Wednesday 5 April 2017

Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon

It is often said that Jules Verne wrote about technology while H.G. Wells wrote about people. Between the two originators of the Scientific Romance, the Briton is regarded as writing social, political and religious tracts veiled in thin scientific premises of Martian invasions, cruel vivisection, and crueler eugenic fantasies. Verne's domain was that of technology and discovery, writing carefully researched stories about the phenomena of science and industry.

Wherever this assessment stands in relation to Wells (he may have been the one to propagate it), it is not entirely accurate in regards to the elder Frenchman. He certainly did write about technology and industry, science and discovery, and did so excellently. That was not the limit of his genius, however. Verne's eye pierced not only into the future of technology, but also how technology affects and is affected by society.

One of Verne's earliest novels was of this sort... In fact, the largely accurate vision of metropolitan alienation presented by Paris in the Twentieth Century was so drear that publisher Jules Hetzel refused to release the book. It would not occupy store shelves until 1994. While Verne was dissuaded from further depressing and pessimistic work (at least until Hetzel died and Verne became a much older, more embittered man), he continued to inject insightful commentary into his stories of adventure. From the Earth to the Moon, written only two years after Paris in the Twentieth Century, is a perfect example of Verne's approach to the subject. What we find within its pages is not so much the story of a lunar expedition as a hysterical and biting satire of the American military-industrial complex.

The story begins with the elder statesmen of the Baltimore Gun Club bemoaning the lack of a good war to test their skills against. That these noble inventors are each missing a wide and creative variety of limbs troubles them none... The physical cost of their trade is a pittance compared to the exhilaration of blowing other men to smithereens:
"This is horrible!" said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; "nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence! When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?"

"Those days are gone by," said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms. "It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy! Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan. But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton. By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!"

"Ay! and no war in prospect!" continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium. "Not a cloud on the horizon! and that too at such a critical period in the progress of the science of artillery! Yes, gentlemen! I who address you have myself this very morning perfected a model (plan, section, elevation, etc.) of a mortar destined to change all the conditions of warfare!"

"No! is it possible?" replied Tom Hunter, his thoughts reverting involuntarily to a former invention of the Hon. J. T. Maston, by which, at its first trial, he had succeeded in killing three hundred and thirty-seven people.

"Fact!" replied he. "Still, what is the use of so many studies worked out, so many difficulties vanquished? It's mere waste of time! The New World seems to have made up its mind to live in peace; and our bellicose Tribune predicts some approaching catastrophes arising out of this scandalous increase of population."

Devoid of purpose, the honorable members of the Gun Club devise a grand project for themselves: shooting the moon!

That it would become a passenger flight was not part of the original plan. Club president Impey Barbicane's idea was simply to build the biggest projectile weapon the world had ever seen. A starry-eyed and impractical Francophone, Michel Ardan by name, changed that with an imperious command that the canon's shot be changed into a conical shell to carry him, his dogs, an ark-load of livestock, and an array of unnecessary trinkets and knick-knacks. Such impropriety could only be met with the acclaim of an obliging public, who hung on every piece of news and rioted at every speech in the manner of an unbowed mob... From the Earth to the Moon is Jules Verne's comedic channeling of Alexis de Tocqueville.
It is impossible to describe the effect produced by the last words of the honorable president-- the cries, the shouts, the succession of roars, hurrahs, and all the varied vociferations which the American language is capable of supplying. It was a scene of indescribable confusion and uproar. They shouted, they clapped, they stamped on the floor of the hall. All the weapons in the museum discharged at once could not have more violently set in motion the waves of sound. One need not be surprised at this. There are some cannoneers nearly as noisy as their own guns.

Barbicane remained calm in the midst of this enthusiastic clamor; perhaps he was desirous of addressing a few more words to his colleagues, for by his gestures he demanded silence, and his powerful alarum was worn out by its violent reports. No attention, however, was paid to his request. He was presently torn from his seat and passed from the hands of his faithful colleagues into the arms of a no less excited crowd.
Nothing can astound an American. It has often been asserted that the word "impossible" in not a French one. People have evidently been deceived by the dictionary. In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. Between Barbicane's proposition and its realization no true Yankee would have allowed even the semblance of a difficulty to be possible. A thing with them is no sooner said than done.

The triumphal progress of the president continued throughout the evening. It was a regular torchlight procession. Irish, Germans, French, Scotch, all the heterogeneous units which make up the population of Maryland shouted in their respective vernaculars; and the "vivas," "hurrahs," and "bravos" were intermingled in inexpressible enthusiasm.

Just at this crisis, as though she comprehended all this agitation regarding herself, the moon shone forth with serene splendor, eclipsing by her intense illumination all the surrounding lights. The Yankees all turned their gaze toward her resplendent orb, kissed their hands, called her by all kinds of endearing names. Between eight o'clock and midnight one optician in Jones'-Fall Street made his fortune by the sale of opera-glasses.

From that day forward Impey Barbicane became one of the greatest citizens of the United States, a kind of Washington of science. A single trait of feeling, taken from many others, will serve to show the point which this homage of a whole people to a single individual attained.

Some few days after this memorable meeting of the Gun Club, the manager of an English company announced, at the Baltimore theatre, the production of "Much ado about Nothing." But the populace, seeing in that title an allusion damaging to Barbicane's project, broke into the auditorium, smashed the benches, and compelled the unlucky director to alter his playbill. Being a sensible man, he bowed to the public will and replaced the offending comedy by "As you like it"; and for many weeks he realized fabulous profits.

Verne does occupy himself with a significant amount of technical detail as well, amid the social satire. So particular were his calculations that some later readers have thought his predictions almost preternatural. Among other things, Verne accurately predicted that the world's first successful lunar mission would launch from Florida, in the United States, with a conical projectile weighing in the vicinity of 20,000 lbs and made of aluminum, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on its return to Earth. Each of these predictions turned out to be true: Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16, 1969, with a conical command/service module weighing total 26,000 lbs (14,000 for the command module alone), made of aluminum, which splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969.

Fantastical accuracy, yes. But it was accuracy born from scientific exactitude. First, the location. 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.

Next, 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.

Upon returning to Earth, both great projectiles crashed into the Pacific Ocean and were rescued by a US Naval vessel. Considering that the oceans cover about 70% of the planet's surface, half of which is the Pacific Ocean alone, and that the American Navy would be the ones out looking for an American spacecraft, this similarity should not be too surprising either.

There is another weird coincidence that many have pointed out. Verne named the cannon which shot his projectile the "Columbiad" while the name of the Apollo Command/Service Module was "Columbia."  The author's choice of name was hampered by the use a giant cannon, 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 cannon... 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 recalled the Columbiad in that Jules Verne novel about going to the moon. In a sense, Verne's prophecy was self-fulfilling.

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 traveler. 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. Those observational skills were employed just as readily in witty satires as on scientific prognostications.

Nevertheless, From the Earth to the Moon ends on a bit of a mystery: since the point was to shoot the moon, the novel ends after the great Columbiad gun fires its payload. The fate of Barbicane and Ardan would not be revealed until five years later with Round the Moon.

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