Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Space: 1638





In the course of this abortive NaNoWriMo project of mine, I've been doing research into civil wars.  Among my case studies, if you will, has been the English Civil War.  Reading about this subject brought me to a most fascinating find.

First, a bit of history.  The English Civil War took place in the 17th Century.  On one side were traditionalists who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and the Law of Nations.  On the other stood Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans, and "God's word" from the Bible.
What I didn't know was that Cromwell had a brother-in-law by the name of Dr. John Wilkins.  And it was Wilkins who invented the notion of a space program.

Records bear out that in as early as 1638, when Wilkins was but the tender age of 24, he theorized that it should be possible to travel to The Moon in a sort of spacecraft, or "flying chariot" as he called it.  As he said in his book, The Discovery of a New World In the Moone:
“So, perhaps, there may be some other meanes invented for a conveyance to the Moone, and though it may seeme a terrible and impossible thing ever to passe through the vaste spaces of the aire, yet no question there would bee some men who durst venture this as well as the other.”

No, those are not typos.  English was written with slight differences in the 17th Century.  Chief difference being that people actually knew how to use the language.  But I digress...

Wilkins even designed his own spacecraft.  It would be composed of various gears and clockwork springs, all fueled by gunpowder as a form of internal combustion engine.  He figured it would only take 20 or so blacksmiths to pound it all out.  Wilkins and a few like minds were actually going to set about and do it, fully believing that they could get to The Moon.  Only in around 1660 while doing work with scientist Robert Hooke did Wilkins begin to realize that space travel might be a bit more complicated than that.
Not only did Wilkins conjecture about traveling to The Moon, he also speculated about meeting intelligent life there, beings he called "Selenites."  He thought it might even be possible to open up trade with them.

More than anything, I marvel at how intuitive a human mind can be.  Though the theories and sketches of Dr. Wilkins may seem quaint and more than a little naive to our eyes, they weren't altogether flawed.  Wilkins based what he did on the best scientific knowledge available at the time.  Keep in mind, this was before Newton came along and gave us the basics for much of physics.  That not withstanding, Wilkins was on to something far before his time.  I mean, I can't even call this Steampunk as it's earlier even than that.  Steampunk is a literary and cultural meme, supposing an alternate history where high tech comes about in the Victorian era and is powered by steam.  That's a quick and dirty definition, but it's all the more textual I can afford it at this time.  But I digress...
What would have happened if Wilkins and Newton worked on this project together?  We can only speculate, but the first people to set foot on The Moon in the 1960s might have been British.


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