We owe this word for a fictional energy source to the nineteenth-century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In 1871, he published anonymously a prototypical science-fiction novel, The Coming Race. A utopia in an underground lost world is inhabited by a higher form of man whose strengths derive from an intangible source of power called vril. The narrator, a wealthy young American who stumbles upon the community while exploring a mine, discovers vril is capable of almost anything:
A portrait of Bulwer-Lytton in late middle age
These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call ‘atmospheric magnetism’, they can influence the variations of temperature — in plain words, the weather; that by operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, &c., but applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics.
[Odic here refers to an imaginary force, od, which the famous German chemist Baron von Reichenbach had claimed in an article in 1846 pervaded all nature and which was said to explain mesmerism and animal magnetism.]
Today we find Bulwer-Lytton difficult to read, too florid and long-winded for our tastes (we love making fun of the notorious opening words of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night ...”), though The Coming Race is still in print. But during his lifetime he was widely read, only being outsold by Dickens. In 1834, the American Quarterly Review had called him “without doubt, the most popular writer now living”. The Coming Race was extremely successful and influenced many later SF writers, including H G Wells. A secret group called the Vril Society was said to have reverse-engineered a flying saucer from a crashed interstellar craft in Germany in the 1930s.
Vril briefly entered the language to mean a strength-giving elixir. Its enduring legacy came with the decision in 1889 to name a concentrated beef tea Bovril, a blend of bovine with the name of Bulwer-Lytton’s energising force.