According to Peter Sloterdijk the ability to control the air we breathe is one of the hallmarks of modernity that was first unleashed in the gas-warfare deployed at Ypres in 1915.
But before then visions of the future had often predicted new attempts to manipulate or weaponise the atmosphere. Albert Rodiba’s Le Vingtième Siècle (1890) envisaged a future ‘Medical Assault Corps’ that would deploy poisonous gasses and miasmas to eliminate enemy combatants. Deadly chemical clouds also featured in more apocalyptic texts. In M. P. Shiel’s weird-fiction novel, The Purple Cloud (1901), humanity has been almost wiped out by a massive purple cloud that smells curiously of peaches (Cylo-sarin, a chemical weapon first synthesized during the Second World War, would later have the same smell).
Gas warfare was only one facet of a broader culture of air-conditioning. In the ‘One Hundred Years Hence’ (1899) set of cigarette cards, one features a roofed city in which the atmosphere and weather are completely controlled, and ‘fine weather’ ensured. In E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), future inhabitants of earth dwell in deodorized, atmospherically controlled, underground pods and rarely visit the surface, the mere smell of which suggests a dangerous and uncontrollable reality.
Works of prediction based on the latest science also suggested that the air of cities would be amenable to easier control in the future. Many of these were obsessed with ozone – which smelled of the sea and was therefore thought to be healthy. Mortimer Alvarado Fuller, in his A. D. 2000 (1890), imagined a future where ozone could be used to preserve bodies in stasis so that they could be re-awakened at a later date. Russell T Baron argued in One Hundred Years Hence (1905) that ozone producing instruments could be deployed to regulate not just the airs and odours of homes or buildings but entire towns in a form of large scale atmospheric manipulation. Today, we now know that ozone is inimical to human and animal life.