenger pleads ignorance to how to re-materialize Dr. Nemor and when questioned about it by Malone, replies,
The first duty of the law-abiding citizen is to prevent murder…I have done so. Enough, Malone, enough!
These final moments are what lie beyond the surface of the story. Doyle has posit the idea of murdering one to potentially save further lives down the line. Does investment in one act, that when investigated alone would appear to be horrible, evolve or negate if it is for the greater good? Also, Professor Challenger does not take an iota of a moment to discuss anything with his bright acquaintance Malone. Instead, he acted cunningly and swiftly and made a decision that often lies somewhere in the grey area. Doyle makes the decision quickly with his story but leaves the reader to have a personal philosophical debate regarding the quandary.
“The Disintegration Machine” is available for free in the public domain at Feedbooks.