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300 Years of Imaginary Space Ships: 1630-1920

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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.

Image from the French publication of Francis Godwin's Man on the Moone- L'homme dans la lune (Paris, 1666).
Image from the French publication of Francis Godwin’s Man on the Moone- L’homme dans la lune (Paris, 1666).

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.

Image from A voyage to the moon by Monsieur Cyrano de Bergerac (New York : Doubleday and McClure Co., 1899.)
Image from A voyage to the moon by Monsieur Cyrano de Bergerac (New York : Doubleday and McClure Co., 1899.)

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

From Louis Guillaume de La Follie. La philosophe sans pretention. Paris: Clousier, 1775. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
From Louis Guillaume de La Follie. La philosophe sans pretention. Paris: Clousier, 1775. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

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)

Partenza di Pulcinella per la luna (Napoli, Lita, Fergola Largo S. Giovanni Maggiore No. 30, between 1835 and 1849)
Partenza di Pulcinella per la luna (Napoli, Lita, Fergola Largo S. Giovanni Maggiore No. 30, between 1835 and 1849)

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 

From Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett Serviss in the The Los Angeles Herald, February 6, 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
From Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett Serviss in the The Los Angeles Herald, February 6, 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

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.

Illustration from A Trip to Mars by Marcianus Filomeno Rossi's (San Jose, CA, Smith McKay, c1920)
Illustration from A Trip to Mars by Marcianus Filomeno Rossi’s (San Jose, CA, Smith McKay, c1920)

300 Years of Imaginary Space Flight

Each of these imaginary space ships one has it’s 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.


Comments (7)

  1. I was imagining that in Europe and other eastern countries; that the people before and after the 10th Centuries used to see different flying birds, the flying and hovering dragon flies and others. They took the planks and materials and created structures as bird wings; climbed up the hillocks and hills and sprang into the air. They flew for a short distance before they landed on the ground. The improvement was when the airplanes were created that flew in the countries of discovery and ultimately traveled to different countries. The educational fields were applied mathematics,physics, and chemistry. The creators are known as scientists. A big space challenge started between the 1950s and 1960s when we got news about the Sputnik followed by the Shuttle and the first man who landed on the moon. That started the space travel. The pace station on earth is NASA and the scientists bring to the people the planets and galaxy photographs. Mathematics, physics and chemistry produce the Ph.D. scientists.

  2. I never knew any of this existed and it fascinates me to see the workings of the mind in action. I have often wondered how we went from the Wright Brothers to the Moon in less than a century. I now see that we did not; that the ideas had been flowing for centuries beforehand. This blog has been very enlightening for me and I am glad that I followed a link from Popular Science to read it. Thanks to the author.

  3. Its interesting to juxtapose the quaint imagination of the 17th century musings about a Utopian Christian society inhabiting the moon while the leaders of the Commonwealth in Massachusetts were hanging women for being Quakers. (Ref, Library of Congress Today in History July 20)

  4. First and foremost, as sentient beings, human conciousness is always improving itself as being conscious of consciousness. Ideas of the past are carried forward into the world of tomorrow. Atoms, molecules, cells and systems of the body, whether they be of a human, earth, a solar system or the universe, all contain the coded sequences of the past,present and future. Those coded imprints are within everything. One could say the internet evolved from the intelligent working of certain minds who could intuitively unlock a code. However, material things do not last, their atommic nature comes apart in the rotation of time. So a conscious mind machine could possibly be created to interphase with the material human mind, allowing it to project itself anywhere in dimensional space. The earth has the potential to be such a mind. Space is circular, and strand of interlacing energy connect and hold the quantum world’s within that force field together, hence gravity. So really, the earth is a space ship and we humans are its astronauts. If we all could get along peacefully, with each other, the sooner we could move the tiny earth, a dot in the vastness of space, out into the internet of cosmic intelligence. But we are still animal’s evolving slowly, one tiny step at a time. Individual freedom through collectivism is the quintessential way of evolving the earth into such a Galactica ship.This knowledge is out there, we just haven’t caught up with it. But,this knowledge is governed by time, place and circumstance. We can’t step into it until we are of one consciousness. Just because we can’t see the future dosen’t mean it isn’t there. Conscious Light, Truth and Rightness will eventually evolves us there. Bright horizon’s to us ALL as we sail on.

  5. Hello!

    I have a question about the link given at the end of this blog for a Space Science Projects Guide. The link given directs to a general science tracer bullet page. Can you please help me with finding the specific space science guide?


    • Anna – We retired the Science Tracer Bullet series in 2013, however, we have an inventory and archive of the series which you already discovered. The Space Science Projects was first published in 1986 with the last publication date in 2006. There is a digital copy of the 2006 Space Science Projects guide that is accessible via the ERIC database see

      Also, I have updated the link to connect to the 2013 in the web archive.

  6. I was reading in Science and Health by Mary B. Eddy where she says, (page 503, lines 15-17) “…the eternal wonder,–that infinite space is peopled with God’s ideas, reflecting Him in countless spiritual forms.” And I was wondering how prevalent such ideas might have sounded in the time of this book, having been last edited in about 1910. So I looked up “extraterrestrials,” ending up at the Library of Congress! Thanks! You continue to educate this octogenarian!

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