Saturday, 14 May 2016

How to Reach the Moon

As long ago as 160 AD, Lucian of Samosata wrote a book in which a ship was taken up by a great wind and deposited on the moon.
Lucian of Samosata
Lucian was an Assyrian who wrote in Greek. Trained as a rhetorician (a kind of lawyer) he made his name as a satirist and lecturer. His book Vera Historia (True History) was clearly not true, but full of puns, innuendo, parody and satire, most of which modern readers wouldn’t understand.
True History is not only about travelling to the moon, but about a war between the people of the moon and the sun, and is full of strange beasts and strange people. It is thought of as the first science fiction novel, but once again, I would consider it fantasy. Still, it’s a remarkable feat of imagination so very long ago.
Francis Godwin was the Bishop of Hereford, and wrote The Man in the Moone which was published in 1638, after his death. It’s the story of Domingo Gonsales, who, after finding gansa swans which can carry heavy loads, worked out how to harness them to a swing on which he sat. Initially he rode around the island where he lived, but then the swans flew higher and higher until, after twelve days, they reached the moon.

There he found the inhabitants to be Christians living in a kind of paradise. After six months three of his swans died and, afraid he might not get home again if he waited any longer, he harnessed up the swans and returned to Earth.

True History  was translated into English and published in 1634, and this, together with The Man in the Moone, was a great influence on John Wilkins, whom I mentioned last week.

Wilkins was much more scientific in his method of devising how to get to the moon. Since space was the domain of the sun, with no clouds to shade it, Wilkins believed it would be warm. Once outside the pull of Earth’s atmosphere (20 miles up, he decide) you could just glide to the moon, and since you wouldn’t be expending any energy, you wouldn’t need food. He also concluded that the air would be breathable.

In 1648 he published the details of his findings concerning the actual vehicle for moon travel, in Mathematical Magick – a mechanically driven flying chariot. Unfortunately he described only components, and much of his work and his drawings were destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London.

Allan Chapman, of Oxford University and the Royal Astronomical Society, has studied his work and makes the following conclusion: The body of the chariot was meant to be like a small ship, or pinnace. It would have contained some kind of clockwork engine which, via gears, levers and pulleys, would power a set of great wings that would project – most likely – from the sides, amidships.

Considering Wilkins’ wild optimism about gears and their supposed capability in that pre-inertial-physics age to upgrade the mechanical energy put into them by a factor of many thousands of times, one might surmise that he did not envisage the need for a very large spring engine – perhaps an engine no bigger than that of a modest church clock, but powered by a great spring rather than weights. The wings should be covered with feathers, he suggested, particularly those of birds that flew to great heights, such as eagles.*

By the time of Wilkins’ death in 1672 science had progressed far enough to determine that space was a vacuum, and any progress towards making his machine a reality was abandoned.

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* Chapman, Allen Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church p.357 (2014)

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