Sunday, 21 November 2010

Jules Verne and the Science of Prophecy

From the start of the 20th century, Jules Verne has achieved posthumous adoration as an eerily accurate prophet of future technologies and events. Seemingly from nowhere he has plucked ideas a century or more ahead of their time, as though he himself had some invention for picking up satellite transmissions from the modern day. From the middle of the Victorian Era he foresaw moving pictures, telegraphs, submarines, heavier-than-air travel and rocket capsules. Yet he famously decried H.G. Wells for being an "inventor" and took great offense at the accusation that his novels were magical fantasy rather than extrapolation on sound scientific and technological ideas.

A recent article on provides a perfect example of how Verne's reputation conflicts with his methodology. In 6 Eerily Specific Inventions Predicted in Science Fiction by Colin Murdock, "Jules Verne Predicts the Moon Landing in Ridiculous Detail ... in 1865" clocks in at #6.
The first manned spaceship was launched during the month of December, by the United States from a base in Florida. The ship was made up mostly of aluminum, weighed 19,250 pounds, and cost what would now be about $12.1 billion to build. After three of the astronauts completed their moonwalk, they returned to Earth. Their capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by a U.S. Navy vessel.

Why are we boring you with history? Actually, we're not -- this is the plot of an 1865 novel by Jules Verne, whose frighteningly accurate visions of space travel lead us to conclude that he had to be some kind of time-traveling space-wizard.

Allowing that Cracked is a humour site, let's dissect Verne's time wizardry.

First, we must dispense with what Murdock considered "the real coincidence icing on this insanity cake". As if all the accurate details about Apollo 11 that From the Earth to the Moon foretold were not enough, Verne also predicted that space was weightless. Amazing, except that Newton calculated gravity two centuries before.

What of the real coincidences then? Murdock was not the first to notice that Verne has his three astronauts lift off from Florida. Of any place in the world, why Florida? In the translated words of Verne,
the gun must be fired perpendicularly to the plane of the horizon, that is to say, toward the zenith. Now the moon does not traverse the zenith, except in places situated between 0° and 28° of latitude. It became, then, necessary to determine exactly that spot on the globe where the immense Columbiad should be cast.

The party engaging in this activity were Americans, which is not surprising. It would have to be a power technologically and economically advanced enough to stage the effort. So that means looking for anywhere on American soil between 0° and 28°. Once more deferring to the novel,
The 28th parallel, on reaching the American coast, traverses the peninsula of Florida, dividing it into two nearly equal portions. Then, plunging into the Gulf of Mexico, it subtends the arc formed by the coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; then skirting Texas, off which it cuts an angle, it continues its course over Mexico, crosses the Sonora, Old California, and loses itself in the Pacific Ocean. It was, therefore, only those portions of Texas and Florida which were situated below this parallel which came within the prescribed conditions of latitude.

Florida, in its southern part, reckons no cities of importance; it is simply studded with forts raised against the roving Indians. One solitary town, Tampa Town, was able to put in a claim in favor of its situation.

In Texas, on the contrary, the towns are much more numerous and important. Corpus Christi, in the county of Nueces, and all the cities situated on the Rio Bravo, Laredo, Comalites, San Ignacio on the Web, Rio Grande City on the Starr, Edinburgh in the Hidalgo, Santa Rita, Elpanda, Brownsville in the Cameron, formed an imposing league against the pretensions of Florida. So, scarcely was the decision known, when the Texan and Floridan deputies arrived at Baltimore in an incredibly short space of time. From that very moment President Barbicane and the influential members of the Gun Club were besieged day and night by formidable claims. If seven cities of Greece contended for the honor of having given birth to a Homer, here were two entire States threatening to come to blows about the question of a cannon.

Barbicane, president of the Baltimore Gun Club, chose Florida because it was less inhabited. By his reasoning, if he chose Texas he would still have to go through all this again to choose between the different cities. Better to choose Florida and be done with it.

Well, the American government chose Florida for nearly the same reason. According to space historian Roger Launius, in an interview with Scientific American:
Florida was chosen for several major reasons. One was, it's close to the equator. [The linear velocity of Earth's surface is greatest at the equator, much as a ceiling fan blade slices through the air faster at its tip than at its center hub, conferring a fuel-saving boost to spacecraft attempting to escape Earth's gravity.—Editor's Note]

The second reason was it had to be on the east coast, over the ocean, so you wouldn't fly over people that might get killed as stuff dropped off or blew up.

And the location that they chose in Florida had a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't anything there. You go there today and you don't see it, but Brevard County in the 1940s was a bunch of orchards and hardly anything else. And this island that they're on [Merritt Island] had good logistics, because there was a navy base and an army base not too far away. But there was no population density whatsoever. It was just a beach, essentially.

Verne's only magical act of prognostication so far as the location went was choosing the United States. Had it been the Soviets or the Japanese, From the Earth to the Moon would have been merely quaint. After correctly guessing that the Americans were powerful enough, smart enough, rich enough and ambitious enough to pull it off first, working out the rest was simple calculation. Florida is the only place it could have been.

What of the dimensions and materials of the craft? Not only is the Baltimore Gun Club's capsule roughly the same size as the Apollo Command/Service Module and both were built primarily out of aluminum. This is not so mysterious either, when one crunches the numbers.
The problem, therefore, is this— What thickness ought a cast-iron shell to have in order not to weight more than 20,000 pounds? Our clever secretary will soon enlighten us upon this point."

"Nothing easier." replied the worthy secretary of the committee; and, rapidly tracing a few algebraical formulae upon paper, among which n^2 and x^2 frequently appeared, he presently said:

"The sides will require a thickness of less than two inches."

"Will that be enough?" asked the major doubtfully.

"Clearly not!" replied the president.

"What is to be done, then?" said Elphinstone, with a puzzled air.

"Employ another metal instead of iron."

"Copper?" said Morgan.

"No! that would be too heavy. I have better than that to offer."

"What then?" asked the major.

"Aluminum!" replied Barbicane.

"Aluminum?" cried his three colleagues in chorus.

"Unquestionably, my friends. This valuable metal possesses the whiteness of silver, the indestructibility of gold, the tenacity of iron, the fusibility of copper, the lightness of glass. It is easily wrought, is very widely distributed, forming the base of most of the rocks, is three times lighter than iron, and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile."

Sounds like a good metal to use in building airplanes or perhaps even lunar modules. Crunching further numbers arrives at ideal size for a projectile intended to carry two or three people out of the Earth's sphere of influence and around the moon. Again there is nothing here so mysterious as the patience to do the maths.

Finally there is the coincidence of the devices' names. The canon which the Baltimore Gun Club used was called the Columbiad. The name of the Apollo CSM was Columbia. Verne was hampered in his choice of name by choosing to use a giant canon, for "Columbiad" is not a name picked out of thin air. Rather, Columbiad was the name for an actual type of smoothbore, large-caliber, muzzle-loading canon... Exactly the type of canon used by the Gun Club.

The gun itself was called a "Columbiad" in reference to "Columbia", the feminized personification of North America or, more specifically, the United States. She is to America as Britannia is the the United Kingdom. She is herself named for Christopher Columbus, the first modern European to arrive in the Americas.

The Apollo program chose Columbia for the name of the CSM for two reasons. The first and most obvious was in reference to Columbia. The second was that it had a nice ring to it that recalled the Columbiad in that Jules Verne novel about going to the moon.

Nevertheless, upon returning to Earth, the great projectile crashed into the sea and was rescued by a US Naval vessel. Considering that the oceans cover about 70% of the planet's surface and that the American Navy would be the ones out looking for an American spacecraft, this similarity should not be too surprising either. Had they been rescued by a submarine, that would have been fantastic. The United States had been using primitive submarines since the Revolutionary War, truly advancing the technology during the Civil War. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, incidentally, was published in 1869.

Jules Verne was a brilliant thinker, but it is worthwhile to give him the credit he is truly due. He was not a magician or a time traveller. He was a man with encyclopedic knowledge of science, nature and history, blessed with an ability to extrapolate what was being done into what could be done. The strength of his Scientific Romances came not so much from a fevered imagination creating fantasies whole cloth, but from their solid grounding in the world around us.


ArtSnark said...

Visiting from Tampa Town - wonderful post!

Viewliner Ltd. said...

Wonderful post, as always. Have a Happy Thanksgiving Cory. The best to you and your family, Richard.

Cory Gross said...

Thanksgiving? That was a month ago.

Oh, right. Americans ^_~

Thanks and you guys have a good one!

A Snow White Sanctum said...

Cory...what a freakin' interesting blog you have here! In a word--superb! I just became a follower. Feel free to do the same if Miss White holds any appeal for you.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you! And you know, I do like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Besides the DLRR, Snow White's Scary Adventure was, deliberately, the first ride I ever rode at Disneyland ^_^

Gotthammer said...

Great post, Cory - I jumped in last minute on a panel concerning this topic at Steamcon in Seattle this past weekend. And I (rightly) thought, "what this panel really needs, is Cory Gross!"

Cory Gross said...

LoL, thanks. One me vs. several hundred Steampunks seems like a fair fight ^_^

Don said...

Excellent post! Think I have some reading to do.