Wandering Through the Public Domain #20

A regular exploration of public domain genre works available through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Librivox.

By Colleen McMahon: I swear this happens almost every time I start to write one of these entries. I open up the blank document with no idea what I’m going to write about, and decide to do just a quick roundup of some links without going into any detail about any of the authors, etc.

Then as I’m poking around looking for what I want to link to this week, something catches my eye and sends me in a completely unexpected direction.

This week it was Captain Midnight.

There were a couple of mentions of the Captain Midnight TV show in recent Pixel Scrolls. September 4 saw the anniversary of the first broadcast, and September 9 was the birthday of Richard Webb, who played the title character.

Off I went to Internet Archive, to see if there were any Captain Midnight episodes available (since a lot of lower-tier 1950s TV appears to have fallen into public domain). I found two full episodes (at least one includes the Ovaltine commercials) but I’m not linking them because they aren’t tagged as public domain. There are some Captain Midnight comic issues and old-time radio shows as well, but again, not clearly labeled as public domain.

So at this point I would normally drop the idea and do something else. But then I saw another video item intriguingly labeled “Captain Midnight HBO Broadcast Intrusion”…and the rabbit hole opened up and down I went.

Turns out that in April of 1986, in the middle of an HBO showing of The Falcon and the Snowman, the movie was interrupted for several minutes, first by a flickering screen, and then a “rainbow bar” screen overlaid with text reading “GOODEVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT $12.95/MONTH? NO WAY! (SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE).”

This was a now largely-forgotten protest by one John R. MacDougall, a satellite dish seller/installer in Florida who was angry about HBO’s rates for satellite subscribers. He figured out how to take over of the HBO satellite to put out his message.

It was a small gesture by a guy angry that HBO and other paid cable services had begun scrambling their satellite signals so that dish owners could no longer watch for free. The $12.99 HBO subscription price for dish users was significantly higher than the cable price. (That’s over $30/month in today’s dollars; for comparison, you can currently subscribe to HBO NOW for $14.99.) And the subscription cost was on top of the several hundred dollars you would have to pay for descrambling equipment.

While the protest was fleeting and mostly unnoticed, the response was major. MacDougall was ultimately charged and pleaded out for probation and a $5,000 fine. But new laws were passed that made satellite hijacking a federal felony, and the ATIS signal identification system was developed.

The Wikipedia entry about the incident has a lot more interesting detail about MacDougall, the event, and the aftermath. John R. MacDougall is still around and still has his Florida business; the biography page on his business website proudly claims his Captain Midnight identity.

So, how about some actual public domain material before I call it a week?

Jack Williamson (1908-2006) is another recent Pixel Scroll mention. I enjoyed the 1992 interview in the September 9 Scroll.

Several Williamson works are on Project Gutenberg:

A recent Librivox edition collects three of Williamson’s stories (see below in new Librivox releases). Other Williamson stories are included in various Short Science Fiction volumes:

There is also a standalone solo recording of Salvage in Space.

Internet Archive has plenty of Williamson stuff of uncertain copyright status. A couple of items of interest that are listed as Creative Commons but not public domain:

Recent Librivox releases:

Lady Truman received word fourteen months ago that her husband, Sir George Truman, has died in battle. Now a very eligible widow with a large estate, she has more suitors than she knows what to do with. As if that wasn’t enough, her house is now being haunted at night by the horrible and ghostly sound of a drum, apparently caused by the restless spirit of her husband. When an old man arrives who claims to be able to lay the spirit to rest, she is so desperate for relief that she determines to give him a chance. Written with wit and good humor, this play will have you laughing out loud!

Three classic SF stories by Jack Williamson: The Cosmic Express, The Pygmy Planet and Salvage in Space. All were published in Astounding Stories in the very early 1930’s. and all are fine examples of the far ranging imagination of science fiction writers of the day. 

When Earth loses contact with the colony planet Eden, an expedition is sent to find out why. Even though the planet has been determined to have no hostile properties, the second expedition is astonished to find no evidence of the colony. The colonists are spread out, naked, wandering dazed among the bushes, with no sign of any of the technology they brought from Earth.

An anthology of short, chilling stories from Algernon Blackwood. They will make you start at noises in the night and wonder about your neighbors. These stories likely stem from Blackwood’s investigations into haunted houses for the Psychical Research Society and reflect his fascination with the weird, occult and supernatural. 

Solo project by reader Kirk Ziegler, collecting 20 public domain science fiction stories. Authors include Jerome Bixby, Randall Garrett, Algis Budrys, August Derleth, Edward Bellamy and others.

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