by Jess Nevins
Transhumanism is a popular movement to convert ordinary humans into superhumans, using technology. For 20 years, transhumanism has been a favored topic of futurists, who see it as a possible salvation for humanity.
But we’ve already seen one attempt at transhumanism, and it failed – badly.
The Victorians and New Athleticism
The British took great pride in their imperial accomplishments, but considerably less so in those who were actually establishing, and holding on to, the Empire itself. In the late 18th century the British public was convinced that the British soldier was weak, inferior, and physically unsuitable for representing the Crown. After the end of the Napoleonic wars, British Army leadership decided that soldiers needed more than just formal drills and team sports to get British soldiers into shape. The British government decided to imitate the athletic and gymnastic movements of Western Europe, which emphasized repeated exercise on the forerunners of the modern balance beam, horizontal bar, parallel bar, and vaulting horse. But despite changes to the exercise regimens of the British public, military, and schoolboys, no progress was made, and by the Crimean War in the 1850s British soldiers were once again viewed as physically inferior.
In the aftermath of the Crimean War, two separate social movements arose. The first was “muscular Christianity,” whose proponents believed not only in mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, but that it was a Christian’s duty to build and maintain a sound, healthy body. More broadly, Muscular Christianity was a rebuke to the notion that physical weakness and effeminacy were connected to spiritual strength.
The second social movement was the “New Athleticism,” which attempted to use sports to instill character, manliness, and modesty, create teamwork, and bridge class differences. New Athleticism spawned numerous organizations and social groups who propagandized for the virtues of cricket, football, and rugby, as well as more general exercise.
Both Muscular Christianity and New Athleticism were touted as the solution for what was seen as the “degenerate” state of the British working classes’ bodies. For many Britons, the body of the British soldier was the representation and even reification of racial fitness and idealized masculinity — and most British soldiers came from the working class. But many Britons during the 1860s and 1870s became convinced that the average British soldier was weaker than his predecessors. Fears that the empire was in decline were commonplace, increasing numbers of men were found to be physically invalid for military service, and it was commonly believed that the infant mortality rate was skyrocketing. Most Britons believed that the British race was decaying and in danger of becoming decadent. These ideas gained power in the 1880s and 1890s and became convictions deeply held by many in the thinking and policy-making classes.
Physical Culture and Eugen Sandow
A response to these ideas was the Physical Culture movement. Physical Culture emphasized cultivating the self in mind and body, both to become a better Christian and to reverse the trend toward racial decay. Recommended methods for these goals were regular exercise, vegetarianism, sun-bathing, temperance, and personal cleanliness. The Physical Culture movement was directly influenced by Muscular Christianity and New Athleticism, but both Muscular Christianity and New Athleticism had promoted games and athletics as the ideal vehicles for instilling manliness. However, games and athletics had traditionally been the province of the elite. The Physical Culture movement was aimed at men of all social backgrounds, especially at the lower and working classes, and the movement deemphasized games and instead promoted gymnastics, weigh-lifting, and other exercises which had no competitive aspects and which required neither playing fields nor expensive equipment.
The most famous advocate for the Physical Culture movement, and the first globally famous bodybuilder, was Eugen Sandow. The Prussian Sandow (born Friedrich Muller) ran away from home as a young man to join a traveling circus and used the gymnastics and acrobatics he learned there to harden his body. After the circus went bankrupt, he became the student of a professional bodybuilder and honed and emphasized his musculature. He took the name “Eugen Sandow” and began touring Belgian and French music halls as a strongman and living statue. In 1889 Sandow gained fame in London by interrupting the routine of two well-known professional strongmen and outlifting both. This led to bookings across England and a four-year tour of lifting, flexing, and posing.
In 1893 Sandow traveled to the United States. During one performance he caught the eye of promoter Florenz Ziegfeld, who took charge of Sandow’s career and brought him to Chicago, where Sandow became the headliner in the 1894 World’s Fair. At this time professional strongmen performed feats of strength that were as much artifice and deception as they were reality, but Sandow performed wearing only a skimpy loincloth, so that no deception was possible, and his combination of sex appeal and undeniably real acts of strength gained him numerous fans. Sandow went on a national tour and in 1894 made a four-minute kinetoscope short film, “Sandow, the Modern Hercules,” in which he posed, flexed, and stretched, showing off his excessively well-developed musculature. The film played in vaudevilles and circuses and cemented Sandow’s status as an icon of muscle and strength.
In 1897 Sandow began what he thought of as his true mission: reforming the bodies of humanity. In London he opened the Institute of Physical Culture, a gymnasium and center for teaching the average Briton new forms of diet and exercise, so that everyone, not just Sandow, could look like Sandow and be capable of the same feats. The Institute was immediate successful, other Institutes opened, and in two years fitness was a national craze in both the U.S. and the U.K. At a time when British concerns about national racial degeneracy were reaching new heights, and when Americans were gripped with fears of racial nervous exhaustion, Sandow seemed to be offering a solution.
In 1898 he founded Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, which combined articles on health and bodybuilding with fiction. Imitations of Sandow’s Magazine followed, but it was Sandow’s Magazinewhich remained the leader in the Physical Culture field. Sandow organized the world’s first bodybuilding competition, in the Royal Albert Hall in 1901, attended by thousands and judged by Sandow and Arthur Conan Doyle. Sandow performed at a private audience for the German Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. Sandow was the subject of a celebrity postcard by the Rotary Photographic company, the leading celebrity postcard manufacturer of the era. And Sandow became a marketing icon on part with Theodore Roosevelt and the explorer Henry Stanley (of “Doctor Livingston, I presume” fame), endorsing everything from Bovril to sporting goods.
Sandow’s Influence, and the First Superhumans
Sandow provided a model for other bodybuilder/entrepreneurs to follow. In America, the leading strength performer was Bernarr Macfadden, who went on to found Macfadden Publications, which produced numerous magazines and pulps up until 1992. Macfadden was directly inspired to imitate Sandow after seeing him perform at the Chicago World’s Fair. Zishe Breitbart, the “Samson of Vienna,” was inspired by Sandow. And Angelo Siciliano, better known as Charles Atlas, put a picture of Sandow on his bedroom mirror as inspiration.
The widespread imitation of Sandow is understandable. He was popular with all classes. He made a considerable amount of money from the Physical Culture movement — for all that he genuinely believed in Physical Culture, Sandow was an aggressive entrepreneur. Sandow appeared as the “finest example of the white race” in the British Museum’s 1901 “races of the world” exhibit. And Sandow was hugely popular with women. For years, he performed private strip shows for women. And for years, he was touted as the icon of idealized masculinity. It’s understandable that many bodybuilders tried to imitate him, and even outdo him.
During the 19th century carnival strongmen routinely compared themselves to Hercules, Atlas, and other figures from Greek myth, and performed feats of supposedly superhuman strength. These feats were deceit and fraud, and this fraud was one of the things that the young Sandow had worked to discredit. But with Physical Culture at its peak, strongmen began combining actual feats of strength with traditional circus trickery and advertised themselves as “superhuman.” The rhetoric, from Sandow, Macfadden, and other Physical Culture proponents, used phrases like “perfect manhood and womanhood,” “idealized form of the human body,” and “peak of human development.” Those attempting to surpass Sandow used rhetoric like “first of a new breed of man,” “forerunner of the next stage of human development,” “a man of legendary, not human, strength,” “a human being of supernatural powers,” and, simply, “superhuman.”
Superhumans in Popular Fiction
The association between bodybuilding and superhumanity was repeatedly made in popular fiction. Superhumans in popular fiction didn’t begin with bodybuilding and Sandow, of course — vigilantes with superhuman abilities appear throughout the 19th century. But the craze for Physical Culture led to a surge in bodybuilder superhumans in popular fiction. Sandow himself appeared as a character in dime novels as early as 1894, and in 1899 Sandow’s Magazine was regularly running fiction starring superhumanly strong bodybuilder characters. Heroic characters with superhuman strength had appeared in popular fiction before Sandow: the dime novel detectives Old Sleuth, in 1872, and Old Cap. Collier, in 1883, are described as being able to throw grown men around like pillows and to be able to hold burly thugs above their heads with one hand. But the bodybuilder superhuman was popular in the best-selling Physical Culture magazines, and other magazine publishers were quick to imitate Sandow’s Magazine and to capitalize on the popularity of Sandow and the Physical Culture movement by creating more superhuman bodybuilders.
Sandow became one of these characters. A phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century was to use celebrities as characters in adventure and mystery stories. Sandow was one of the first celebrities to be used in this way. The dime novel detective Nick Carter was, next to Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective in global popular literature from 1890 to 1920. Carter, who debuted in 1886, was described from the first as having superhuman strength, but in 1896 Carter is suddenly described as having been taught weight lifting and strength training by Eugen Sandow. Illustrations of Carter suddenly changed and portrayed him as a virtual double of Sandow. And in 1904 Sandow appeared in a Nick Carter story, using his superhuman strength to help Carter solve a murder.
Up through the end of World War One numerous characters possessed of superhuman strength appeared in popular fiction who were either explicitly bodybuilders and Physical Culture devotees or whose iconography and personality implicitly made them such to their audiences. The hero of the 1902 comic strip “Hugo Hercules,” for example, is capable of lifting elephants and stopping runaway carriages simply by grabbing them. He is never explicitly described as being a Physical Culture devotee, but every contemporary reader, seeing Hercules’ dress and manner, knew where Hercules’ strength came from. There were a variety of superhuman heroes in popular fiction during these years, but the bodybuilder superhuman was among the most common.
The Physical Culture craze faded, and its diet and weightlifting regimen became just another hobby. The Victorian worries about racial degeneracy gave way to a pre-World War One Edwardian self-satisfaction. Sandow and his imitators continued to prosper, but their audience contracted and eventually consisted of committed hobbyists. A backlash against Physical Culture began, especially against its claims to produce superhumans.
Even at its height, Physical Culture had detractors. In 1905 Staff Surgeon A. Gaskell, in the British Statistical Report of the Health of the Navy for the Year 1905, claimed that “the physically strong man as trained by the original Sandow or other system withstands the attacks of disease very badly,” and that the strong man who is the product of Physical Culture rarely reaches old age, and is, in Gaskell’s words, “a giant with muscles of brass and, in a constitutional sense, feet of clay — that the strong man is a whited sepulcher.” In 1907 Herbert Forder, a former instructor at Sandow’s school, turned on his former employer, describing the “utter worthlessness of Sandowism.” By the mid-1930s official opinion of Physical Culture was almost universally negative, and American physical educators claimed that Physical Culture as a movement was based on “faulty conceptions of human nature.”
Nor was Sandow exempt from criticism. H.G. Wells parodied Sandow and the marketing and claims of Physical Cultures in Tono-Bungay in 1909. Rumors spread during World War One that Sandow was a German spy, and in 1915 the San Francisco Chronicle claimed that he’d been executed in the London Tower by the British government for spying.
The Physical Culture Movement had been aimed at the working and middle classes, and the Physical Culture bodybuilders had advertised themselves as beings that any follower of Physical Culture could become, and the bodybuilder superhumans of popular fiction were often explicitly described as being ordinary people apart from their superhuman physical abilities. But the working and middle classes, the intended audience for Physical Culture’s claims, eventually turned on the movement. A typical reaction appears in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom sees Sandow as the last hope for “rejuvenation” but also feels intimidated by Sandow and by his own failure to live up to Sandow and his exercise regimen. After the enthusiasm for Physical Culture faded, the common reaction to the movement and to the prospect of potential superhumanity, available to all, was insecurity, depression over the inability to achieve it, and envy toward those who had. Envy, as it will, became jealousy, and then dislike, spreading from individuals to the movement itself.
Adding to this dislike was the embrace of Physical Culture by the nascent American and British fascist movements in the late 1920s and early 1930s and then by the Nazi party in Germany in the mid-1930s, and by Physical Culture’s embrace of fascism. Interest in the Physical Culture movement surged in the 1920s and 1930s after a post-World War One wave of fears over the physical decline of the white race. But many in the Physical Culture movement saw fascism as the answer to this problem, just as many British, American, and German fascists celebrated the “body beautiful” and saw Physical Culture as the best way to achieve it. Many in Physical Culture reacted negatively to the fascists in the movement, but to the American and British public only saw the linkage between Physical Culture and fascism.
The backlash was slower to appear in popular fiction, but was more emphatic. From 1919 to 1954, roughly 75% of all superhumans in popular fiction outside of comic books either lost their powers, had them fade away without explanation, or got married and abandoned using their superhuman abilities. Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Avenger were the most popular superhumans in the pulps. Each began with superhuman abilities: Doc Savage, his strength; The Shadow, his ability to cloud men’s minds so they could not see him; and The Avenger, his ability to rearrange the muscles in his face so he can take on any other person’s features. By the Avenger’s last appearance in 1944, an operation has cured the facial paralysis which gave him his superhuman ability. By Doc Savage’s last appearance, in 1949, he is simply a talented, strong human being, his superhuman strength having disappeared years before without explanation. By the Shadow’s last appearance in 1954, his powers have disappeared and he is merely a standard private detective.
Numerous other examples appear. In 1931 Philip Strange is “the Brain Devil,” an ESP-wielding pilot and agent of American Army Intelligence; by 1939 Strange’s mental powers have faded away and he’s just another pulp flying spy. In 1940 the Red Knight has superstrength, invisibility, and mind control. In 1943 he loses his powers during a mission in Japan. In 1940 Scarlet O’Neil can turn invisible by pressing a nerve on her left wrist. By 1949 O’Neil is merely a fast-talking crime-busting reporter, her invisibility long-since forgotten. In 1919 cowboy Dan Barry can talk to animals. In 1923 he is turned into a villain and killed by his lover. In 1939 the Black Bat can see in the dark thanks to an eye transplant. By 1953 that ability is gone. And so on.
If transhumanism does come to pass, its proponents and subjects should be prepared for a less than welcoming reception.