Authors: Octave Uzanne
I knew that other researchers have had the same problem. There were ordinary readers, too, who were looking for good reading copies of obscure books but, like me, were unwilling or unable to pay hundreds of dollars solely for the chance to read a book.
A few years ago I decided to address this problem. Of course, by that time, at least one aspect had been solved by online archives like gutenberg.org. The text of thousands of obscure and rare titles were now freely available. Still. . . this wasn’t quite the same thing as owning a book and for someone who might want a little more than the bare text, it wasn’t enough. There were also some of the necessary limitations imposed by etexts, such as their inability to handle italics, foreign characters and other typographical problems. Often missing, too, were any illustrations that may have accompanied the original book.
So I decided to set out to create a library of reprints. They would feature handsome new covers, a carefully edited text, attractive design, illustrations (where appropriate) and footnotes, appendices, etc. whenever possible. Books that bridged the gap between etexts and the original editions, books that would be easy to read, good to look at and an attractive addition to any book collector’s shelf. In addition, I tried to emphasize books that were not easy—or were even impossible—to find online. The books would also focus on a very particular theme (or two, as it turned out). The main collection consists of early books and novels that deal with space travel or rocketry. One of my motives in this activity was to illustrate how far back the concept of space travel went, to say nothing of how prescient many early writers were in anticipating everything from solar sails and rocket-powered spacecraft to spacesuits and nuclear propulsion.
I am of course, limited myself to books that are in the public domain. However, this worked out fine for me since my main interest is in books published prior to the 1930s.
II The Dreamers
Until the invention of the astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1610, the heavens were thought to be no great distance from the Earth, and the Sun and the Moon were thought to be the only material bodies with which we shared the universe. Some few of the early Greek philosopher-scientists speculated on the relative distances of the sun, Moon and planets, such as Anaximander in -600. Pythagoras and Aristotle both theorized that the Moon might be spherical. But these and others were all based on quantitative measurements—little thought, if any, was given to what the Moon
When the question was considered however, speculation knew few limits. Anaximander thought that the Moon might be a kind of fiery chariot wheel and Anaxagoras suggested that it was an incandescent solid (albeit with “plains, mountains and ravines”). But by the time Plutarch was writing, foundation for the thousand-year-long Dark Ages was being laid. During that bleak millennium the Earth was clearly the center of the universe, there were no other worlds than this one and the Moon was a perfect, pristine sphere since Providence would be incapable of creating anything less than ideal. If the Moon showed spots, these were nothing but the reflection of our own imperfect world in the Moon’s mirrorlike surface. Change and decay were limited to the Earth; the heavens were immutable and eternal. To question any of this was dangerous heresy.
Galileo’s revelation changed all of that forever. With his first observations he immediately realized that the Moon was not a pristine disk or sphere, but rather a world as imperfect as our own, with mountains, valleys, plains and hundreds of odd, circular ring mountains and craters.
The Church forced Galileo to recant his discoveries and his interpretations of them, but the damage had already been done. When human beings looked skyward they no longer saw abstract points of light. They saw the infinite possibilities of new worlds.
At the time of Galileo’s discovery of new worlds in the sky, there were new worlds being discovered right here on Earth. Scarcely more than a century earlier, the continents of North and South America had been discovered lying unsuspected and unknown on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, John and Sebastian Cabot had explored the coasts of North America for Great Britain, while the Portugese and Spanish were laying the groundwork for a vast empire in the southern continent. Between 1519 and 1522, Magellan and Del Cano made their epic voyage around the now undoubtedly spherical Earth. By the time of Galileo, hundreds of ships and thousands of explorers, colonists, soldiers, priests and adventurers had made the journey to these amazingly fertile, rich and strange new lands. Now they learned that an Italian scientist had found that not only did our own Earth harbor unsuspected worlds, but that the sky was full of them, too.
How frustrating it must have been! The new worlds of the Americas, which could not even be seen and which existed for the vast majority of Europeans only in the form of traveler’s tales and evocative if imaginative charts, nevertheless could be visited by anyone possessing the funds or courage. But now here were whole new Earths—Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon—which could be seen by anyone and even mapped; whole new planets with unimaginable continents and riches . . . yet there was no way to touch them! They were like a banana dangling just beyond the reach of a monkey.
It is little wonder that Galileo’s discoveries could not be suppressed. Their publication was quickly followed by a spate of space travel stories:
Somnium, The Man in the Moone, Voyage to the Moon, A Voyage to the World of Cartesius, Iter Lunaire*, John Daniel*, Micromegas, A Voyage to the Moon
and countless others. (*included in this collection.) There were poems, songs, stage plays and sermons, all inspired by the possibility of traveling to the new worlds in the sky. If it were not presently possible to reach them in reality, it could at least be done by proxy.
Bishop Wilkins had no personal doubts that these voyages would eventually be made. He wrote in his
Discovery of a New World
“You will say there can be no sailing thither [to the Moon] . . . We have not now any Drake, or Columbus, to undertake this voyage, or any Daedalus to invent a conveyance through the air. I answer, though we have not, yet why may not succeeding times raise up some spirits as eminent for new attempts, and strange inventions, as any that were before them? . . . I do seriously, and upon good grounds affirm it possible to make a flying-chariot . . .” Galileo’s discoveries, and the discoveries of other great astronomers soon afterwards (the rings of Saturn, Saturn’s great Moon Titan, the dusky markings on Mars and even a new planet, Uranus), had a another profound effect on the evolution of the spaceship, in addition to inspiring the need for such a machine. Since the Moon and planets were now known to be real worlds, it was no longer possible to employ them as merely metaphorical symbols. It was one thing to speak of visiting a vast mirrored disk suspended in the heavens, a disk that, so far as anyone knew, had no real physical existence. Now that the Moon was known to be a real place, transportation there could not be shrugged off onto some vaguely described magic. If one were to write seriously about traveling to the Moon or planets, then the method of getting to them had to have at least the ring of plausibility.
Even Bishop Francis Godwin with his fantastic Moon-bound swans was compelled to add such materialistic and realistic details as the construction of the birds’ harnesses and the framework that bound them together. He even computed their top speed. Cyrano de Bergerac, although writing a burlesque, felt constrained to limit himself to pseudoscientific methods of spaceflight. Though he was striving for strictly comic effects, it is important to note that none of his methods depended upon magic or the supernatural. He took a great deal of care in describing the fantastic devices he used in his attempts to travel to the Sun and Moon, even managing to stumble, however accidentally, upon the use of rockets.
These and many other authors of the time were discovering
the evocation of a sense of reality by the use of masses of convincing detail . . . or convincing-sounding detail, at least.
Still, the writers of space travel stories before the end of the 1700s were groping in the dark: there simply was no method by which a human being could leave the surface of the Earth. In all the history of mankind no one had ever left the Earth any farther than human muscles could push.
III The Invention of the Spaceship
The invention of the lighter-than-air manned balloon was a major revolution, and revelation, in mankind’s perception of his capabilities of exploring the universe. On two counts: For the first time in history a human being had gotten further away from the Earth than the distance one could jump. And it was not accomplished by magic or occult means but by the use of a man-made machine, a device of science. Although by the end of the eighteenth century balloons had drifted everywhere across the landscapes of France, England and other European countries, they seldom reached an altitude of more than a few thousand feet. The Moon was a great deal farther away than that, to say nothing of the planets. Nevertheless it seemed to the most enthusiastic and imaginative dreamers that if it were possible for a human being to lift himself from the surface of the Earth even half a mile, then a flight to the Moon was merely a matter of magnitude. This is the altered perception that is most important to realize: that by means of a manmade instrumentality, employing well understood physical principles, it was possible to leave the Earth. Therefore the problem of traveling to the other worlds that shared the universe with the Earth ought to also be surmountable by means of science and mechanics. That is, even if the wiser heads were aware that it was unlikely that anyone would ever travel to the Moon in a balloon—hot air, gas or otherwise— they were also cognizant that the idea of traveling there
was no longer a matter relegated to pure fantasy.
As the nineteenth century progressed, it began to seem that there might, quite literally, be nothing that was beyond the abilities of science and engineering. Between 1800 and 1865, an astounded public saw the introduction of electric batteries, steam trains and steamboats, ironclad warships, photographs, gas lighting, telegraphy, high-speed rotary printing presses, and color printing, electric motors, calculating machines, blast furnaces, anaesthetics, revolvers, electric lighting, typewriters, sewing machines, Bessemer converters and transatlantic telegraph cables, among literally thousands of other inventions and discoveries in technology and science. Meanwhile, engineers were building vast iron bridges, cutting canals through deserts and jungles and spanning continents with railroads. At this same time, explorers were opening the hitherto unknown territories of Africa and the Poles. For the first time, engineers, explorers and scientists were considered public heroes; they were held in an esteem previously reserved for generals and admirals.
By the arrival of the latter half of the nineteenth century there seemed to be little that science and technology could not accomplish.
In the field of space literature, Edgar Allan Poe introduced scientific verisimilitude. His novelette
in spite of its satiric and comic overtones, was packed with realistic and well-researched details; so much so that his description of a high altitude balloon flight reads almost interchangeably with one of the stratosphere balloon flights of the 1930s or 1950s.
Poe was the first author since Kepler to take the scientific basis of a fictional story seriously and consequently was a major influence on a Frenchman who was a great admirer of Poe and his works and was an erstwhile author of scientific romances himself. If Edgar Allan Poe was the grandfather of realistic space fiction, Jules Verne was surely the father. Verne has had more positive influence on the development of astronautics than possibly any other author of fiction or nonfiction, at least until the early decades of this century; and even these latter authors—such as Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and others—owed their introduction to spaceflight to Jules Verne.
Whenever space travel was the subject, it was assumed that it would be accomplished by some sort of mechanical device; Jules Verne’s classic
From the Earth to the Moon
(1865)* is a literal paean to the engineering arts and American enterprise.
The first author to provide an unambiguous description of a rocket-propelled spacecraft was Elbert Perce. In his 1852 novel,
, he wrote of a torpedo-shaped projectile provided with a padded passenger compartment, instruments and a combustion chamber and nozzle. Only a decade later, Jules Verne became the first author to treat space travel as a problem in mathematics and engineering.
Before the publication of
From the Earth to the Moon*
(1865), no one had ever applied Newton’s laws of motion to the problem of space flight—not even Newton himself. With the help of a cousin who taught math at the Sorbonne, Verne became the first to calculate the escape velocity needed to leave Earth and the trajectory needed to reach the Moon. He even appreciated the need to place the launch site as near the equator as possible. Much has been made of Verne’s use of giant cannon to launch his spacecraft—which would have been disastrous for both the projectile and its occupants—but it is clear that Verne realized the problems involved. Among the several reasons he had for choosing a cannon (not the least of which was his need to parody the American military-industrial complex, which existed even then) was the simple fact that rockets in the mid-nineteenth century were little advanced from fireworks. Nevertheless, Verne use rockets to steer his spacecraft and act as retrorockets—and was the first writer to appreciate the fact that rockets would work in a vacuum.
However, while it seemed perfectly clear what a spaceship must be like in order to survive the ordeals of interplanetary space and, most importantly, allow its passengers to survive as well, it was far from clear what would be the most plausible method of getting the spaceship from the surface of the Earth and into space. In fact, while there were numerous proposals for reaction-powered aircraft during the nineteenth century, there were less than half a dozen suggestions made that rockets might be useful in space travel. Most writers realized, as Verne did, that the state of the art of rocketry was utterly inadequate for the task.