Our colleagues over at the “Inside Adams” blog caught our attention with this post on “300 Years of Imaginary Space Ships: 1630-1920” by Trevor Owens, who has guest written for us a few times, too. As Trevor said in the introduction, “The context for each imaginary contraption becomes fodder for understanding ideas about space and flight.” We’ve added some ideas at the end for ways to use these primary sources to deepen student understanding of the ways in which people have imagined space and flight– please add your own ideas in the comments.
The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, Special Curator for the Library of Congress Science Literacy Initiative and Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives. He is also the author of the Inside Adams post on Envisioning Earth from Space before We Went There.
While humans didn’t build apparatus capable of traveling to the moon and other planets until the 1950s and 60s, there is a long history of thinking about the technology that could get us to other worlds. In this post, I share some illustrations of visions of space vehicles over time. The context for each imaginary contraption becomes fodder for understanding ideas about space and flight.
Interplanetary Super Geese: 1638
Publication of Galileo’s telescopic observations of the moon had an important effect on ideas about life on other worlds. Published in 1638, Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, follows the exploits of Domingo Gonsales, a Spanish noblemen who, after a series of adventures on Earth, makes a voyage to the moon (This book has been republished numerous times. Your local library can help you get a copy). Gonsales discovers a species of swan-like birds. Realizing these birds can carry an extraordinary amount of weight, Gonsales creates a harness system that he uses to fly around an island. He tries to fly back to Spain, but the birds keep flying higher and higher taking him all the way to the moon. When he lands he finds there is a whole new world there, which he refers to as another Earth. It’s a place with plants, animals, and most surprisingly, a Utopian civilization of tall, Christian people. From the moon, Gonsales observes the Earth moving through the sky. This shift in perspective is helpful for thinking about the relationships between heavenly bodies.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s Fireworks Powered Flight: 1657
In Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and of the Sun (First volume published in 1657 as L’autre monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune et du Soleil ) Cyrano de Bergerac wrote about travel to other worlds. The English translation A voyage to the moon (1899) has been digitized by the Library of Congress. While these stories include references to a few different ways to leave the earth, one of the most interesting involved using fireworks to launch a machine off the ground. The work includes an image of what Cyrano’s voyage to the moon looked like.
Mercurial Static Powered Platform: 1775
In La Philosophe sans Pretention, a strange machine brings a visitor to earth from the planet Mercury. The contraption is allegedly powered by static electricity, produced when its two glass globes covered in gold leaf are rubbed with camphor as they turn on a platform. The powerful light changed the pressure of the air and enabled the alien operator to navigate. This electric motor is probably based on the frictional machines of his time which generated small electrical charges. (See the short discussion of this fictional flying machine in the section on Eighteenth-Century Science Fiction in the online exhibition, the Dream of Flight)
Chain-Based Space Elevator: 1835
Another vehicle shows something akin to a space elevator. A boat rides a set of two chains tethering the Earth to the Moon. In 1835 the New York Sun published 6 articles describing the discovery of various species of creatures inhabiting the moon. Allegedly written by Dr. Andrew Grant, the stories claimed to report on recent discoveries from the prolific astronomer John Herschel. In scientific circles the notion that there could be sophisticated life on the moon was quite plausible. John Herschel’s father, astronomer William Herschel, had worked to document life on the moon. In 1778 William Herschel believed he had observed lunar towns, but by the 1830’s observations of the moon were making it less likely that there were lunar civilizations. The 1835 articles were in fact written by Richard Locke, a reporter working for the New York Sun. In the articles, Herschel is alleged to have observed creatures that look like bison, goats, unicorns, and tail-less beavers in forests on the moon. The most stunning find, however, was the discovery of human-bat-creatures who had constructed temples on the moon. The story prompted a range of presentations and retelling, including these images, from a series of Italian prints (Ritorno di Pulcinella dalla luna and Scoperte fatte nella luna dal Sigr. Herschell)
Thomas Edison’s Anti-Gravity Ship: 1889
The idea that technologically advanced Martians might attack the Earth was made most popular by H.G. Wells’s book War of the Worlds. In the book, squid- like aliens in robotic suits devastate the earth in an attack. Garrett P. Serviss, an American astronomer wrote a less well-known, but in its time quite popular, version of a follow-up story to a Martian attack called Edison’s Conquest of Mars. In this work, Thomas Edison leads the charge to fight the Martians. Originally serialized for the New York Journal, the entire work was published in 10 Sunday editions of The Los Angeles Herald (You can read each part online; Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five,Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten)
The story begins with the aftermath of the Martian’s devastation of Earth. After the Martians retreat, the people of Earth are convinced that it was only a matter of time before they would strike again. To protect the earth, Queen Victoria, the Kaiser and the Mikado come to Washington D. C. to talk strategy. The world’s scientists, first and foremost the inventor Thomas Edison, are given large sums of money to develop weapons to strike back. Studying Martian technology, Edison produces a disintegrator ray and an anti-gravity device. With these technologies in hand, a fleet of 100 space ships is created to take the flight and fight to Mars.
Submarine Helicopter Gunship: 1920
The 1920 book A Trip to Mars by Marcianus Filomeno Rossi includes this rather detailed drawing of a spaceship, “The Aeriolus.” The ship is described as having a locked hull similar to a space ship, and comes with a set of oxygen tanks so the crew can breath during the flight. Interestingly, it uses a helicopter to ascend into space and then transitions to using the kick back from a set of guns to create a propelling force in the vacuum of space.
300 Years of Imaginary Space Flight
Each of these imaginary space ships one has its own intriguing story to tell, but together they illustrate 300 years of thinking through how everything from birds, to fireworks, to static electricity and a really long chain could be used to get people from the earth out to other worlds. I would be curious to hear your reflections and comments on each of these or examples of similar modes of interplanetary travel. What do you think these imaginary machines tell us about ourselves?
Have a science fair project coming up? Check out our Space Science Projects guide.
- Give groups of students all or a selection of images of imaginary space ships. Ask each group to put them in the order that they think the images were created. Allow time for the groups to see how other groups arranged the images, and to discuss their reasons and evidence.
- Select one or more of the imaginary space ships and challenge students to study the picture and speculate on what technology was emerging at the time. Ask them to explain what they know or see in the picture that makes them say that.
- Invite students to place themselves at any point before successful space travel, research what technologies were in place or emerging, and invent a space ship using the technology available.
Let us know in the comments what understanding about space and flight your students developed as they studied these imaginary space ships.