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Authors: Matthew Pearl

The Technologists

BOOK: The Technologists
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The Technologists
is a work of fiction. Many of the characters are inspired by historical figures; others are entirely the author’s creations. Apart from the historical figures, any resemblance between these fictional characters and actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Pearl

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for permission to publish a reproduction of a MIT diploma from 1868 incorporating the MIT Seal. Reprinted with the express permission of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Pearl, Matthew.
The technologists: a novel/Matthew Pearl.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-679-60507-2
1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology—History—19th century—Fiction. 2. College students—Massachusetts—Cambridge—Fiction.
I. Title.
PS
3616
.E
25
T
43   2012
813′.6—dc22        2011014628

www.atrandom.com

Jacket photograph: Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

v3.1

Contents
I
April 4, 1868

I
TS PROUD LINES INTERMITTENTLY VISIBLE
through the early morning fog, the
Light of the East
might have been the most carefree ship that ever floated into Boston. Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind. After wild March winds, stormy seas, dangerous ports, backbreaking work, and all the extremes of experience, they’d be handed a good pay at port, then freed to lose it to the city’s myriad pleasures.

The navigator held the prow steady, his eye on his instruments, as they waited for the fog to disperse enough for their signal to be seen by the pilot boat. Although Boston Harbor stretched across seventy-five square miles, its channels had been so narrowed for purposes of defense that two large ships could not safely pass each other without the harbor pilot’s assistance.

The
Light
’s austere captain, Mr. Beal, strode the deck, his rare aura of high contentment amplified by the giddiness of his men. Beal could envision in his mind’s eye the pilot boat breaking through the fog toward them, the pilot dressed like an undertaker, saluting indifferently and relieving Beal—for once—of his burdens. Then would come the view of the stretches of docks and piers, the solid granite warehouses never quite large enough for all the foreign cargo brought in by the merchants, then beyond that the State House’s gold dome capping the horizon—the glittering cranium of the world’s smartest city.

In the last few years, with so many men returned from fighting the rebellion, even modest Boston merchants had become veritable industrialists,
beset as they were by excess hands. This city had prided itself on its history from the time it was little more than a quaint village, but Beal was old enough to know how artificial its modern visage was. Hills that formerly sloped through the city had been flattened, their detritus used to fill in various necks and bays, the foundations for streets and new neighborhoods and wharves such as the one that soon would welcome them. He could remember when the Public Garden was plain mud marking Boston’s natural boundary.

A steam pipe bellowed from some unseen ship launching on its way or maybe, like them, gliding toward a journey’s end, and Beal felt a solemn comradeship with all unknown voyagers. As he glimpsed the crescent moon and thought he would soon have enough light even in this nasty fog to lay course, his pleasant reverie was broken by a bright light flashing low in the water. When the captain craned forward, a lifeboat caught in the current, right in the path of their prow, sprang out from the mist.

His lookout cried out while Beal seized his speaking trumpet and shouted orders to change course. A woman’s scream floated up. The schooner veered adroitly in efforts to avoid the small craft, but too late. The lifeboat’s passengers jumped for their lives as their boat split into pieces against the
Light
’s prow, the screaming woman thrusting a small child above the waves. To the shock of the captain, another obstacle broke through the dense curtain of fog on the schooner’s starboard side: a pleasure steamer, with its flags flying the signals of distress, and taking on water.

“Clear lower deck!” Beal shouted.

Light of the East
had nowhere to go. The side of its hull grazed and then caught the stranded steamship, right through the forward bulkhead: Pipes snapped and scalding-hot steam rushed into the heavy air as the hold of the schooner was ripped open. Now it, too, took on water, fast.

Chaos reigned on and off the ships. Beal snapped an order to throw the cargo overboard and repeated it sharply when his men hesitated. If they didn’t unload right now, they would lose not only their profits, but also the ship and likely lives.

“Captain! There!” called his lookout.

Beal stared in astonishment from the railing as a stray breeze parted the fog. The wharf loomed ahead, but it was now clear they were approaching it from the wrong angle, parallel instead of perpendicular. Incredulously, the captain extended his spyglass. A bark flying British colors had wrecked against the tip of one of the piers and caught fire, while another schooner, marked the
Gladiator
, had drifted against the wharf, where its crew feverishly tried to tow it in. As he watched, fiery debris spread to the
Gladiator
’s sails, which an instant later were wreathed in flames.

At least half a dozen ships were visible in those few moments of clarity, and all were foundering in various states of distress across the once-orderly harbor, reverberating with shrieking whistles, bells, foghorns, and other desperate signals.

Beal frantically stumbled and slid on his way to the navigational instruments. The needle of the steering compass, held under glass by the wheel, spun around violently, as if bedeviled, while on his pocket compass the needle was 180 degrees off the mark—north was south. He’d sailed by these navigational instruments—finely tuned with the expertise of nineteen centuries—for his entire life as a seaman, and he knew there should be no way for them to fail all at once.

The pleasure steamer they had crashed into suddenly lurched forward with a boom. In seconds it was entirely underwater. Where it had been, a vortex opened, sucking under those already stranded in the water, and then spitting them out high into the air.

“To the lifeboats!” shouted Beal to his thunderstruck crew. “Find anyone alive and get as far away as you can!”

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