JF Ptak Science Books Post 1601
[I've written a number of times on this blog on the depiction of the end of the Earth--as it turns out, it is an uncommon subject for illustration before, say, 1950. One in the series can be found here, with links to others.]
Hiram Maxim--the inventor of the Maxim gun, almost-inventor of the light bulb, and general creative genius--wrote this article, "How the World Will End" around 1905. He was a man with many answers to his own many questions, and here he Q-Aed himself about the end of the world. He imagined the end coming in a number of different ways, one of which was set up by the Earth's own mighty innards. He imagined large-sale earthquakes and gigantic volcanoes, Krakatoa-sized volcanoes and then some, that would rend the Earth to pieces.
But he starts that vision with a very odd inspiration, thinking about the power of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and trying to equate the enormous explosive mission of the thing with something that was somehow doable, somehow understandable in human terms. And what he comes up with is this--that if all the people in the world working all time through all time in producing gunpowder and TNT, spending all of their time doing nothing but making explosives, that all of this gathered and ignited would approximate the energy of the Krakatoa eruption.
He was wrong on this calculation, as smart as he was--I think just running some numbers in your head would put this thing to sleep. But there wasn't very much for him to compare Krakatoa to in 1905, or certainly nothing that he could compare it to that was produced by humans. In our recent past, though--in a world that would be Maxim's near-future--human beings have managed to manage Krakatoa-type releases of energy, namely in the form of nuclear weapons. If we cobbled together 1,400 of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs from August 1945 and detonated them at once, the amount of energy released would approximate Krakatoa. This explosive force has since been rolled mostly into one bomb--the Tara Bomb, or Kuzka's Mother--which was released into the world in a test shot in 1961. That bomb was calculated to be a 50 megaton weapon, scaled down from its projected 100 megatons, and released 1.74x1017 J(oules), coming close to what some people have calculated the energy of Krakatoa to have been, at 8.4x1017J (In a what-the-hell moment of calculation, someone reckoned the output per second of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise 1701-D to be 1.27×1019 J--an enormous number.)
But it is an interesting form to fill up for a short scifi story. Imagine a worldwide society which, for its entire existence, has done nothing but make the means for its own violent destruction, stockpiling fantastic amounts of explosives in a series of connected locations, waiting for the time in their history to end. Imagine that generations would spend their time, doing nothing but producing the means for their own destruction that would come at some time. The entire output of the combined civilizations banded together, branded for annihilation. All working to a literal common end.
Maxim saw other bits too in that firey end, as we see in the above illustrations: for example, in the first image, we see the results of a meteor shower striking City Hall Park in New York City...a big "meteor shower", a really big one. Then there's the possibility of a "collision with some heavenly body", and of course the tail of a comet sweeping away the Earth's atmosphere. For all of his good thinking, though, I can't get much past the image of societal bomb making...