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"[Science fiction is] nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible."
- Gregory Benford

Electrical 'Tether'  
  A device to make sure an astronaut could return from a free space walk.  

What would it be like to be like to put on your air-tight suit and step outside your space ship? The fictional Lord Kelvin had some advice:

"I am going to step off," I suddenly said to Lord Kelvin. "Of course I shall keep right along with the car, and step aboard again when I am ready."

"Quite right on general principles, young man," replied the great savant, "but beware in what manner you step off. Remember, if you give your body an impulse sufficient to carry it away from the car to any considerable distance, you will be unable to get back again, unless we can catch you with a boathook or a fishline. Out there in empty space you will have nothing to kick against, and you will be unable to propel yourself in the direction of the car, and its attraction is so feeble that we should probably arrive at Mars before it had drawn you back again."

All this was, of course, perfectly self-evident, yet I believe that but for the warning word of Lord Kelvin, I should have been rash enough to step out into empty space with sufficient force to have separated myself hopelessly from the electrical ship.

Fortunately, the fictional Mr. Edison of the novel had a solution.

As it was, I took good care to retain a hold upon a projecting portion of the car. Occasionally cautiously releasing my grip, I experienced for a few minutes the delicious, indescribable pleasure of being a little planet swinging through space, with nothing to hold me up and nothing to interfere with my motion.

Mr. Edison, happening to come upon the deck of the ship at this time, and seeing what we were about, at once said:

"I must provide against this danger. If I do not, there is a chance that we shall arrive at Mars with the ships half empty and the crews floating helplessly around us."

Mr. Edison's way of guarding against the danger was by contriving a little apparatus, modeled after that which was the governing force of the electrical ships themselves, and which, being enclosed in the air-tight suits, enabled their wearers to manipulate the electrical charge upon them in such a way that they could make excursions from the cars into open space like steam launches from a ship, going and returning at their will.

These little machines being rapidly manufactured, for Mr. Edison had a miniature laboratory aboard, were distributed about the squadron, and henceforth we had the pleasure of paying and receiving visits among the various members of the fleet.

From Edison's Conquest of Mars, by Garrett P. Serviss.
Published by New York Evening Journal in 1898
Additional resources -

In modern times, astronauts usually use physical tethers to make sure they don't drift off. Ed White was the first American to perform a spacewalk in june of 1965. Alexei Leonov was first - his spacewalk came in March of 1965. Ah, the space race!

A device that is a bit more like the electrical 'tether' of the novel is the SAFER device. The Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue is worn like a backpack and has small jet thrusters to maneuver.

Compare with the Reaction Pistol from Gordon A. Giles 1937 story Diamonf Planetoid, the Broomstick from Arthur C. Clarke's 1952 novel Islands in the Sky and the Personal Jet Thrust from Robert Heinlein's 1948 novel Space Cadet.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Edison's Conquest of Mars
  More Ideas and Technology by Garrett P. Serviss
  Tech news articles related to Edison's Conquest of Mars
  Tech news articles related to works by Garrett P. Serviss

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