Eric Frank Russell & Maurice G Hugi's "Mechanical Mice": An inventor doesn't know what he has invented!
Even this most fantastic story from Russell is so easy to follow & absorbing. A lot of modern sf'ish fantasy authors can take useful lessons.
Story summary.Dan Burman, 40, is a very rich inventor. 12 years ago, he had invented "Burman Bullfrog Battery" - the greatest known power source for small portable devices. Now he has invented a new thing - after spending many years & huge sums of money; only he doesn't know what the little device he has invented is supposed to do!
He seeks help of Bill - the narrator, a press reporter & a friend of Dan. During this discussion, Dan reveals that he is not the real inventor either of his famous battery or this new device that does god knows what. He stole the design from future!
His only genuine invention is a kind of crystal ball he calls "psychophone" - a virtual-reality time-travel machine that can take you to future - within your mind; not physically. And not very precisely either - say to an accuracy worse than a decade. Since it is impossible to go back to same time & place, a single session is all you have to learn what you can about anything specific.
This is how the battery came into being. And the new machine.
That is when the new machine - sitting in the same room - automatically comes into action. Arms stretch out to pick expensive precision machinery like Dan's wrist watch. Machine appears to be doing something inside, but what! Eventually, they lock the lab, & go home for the night.
That is the night the terror begins in the neighborhood. Burglery in a big jewelery shop, & a precision instrument maker. Several cats dead in the streets - ruthlessly butchered.
Dan will discover later next day what he has manufactured: a robot programmed to survive above all else, & capable of giving birth to children! The brood has been snatching food, & killing whatever comes in the way.
Great action, & ultimate destruction of the robots.
- Raymond J Healy & J Francis McComas (Eds)' "Adventures in Time and Space".
- Other stories on essentially the same theme - a "minor toy" from an advanced civilization somehow ends up in human space, causing puzzlement & chaos: Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Twonky" & "Mimsy Were the Borogoves"; & C M Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag".
- Pat Forde's "In Spirit": A very different story, but uses a time travel device similar in concept to psychophone. And uses it to move to past - something psychophone cannot do.
Fact sheet.First published: Astounding Science Fiction, January 1941
Authorship of this story is complex; see this note.
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.