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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The idea of human flight by means of birds is proba-
bly as old as the supernatural voyage. Far earlier than
Britain's King Bladud, the tale is found in Babylonian
literature, in the Zend Avesta (ca. 650 B.C.), tradi-
tionally ascribed to Zoroaster, and in other Persian
literature. In Greek literature Zeus performed the
abduction of Ganymede by transforming himself into
an eagle. The winged horse, Pegasus, who carried
Bellerophon when he aspired to heaven, is a variant.
Some forms of the tale entered Europe through “Alex-
ander legends,” ascribing every kind of feat to Alex-
ander the Great. There is a passing memory of the
legend of Ganymede in Dante's Purgatorio and a more
extended one in Chaucer's House of Fame. During the
Renaissance these combined with travellers' tales, par-
ticularly of Marco Polo, of gigantic rocs capable of
scooping up a horse and rider or an elephant. If these
birds could be trained, they might transport a man to
the heavens. Even in modern times, after ascents of
the balloon in 1783-84, attempts were made to harness
to the lighter-than-air machine eagles to direct the

The theme of the possibility of a flight to the moon
by harnessing birds was picked up by Francis Godwin
in a romance published (posthumously) in 1638, The
Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage thither
by Domingo Gonsales,
which had a greater vogue than
Kepler's Somnium, since between 1638 and 1768, at
least twenty-five editions were published in four Euro-
pean languages. The first English edition seems to have
been so small that the British Museum copy is unique.
Because of the hero's name the tale was often thought
to be Spanish. Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, both
of whom borrowed from it, thought the romance
French. How early it was written we cannot tell:
Antony à Wood thought it was in Godwin's student
days at Christ Church, 1578-84, but if so it was materi-
ally revised after Galileo's description of the moon in
1610. With the Somnium, which had appeared four
years earlier, The Man in the Moone established the
literary genre of the moon-voyage in France and Eng-

This romance of a castaway voyager foreshadowed
Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, both of which
drew from it. The hero, Domingo Gonsales, a Spaniard
of noble parentage, had had many adventures before
we meet him in the Isle of St. Hellens, where he had
been put ashore with a Negro servant, Diego, a “man
Friday.” In the island they remained for a year, en-
countering no difficulty in nourishing themselves by
semi-tropical fruit, vegetables grown in the rich soil,
fish, and birds. Among the last, the most interesting
to Domingo were “gansas” or wild swans, which
Gonsales trained to come at his signal, then to carry
provisions from one end of the island to the other.
Secretly hoping it would be possible to train them to
carry a man, Domingo made a harness for six or seven
birds, by which they carried a lamb, “whose happinesse
I much envied, that he should be the first living crea-
ture” to fly. “Surprized with a great longing to cause
myselfe to be carried in the like sort,” harnessing still
more gansas, and providing himself with a little swing-
ing perch, he took off from the top of a rock on one
side of a river, and flew to another rock on the opposite
side, where his pride knew no bounds: “I hold it farre
more honour to have been the first flying man, than
to bee another Neptune that first adventured to sayle
upon the Sea.” Three months later, when he was res-
cued, Gonsales took with him his birds and his “En-
gine,” and when the ship was set upon by the British,
he was saved by flying his machine to land. From his
landing-place Domingo set out upon an adventure he
had never expected. He had, of course, no way of
knowing that this was the season for hibernation among
gansas, and certainly could never have guessed that
they hibernate in the moon. He thought his birds were
making off for the peak of Teneriffe, but higher and
higher they went until Gonsales realized that they were
ascending to the moon.

With Kepler, but even more clearly with Godwin,
there was established what became a literary conven-
tion in moon-voyages, the description of “weightless-
ness.” The gansas had been laboring against Domingo's
weight, but “At length, O incredible thing, they forbare
moving any thing at all! and yet remained unmoveable,
... the Lines slacked; neither I, nor the Engine moved
at all, but abode still, as having no manner of weight.”
Weariness, hunger, and thirst proved all to have been
effects of gravity upon the human body. Domingo was
not sure in which direction his gansas flew, “whether
it were upwards, downwards, or sidelong, all was one.”
Looking down at the earth he had left, Domingo as-
sured himself of the truth of the Copernican hypothesis,
that it turned upon its axis: “I will not go so farre as
Copernicus that maketh the Sunne the Center of the
Earth, and unmoveable.... Only this I say, allow the
Earth his motion (which these eyes of mine can testifie
to be his due) and these absurdities are quite taken
away.” Domingo's voyage to the moon took “Eleven
or Twelve daies.” He estimated it as 50,000 miles, a
distance only one-quarter of that computed by the best
mathematicians of the day who used a figure much
closer to our own. Godwin was probably following
Kepler but was not aware that Kepler spoke in German
terms, not in miles as the British computed them.

Godwin paid some attention to the attractive power
of the moon but not as much as to that of the earth


when he left it. On the twelfth day the gansas set
Domingo down on a high lunar hill. Godwin's moon-
world is by no means scientific as was Kepler's. It is
largely fantasy. He does posit the idea that lunar ob-
jects are on a vaster scale than terrestrial, “10, 20, I
thinke I may say 30 times more than ours.” There are
anticipations here of Swift's Brobdingnag, and indeed
of the land of the Houyhnhnms, since Domingo found
himself regarded by the lunarians just as Gulliver was
considered a Yahoo. But in spite of its charm and
occasional moments of scientific imagination, Godwin's
moon-world remains largely fantasy. Gonsales spent a
year on the moon, and then, his gansas beginning to
droop for lack of their annual terrestrial visitation, he
returned to earth, landing in China where he was to
continue his adventures.

The literary influence of Godwin's tale was great.
Wilkins and Fontenelle introduced it to some readers.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Defoe, and Swift borrowed from
it. Samuel Butler and William Congreve wrote passing
satire upon it. A minor poet, Samuel Wesley, produced
a variant upon it in his “Pindaric Poem on Three
Skipps of a Louse.” Thomas D'Urfey made it into a
comic opera in his Wonders of the Sun, and there were
many reminiscences in Elkanah Settle's The World in
the Moon
and in Aphra Behn's Emperor of the Moon.
The tale continued to be read and referred to well into
the nineteenth century by Jules Verne, Edgar Allan
Poe, and others.

The influence of Kepler and Godwin merged with
that of another to establish the conventions of the
moon-voyage as it remained for a hundred years. In
the same year as Godwin's voyage appeared the first
edition of John Wilkins' A Discourse Concerning A
New World
(1638). Wilkins was no mere romancer, but
a member of the Philosophical Society of Oxford, and
one of the founders of the Royal Society. His Discourse
is one of the important works in seventeenth-century
popular science, its science accurate, the general style
so readable that its technicalities can be readily under-
stood by a layman. For his first edition Wilkins had
used the Somnium; in the second he used also Godwin's
romance that had appeared in the same year as his
own. Kepler, Godwin, Wilkins—these were the three
pioneers in the cosmic voyage.

In careful detail Wilkins discussed various problems
that Kepler and Godwin had raised, paying particular
attention to the distance of the moon from earth, which
he estimated at 179,712 miles; the nature and extent
of gravity; the nature of air and intervening space; and
“weightlessness.” In many ways he advanced science,
though in some ways he retarded it for writers of
cosmic voyages, since some eighteenth-century authors
were so impressed by the Discourse that they failed
to realize that Wilkins had written in a pre-Newtonian
era, and that Newton in the Principia had sometimes
disproved and sometimes advanced principles of as-
tronomy and physics which Wilkins had accepted
without question.

Most charming among the many engrossing passages
in the Discourse are those on diet and sleep. How is
the traveller to rest and refresh himself on his long
journey? “I believe he shall scarce find any lodging
by the way,” Wilkins wrote, slily picking up a passage
from Ben Jonson's News from the New World (1621):
“No inns to entertain passengers, nor any castles in
the air (unless they be enchanted ones) to receive poor
pilgrims or errant knights.” As scientist Wilkins replied
to his own questions by a passage in which he discussed
“weightlessness.” When the body is beyond the effect
of gravity, it will feel neither hunger nor weariness.
But his far-ranging imagination played also with old
legends of the effect of the music of the spheres, of
the ''aethereal air” that nourishes plants growing with-
out soil, of men who are said to have lived on the smell
of a rose, of papists like Ignatius who fasted indefi-
nitely. It was this Wilkins who replied to Margaret
Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle—herself a fancifier—
when she inquired of his cosmic voyagers: “But where,
Sir, shall they be lodged, since you confess there are
no inns on the way?” Dr. Wilkins is said to have
replied: “Surely, Madam, you who have written so
many romances will not refuse my mariners rest and
refreshment—in one of your castles in the air.”

Only one full-length moon-voyage by the use of birds
remains from the eighteenth century, A Voyage to
(1727), by a pseudonymous Captain
Samuel Brunt, who has never been identified. It has
been attributed to both Defoe and Swift, neither of
which attributions is valid. It is an obvious imitation
of Gulliver's Travels, though it differs in one important
way, since this is basically an economic satire, pro-
voked by the inflation and crash of the South Sea
Bubble. As Gulliver found a land peopled by horses,
Brunt found one inhabited by birds. It was also a land
peopled by “projectors” who were proposing to the
government every conceivable scheme for investment.
Project after project, tax after tax were suggested, one
more fantastic than another. Brunt proposed one that
caught both popular and governmental fancy: that an
expedition be sent to the moon to extract gold from
the mountains in the moon and bring it back to
Cacklogallinia. The journey to the moon was no prob-
lem to birds who were natural fliers. For Brunt, who
was to head the convoy, they designed a palanquin,
powered by lower-class birds. Upon the announcement
of the project, wild speculation broke out in Cacklo-
gallinia. Men mortgaged their houses, women offered


their children for adoption in order to invest in shares.
On his journey, Brunt sent back bird-messengers daily
to His Majesty with reports of progress. Good reports
precipitated an orgy of speculation; the lack of a report
sent the market to a new low.

A certain amount of science enters the Voyage to
though it looks back to Wilkins rather
than to Newton. There is talk of the thinness of the
air on the top of a mountain from which the caravan
set out and the use of “humected sponges”—reminis-
cent of Kepler—which Brunt used for himself as the
palanquin took off through the orb of gravity. Brunt
pays some attention to “weightlessness” which he ex-
periences once he passes the orb of gravity of the earth.
In less than an hour the bird-leader comes to the
palanquin to inform Brunt that he may now get out,
since for a quarter-hour the bird-pilots have not felt
his weight. Dismounting, Brunt found himself in a new
world in which weight did not exist, where he could
“with as much Ease lift a Palanquin of Provisions...
as I could on our Globe raise a Feather.”

The world on Brunt's moon is more like a comic
opera than like Kepler's science, and will not be dis-
cussed here. The lunarians proved idealists with no
material desires. They are an Englishman's reply to
an England that had gone mad over gambling, for-
getting eternal values. The lunarians did not want an
Englishman in the moon, and Captain Brunt returned
to earth, carefully steering his way to arrive in Jamaica
rather than in England, and sending back his pilot to
face in Cacklogallinia the bursting of the South Sea


The supernatural voyage and flight by harnessing
birds remained literary conventions. During the seven-
teenth and eighteenth centuries, men devoted their
efforts to the possibility of inventing artificial wings
or a flying-machine for man. There is a tale—accepted
by some historians, denied by others—that in the six-
teenth century Giovanni Battista Danti attempted to
fly over the lake of Trasimeno by the use of artificial
wings, one of which failed him so that he fell on a
roof and was seriously injured. The influence of Leo-
nardo's careful study of birds' wings and their principle
of flight lay behind many of the early attempts at
artificial wings. Wings of potential fliers expanded until
those of early ones came to seem absurd: e.g., Daedalus
and Icarus or King Bladud attempting to soar on tiny
wings attached only to the shoulders. Wings expanded
and imagination expanded with them. Wilkins in vari-
ous editions of his works pointed out the fallacy of
thinking of wings as attached only to the arms, by
means of which men could fly no further than domestic
fowl. He advocated that, to the efforts of arms, be
added “the labours of the feet,” so that a man might
swim through the air as now through water. The An-
cients and the Moderns disputed learnedly about the
possibility of human flight. Joseph Glanvill wrote in
his Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661): “It may be some
Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts,
yea possibly to the Moon, will not be more strange
than one to America. To them that come after us, it
may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into
remotest Regions, as now a pair of Boots to ride a

Whatever the facts about Danti's flight, there is no
question that in 1679 a French smith named Besnier
achieved a flight across a river by means of four folding
wings transversely fastened to both arms and legs.
Attested by the Journal des Sçavans, the contrivance
was also described in the Philosophical Transactions
of the Royal Society,
before whose members Robert
Hooke and Christopher Wren reported their own find-
ings in experiments about flying.

So engrossing had the theme of human flight become
that eighteenth-century literature is full of it. Addison
and Steele had their fun with it in the Guardian for
July 20, 1713: “The philosophers of King Charles' reign
were busy in finding out the art of flying.... The
humour so prevailed among the virtuosos of this reign,
that they were actually making parties to go up to
the moon together.” In the same number was a pseu-
donymous letter from “Daedalus,” who asserted that
he had made considerable progress in the art of flying.
“I flutter about my room two or three hours in a
morning, and when my wings are on, can go above
an hundred yards at a hop, step, and jump.” On the
next holiday he intends to sit astride the dragon on
Bow steeple, from whence he will fly over Fleet Street
to the maypole in the Strand. He plans to take out
a patent for making wings so that none can make them
but himself. He looks forward to a glorious future for
England in a new era of air-travel, far superior to an
age of coaches or packet-boats. But the editor, “Mr.
Ironside,” was outraged and declared that he would
use every effort to discourage flying in his time. Con-
sider what would happen to morals: “You should have
a couple of lovers make a midnight assignation upon
the top of the monument, and see the cupola of St.
Paul's covered with both sexes like the outside of a
pigeon-house.” “Mr. Ironside” seems to have taken his
point of departure from a Latin poem In artem volandi
written by Francis Harding in 1692, in which the poet
shook his head over the enthusiasm for human flight.
What will happen in this insane new world? Will
laborers fly to and from their work on artificial wings?
Let the husband beware and strengthen the bolts on


his doors and windows, lest a new type of adulterer
enter his wife's chamber on wings.

Among the many vanities of human wishes, Samuel
Johnson satirized man's desire for wings in his “Disser-
tation on the Art of Flying,” the sixth chapter of Ras-
(1759). On a visit Rasselas found a mechani-
cally-minded man busily engaged in making artificial
wings on the model of a bat's. With them he planned
to fly, possibly even into space. To him the advantages
of human flight would far offset its dangers. An ironic
belief it proved to be since, when the wings were made,
the mechanic took off—as usual from a hill. “He waved
his pinions awhile to gather air, then leaped from his
stand, and in an instant dropped into the lake. His
wings, which were of no use in the air, sustained him
in the water, and the prince drew him to land, half
dead with terror and vexation.”

But although artificial wings produced much satire
and some attractive romances, they were not to take
human beings on cosmic voyages. For that man needed
what John Wilkins called a “flying-chariot.” “I do
seriously and upon good ground” he wrote in his Dis-
covery of a New World,
“affirm it possible to make
a flying-chariot; in which a man may sit, and give such
motion unto it, as shall convey him through the air.
And this perhaps might be made large enough to carry
divers men at the same time, together with food for
their viaticum, and commodities for traffic.”

Such a simple device as the kite—still a novelty in
England in the early seventeenth century—played
some part in the history of aviation, as did the elaborate
fireworks of the period. But it is better not to pause
over them but to turn to the brilliant satires on aviation
of Cyrano de Bergerac, two of which involve flying-
chariots. Cyrano was a satirist but his satire on this
particular theme was as good as it was because—friend
of Pierre Gassendi and Jacques Rohault—he was well
versed in contemporary science. His Histoire comique
des estats et empires de la lune
(1656) included his first
two attempts to reach the moon. The first is quite
different from anything we have seen in the pseudo-
scientific literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. The sun, said Cyrano, sucks up dew. If he
fastened about himself vials of dew, would he not be
sucked up? In contemporary illustrations we see him
with his dew-vials, “a great many Glasses full of Dew,
tied fast about me; upon which the Sun so violently
darted his Rays, that the Heat, which attracted them,
as it does the thickest Clouds, carried me up so high,
that at length I found myself above the middle Region
of the Air.” So strong was the power of attraction and
so rapidly did he rise that Cyrano began to break some
vials in an effort to adjust gravity and attraction. In
the space of a few hours he made a landing in a world
in which he found that the natives spoke French. The
earth had turned on its axis and Cyrano was in French

Not caring for either the accent or the manners of
the French Canadians, Cyrano occupied himself by
building a flying-ship for the lunar voyage he still
intended to make. He has told us little about the vessel
except that it had wings and some form of spring. His
first attempt was a failure. “I placed myself within and
from the Top of a Rock, threw myself in the Air. But
because I had not taken my measures aright, I fell with
a sosh into the Valley below. Bruised as I was, however,
I returned to my Chamber, and with Beef-Marrow I
anointed my Body, so I was all over mortified from
Head to Foot.” Returning to his flying-chariot, Cyrano
discovered a group of soldiers fastening to it bunches
of firecrackers. His invention in peril, Cyrano plucked
the match a soldier was lighting out of his hand “and
in great Rage threw myself into my Machine... but
I came too late, for hardly were both my Feet within,
then whip, away went I up in a Cloud.” Unwittingly
Cyrano became the first imaginary voyager to reach
the moon by rocket. It seems strange that, familiar as
our seventeenth-century ancestors were with gun-
powder and firecrackers, no other writer employed
such form of propulsion before the eighteenth century,
and then only two of them, neither well known in our
time. On flew Cyrano, his machine rising higher and
higher, until “all the combustible Matter being spent,”
speed slackened and the chariot fell beneath him,
descending to earth. Cyrano himself continued to
mount. He had an explanation: his body was covered
with the marrow he had daubed on his bruises; “I knew
that the Moon being then in the Wain, and that it being
usual for her in that Quarter, to suck up the Marrow
of Animals; she drank up that wherewith I was
anointed.” Three-quarters of the way to the moon,
Cyrano found himself making a somersault dive, a
device in which various later writers followed him.
Peering between his legs, he looked back on earth
which “appeared to me like a large Holland-Cheese
gilded.” On he went until he felt the attractive power
of the moon's gravity, which caused him to make a
crash landing in a tree. He recovered consciousness to
find himself in a new Garden of Eden, “my face plais-
tered with an Apple.”

Cyrano's moon-world was no such telescopic one as
Kepler's. There are reminiscences of Godwin so that
it is no surprise to meet Domingo Gonsales, who be-
came Cyrano's lunar guide. In other ways Cyrano's
lunar adventures are very different from Domingo's,
with reminiscences of literature from Lucian to Rab-
elais and many fantastic adventures. The most amus-
ing section is that in which the “philosophers” attempt


to discover by logic and science whether Cyrano is
or is not a human being, leading to Cyrano's trial for
heresy, because he, who on earth had attempted to
prove to his friends that the moon is inhabited, now
tries to persuade the lunarians that their moon is our
world and inhabited.

Curiously enough, although the lunarians are scien-
tifically in advance of terrestrial beings and know much
about the possibilities of flight, they do not send Cyrano
home in a flying chariot. Momentarily we return to
the theme of the supernatural voyage, when an attend-
ant spirit rose like a whirlwind, and holding Cyrano
in his arms, descended with him to earth in a day and
a half. As on his arrival in the moon, so on his return
to earth Cyrano suffered a brief period of unconscious-
ness, so that he had no clear memory of his arrival
or the departure of his guide. But his memories of the
moon-world remained vivid and he spent so much of
his time trying to prove to his terrestrial friends that
there were men in the moon that he was imprisoned
for heresy.

There had been talk among the lunarians of their
inventing a flying-machine that would carry three or
four of them. Perhaps it was from them that Cyrano
picked up details for the elaborate flying-chariot in
which he made his voyage to the sun. This machine
operated in part upon the principle of a burning glass:

It was a large, very light Box, that shut tight and close:
of about six Foot high, and three Foot Square. This Box
had a hole in it below; and over the Cover, which had
likewise a hole in it, I placed a Vessel of Christal, bored
through in the same manner, made in a Globular Figure,
but very large, the Orifice whereof joyn'd exactly to and
was enchanced, in the hole I had made in the head.
The Vessel was purposely made with many Angles, and
in form of an Icosaedron, to the end that every Facet being
convex and concave, my Boul might produce the effect of
a Burning-Glass... It shut so close, that a grain of Air
could not enter it, except by the two openings; and I had
placed a little very light Board within for my self to sit

As Cyrano rose from the tower of his prison, he further
explained the machine:

When the Sun breaking out from under the Clouds, began
to shine upon my Machine, that transparent Icosaedron,
which through its Facets received the Treasures of the Sun,
diffused by it's Orifice the light of them into my Cell...
I foresaw very well, that the Vacuity that would happen
in the Icosaedron, by reason of the Sun-beams, united by
the concave Glasses, would, to fill up the space, attract a
great abundance of Air, whereby my Box would be carried
up; and that proportionable as I mounted, the rushing wind
that should force it through the Hole, could not rise to the
roof, but that furiously penetrating the Machine, it must
needs force it upon high.

Cyrano had designed a sail for his ship but found it
useless because of the force of wind he encountered
as he ascended into the air. He had intended the ma-
chine for his escape from prison, planning, at least
temporarily, to land elsewhere in France. But his vessel
rose rapidly to the “Middle Region” of the air, then
continued on a journey that was to take Cyrano to
the sun. Again, he did not experience hunger or thirst.
This, he suggested, might have been due to the lack
of gravity, but also to the bottle of spirits he always
carried, which seems to have been a perennial fountain
of youth since it lasted him all the way. In four months
he had approached only the outermost of “those little
Earths that wheel about the Sun.” It was nearly two
years before he reached the sun. So human imagination
was expanding with the expansion of space. He experi-
enced neither weariness nor tedium as he studied the
“new astronomy” at first hand. This time he bypassed
the moon, his mind set upon the planets, other worlds,
often with little worlds of satellites around them. “And
therefore Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and
Saturn, have been constrained to whirligig it, and move
both at once around the Sun.” As on his voyage to
the moon, he ultimately lost his flying-chariot, which
fell to earth, to be used by another mariner. According
to his own cryptic statement, he continued his journey
by “an ardour of Will.” At the end of twenty-two
months he arrived at the sun, so luminous that it looked
“like flakes of burning snow.” There we may leave this
most amusing of cosmic voyagers, as he, like Milton's
Satan, perhaps became another sunspot to be observed
by a terrestrial astronomer.

In that extraordinary age of the seventeenth century,
truth often proved as strange as fiction. Kepler,
Godwin, Cyrano, and other mariners stimulated imagi-
nation with their tales of moon-flight, and Wilkins
appealed to both literary and scientific imagination.
But the most important stimulus to the history of
aeronautics in the century occurred in 1670 when
Francesco Lana, an Italian scientist, published his
Prodromo, with a description and design of an airship.
Although the vessel never flew, it marked a milestone
in the history of aviation. Its principle is so simple that
even a layman can readily understand it. It consisted
of “a wooden car... fashioned like a boat,” a canoe-
shaped vessel. It had a sail and oars. Lana was aware
of all the scientific work that had been done on the
nature of air, which had been shown to be much like
water. “It has weight owing to the vapours and hala-
tions which ascend from the earth and seas to a height
of many miles and surround the whole of our ter-
raqueous globe.” As a boat is rowed against the resist-
ance of water, Lana's boat was to be rowed against
the resistance of air. The novelty of the airship lay


not in the sail and oars but in four evacuated globes
attached to the boat by four ropes of equal length.
The principle of the vacuum is familiar to laymen. By
Lana's time philosophers no longer feared the horror
the idea accepted for centuries that Nature
abhors a vacuum. The Torricellian barometer of 1643,
Otto van Guericke's air-pump of 1650, and the work
of Francesco de Mendoza, Gaspar Schott, and Robert
Boyle on specific gravity had put an end to the long
“horror.” Lana acknowledged his debt to all of these.

It soon became clear to the continental and British
scientists who discussed the invention that, while a
toy-model might fly, if the evacuated globes of glass,
cooper, or any other thin metal Lana presupposed were
increased to a size necessary to carry a man or men,
they would be crushed under atmospheric pressure.
Before man could hope to fly in an airship of this kind
still more scientific work must be done on the nature
of air. Robert Boyle, England's most important worker
in the field, was close to making the discovery made
later by Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), when he noted
the effect of heat in causing the expansion of air. “It
was experiments such as this,” says J. E. Hodgson in
his history of aeronautics, “that led to the assertion,
met with after the invention of the balloon, that Boyle's
investigation on the weight of the air gave birth to
the new discoveries of Montgolfier.” Mr. Hodgson
suggests, too, how close John Clayton was to a solution
of the problem when in 1739 he experimented with
“spirit of coal,” filling thick bladders with gas. But the
discovery of hydrogen remained for Cavendish in 1766.
The ascent of the first balloon of the Brothers Joseph
and Étienne Montgolfier in 1783 resulted in disaster,
but later that year a safe ascent was made near the
Palace of Versailles. The balloon carried as passengers
a cock, a hen, and a descendant of the “happy lamb”
of Domingo Gonsales.

From the history of aviation, let us return momen-
tarily to Francesco Lana and his little canoe. Scientifi-
cally Lana was an optimist who believed that he had
solved the problem of human flight. But as a son of
the Church, he did not believe that man would ever
fly. “Other difficulties I do not see that could prevail
against this invention, save one only, which to me seems
the greatest of them all, and that is that God would
never surely allow such a machine to be successful.

The “benefit and use of man”—so Francis Bacon,
one of the founders of science, optimistically anticipated
its future. Francesco Lana was a scientist, but it was
he who most clearly pointed out the dangers of avia-
tion—then in its seminal stage—in his Prodromo:

Where is the man who can fail to see that no city would
be proof against surprise, as the ship could at any time be
steered over its squares, or even over the courtyards of
dwelling-houses, and brought to earth for the landing of
its crew? And in the case of ships that sail the seas, by
allowing the aerial ship to descend from the high air to
the level of their sails, their cordage would be cut, or even
without descending so low iron weights could be hurled
to wreck the ships and kill their crews, or they could be
set on fire by fireballs and bombs; not ships alone, but
houses, fortresses, and cities could be thus destroyed.

So the seventeenth-century inventor anticipated the
possible destruction of civilization through the inven-
tion of flying-machines.

The literary influence of Lana's Prodromo was conti-
nental rather than English. With the addition of two
more evacuated balls, mariners made a cosmic voyage
to the moon and all the planets on the appearance
in 1744 of Eberhard Kindermann's Die Geschwinde
Reise auf dem Lufft-schiff nach der obern Welt
trip on an airship to the heavens”). In 1768 Lana's
little ship was used by his countryman, Bernard
Zamagna, in a Latin epic poem, Navis aeria, which
described the first air-flight around the world. A variant
of the canoe was proposed in Portugal by Bartholomeu
Lourenco de Gusmão, the “Passarola.” Motivated in
large part by two amber balls operated by magnetism,
a small model is said to have flown in a royal hall on
August 8, 1709. Lana's and Gusmão's ships were com-
bined in a long poem, Gli Occhi di Gesú (“The Eyes
of Jesus” [1707]), in which Pier Jacopo Martello de-
scribed a voyage to the Earthly Paradise under the
guidance of the prophet Elijah. When we have a close
view, as the airship draws near the world in the moon,
we discover that the crew consists of one hundred apes,
some dressed in blue, some in yellow, harnessed to each
other and the boat by collars of thin metal.

Flying-machines in the imaginary voyage in England
grew larger and larger until they were capable of
carrying groups of men, in one case a whole race of
people. Two such voyages were written by well-known
men of letters, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Defoe
played with the theme of flight several times in 1705.
His full-length use was in the Consolidator, in which
Chinese men and lunarians plied between the earth
and the moon. The work is strongly marked by the
chinoiserie which was becoming important in English
art, landscape gardening, and interior decoration.
Defoe seems to shrug his shoulders at such tyros as
Wilkins, Godwin, and other “moderns.” He went back
to the idea of China's excelling in aviation early in
recorded history. In the libraries in China, he de-
clares, there was a record of a man born in the
moon, who had made a journey to earth to instruct
the Chinese in the lore of lunar regions. Defoe's chief
attention was upon an elaborate flying-machine, “a


... a certain Engine, in the shape of a Chariot, on the backs
of two vast Bodies with extended Wings, which spread about
fifty yards in breadth, composed of Feathers so nicely put
together, that no air could pass; and as the Bodies were
made of lunar Earth, which would bear the Fire, the Cavi-
ties were filled with an ambient Flame, which fed on a
certain Spirit, deposited in proper quantity to last out the
Voyage; and this Fire so ordered as to move about such
springs and wheels as kept the wings in most exact and
regular Motion, always ascendant.

Defoe's source for his happy anticipation of the gaso-
line age, in his “ambient Flame” which was fed by
a fluid deposited in sufficient quantity to last a journey,
is unknown. Actually he himself was less interested in
that than in the “513 Feathers” of which his vessel
was composed and which he describes in more detail,
five hundred and twelve of them matched in length
and breadth, one a “presiding or superintendent
Feather, to guide, regulate, and pilot the whole Body
... the rudder of the whole Machine,” which probably
symbolized the Prime Minister, Lords, and Commons
who flew the ship of state.

In the room of this great flying Chariot, which plied
between China and the moon, Defoe placed a Euro-
pean who remembered little of his journey, since Defoe
went back to the use of anaesthesia suggested by
Kepler, a “dozing Draught” administered to the trav-
eller. He found the lunar world far in advance of ours,
particularly in the invention of various kinds of glasses,
including telescopes more powerful than our modern
ones at Mount Wilson or Palomar. Through these the
lunarians could clearly see the towers and cities of
China. Defoe's lunar voyager summarizes his conver-
sation with a man in the moon by saying: “He was
the Man in the Moon to me, and I was the Man in
the Moon
to him; he wrote down what I said, and made
a Book of it, and call'd it, News from the World in
the Moon.

In his third adventure, The Voyage to Laputa, Gulli-
ver looked up to see “a vast opaque body between
me and the sun,” moving forward toward the island.
Through his pocket-perspective the captain was able
to see numbers of people, though only later did he
know what they were doing. When the body de-
scended, Gulliver went aboard to find this a little
world, inhabited by a whole race of men. Here is one
of the most brilliant variations upon the theme of the
cosmic voyage. For many years Mahomet had gone
to the mountain; now the moon-world descends to
Mahomet. When Gulliver had opportunity to study the
little world more carefully he found it “exactly circu-
lar, its diameter 7837 yards or about four miles and
a half,” its bottom a plate of adamant “shooting up
to the height of about two hundred yards.... Above
it lie the several minerals in their usual order.” Ada-
mant was considered in Swift's time the most magnetic
of minerals, but it alone was not responsible for the
path taken by the Flying Island. In the Astronomer's
Cave in the heart of the island Gulliver was shown
“a loadstone of prodigious size,” by means of which
the island is made to rise and fall and move from one
place to another. One of its sides has attractive, the
other repulsive power.

It has been shown (Mohler and Nicolson, 1937) that
Swift's loadstone was a magnification of William Gil-
bert's famous dipping needle. As in the voyages to
Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Swift readily changed feet
to inches and inches to feet to keep his proportions
exact. Swift had visited the Royal Society where he
would have seen the Gilbertian terrella described in
the catalogue as “an orbicular loadstone, about four
inches and 1/2 in Diameter.” From it he created his
“little world” of the Flying Island, “four and one half
miles in diameter.” If in Swift's “its diameter 7837
yards,” we substitute “miles” for “yards” we find the
approximate diameter of our own earth. It is not mere
coincidence that the measurements agree so closely
with those given by Isaac Newton and G. D. Cassini.
The slight variation of nine miles between Swift's figure
and Newton's may easily be explained: Swift slyly split
the difference between Newton's average and least
diameters of the world, which happens to work out
at exactly 7837 miles.

The Flying Island of Laputa did not fly free or wild:
it was governed by the mainland of Balnibarbi below,
as is shown by the map which charts its course. William
Gilbert (1540-1603) had pointed out that islands are
more magnetic than seas. So the little world rose or
fell, governed by the magentic attraction of Balnibarbi.
The great world and the lesser obeyed natural law.
Each was dependent on the other. By physical laws
man knows but cannot control, microcosm and macro-
cosm are combined: the terrella is “prodigious” as a
magnet, yet it is a small power to govern the Flying
Island. The island in turn is a macrocosm when com-
pared to the loadstone, but it is a microcosm in com-
parison with Balnibarbi, which it governs in the sense
that it had the power to shut out light and rain from
the country below. In this voyage, unlike the others
of Gulliver's Travels the author has considered less
relationships between men than relationships in the
Newtonian universe: planets, stars, or feathers observe
the universal laws of motion and attraction. Swift's
Flying Island is unique in the history of pseudoscience,
since it carried a whole nation of men, and unique in
its plausibility of motivation by the principle of terres-
trial magnetism.

Swift was in part satirizing the engrossment of his


contemporaries in the idea of a world in the moon.
Voltaire's Micromégas (1752) is the most satirical of all
cosmic voyages. As the moon-world came to Gulliver
in the Voyage to Laputa, so an inhabitant of Sirius came
to earth in Micromégas. The circumference of Sirius,
we learn, is 21,600,000 times that of earth; the hero
of the tale is 120,000 royal feet in height. Micromégas
had been well educated. He was an expert in telescopic
and microscopic observations, on the basis of which
he had written a book which was suspected of being
heretical, since it suggested the existence of inhabitants
in other worlds than his. For this he was exiled from
Sirius for eight hundred years, a short period in his
long life. He decided to spend the time in making a
tour of the universe to discover at firsthand how much
of his hypothesis of life in other worlds would prove

Micromégas needed neither wings nor a flying char-
iot. Over the Milky Way he merely stepped from one
star to another. He was disappointed in the planet
Saturn which seemed little more than an anthill to him.
He remained there, however, for some time, having
struck up an acquaintance with the Secretary of the
Grand Academy. As the result of a protracted argu-
ment on the question of life in other planets, the Sirian
and Saturnian undertook a cosmic journey. They
leaped upon the ring of Saturn, then from one of its
moons to another. A comet passed, by means of which
they arrived at the satellites of Jupiter from which they
could readily jump to the planet itself. On they went
to Mars, which they found so insignificant that after
a glance or two they passed by.

Why they bothered to stop at Earth—a most inferior
planet—is not entirely clear, but stop they did, and
gave themselves exercise circumambulating the globe
which for a time they believed not only insignificant
but unpopulated, since the Sirian and the Saturnian
could not see the insignificant earth-dwellers. Except
for an accident they would not have known of our
existence. Micromégas happened to break his diamond
necklace and amused himself by using one diamond
as a microscope. On the ocean—a mere puddle to the
travellers—they saw what seemed an aquatic animal,
which proved to be a ship filled with scientists who
were returning from an exploration of one of the poles.
Reluctantly the travellers were forced to conclude that
the tiny creatures had sense and also reason, when one
of them computed the measurements of the Sirian by
the method used on earth for computing the height
of lunar mountains. They further astounded the visitors
by informing them of the existence in their world of
animalcules as invisible to them as they had been to
their temporary guests.

Voltaire laughed, but even his laughter could not
destroy the cosmic voyage, which continued on its way
in the nineteenth century in the hands of Jules Verne,
Edgar Allan Poe, and others. One of the most brilliant
variations upon it was by the Danish dramatist and
historian Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754) who wrote—
originally in Latin—a world-classic. There are at least
fifty-nine editions in eleven languages of the adventures
of Nils Klim in Iter subterraneum novam (1741; pub-
lished in English as Niels Klim's Subterranean Journey,
1742), his voyage to the center of the earth. As cosmic
mariners had taken off from earth to discover a new
world in the moon, Nils, in his enthusiasm to explore
a Danish mountain, fell into its crater to find a new
world in the center of the earth. Down the crater he
fell until the attraction of the world drew him into
its orbit, and Nils became for a time a satellite. He
occupied himself with a round biscuit he took from
his pocket but finding it nauseous—like other cosmic
mariners he experienced neither hunger nor thirst—he
threw it away to find that, as he described a circle
around the earth, the biscuit described a circle around
him. Around they went, Nils and biscuit, to learn later
that astronomers in the world in the center of the earth
had plotted the period of a new satellite, or—some
said, since Nils' mountain-rope had fallen with him—a
comet with a tail. Although we have English transla-
tions of the Iter subterraneum novam, we have none
worthy of the Latin or Danish original. But we do have
the finest imitation—Alice in Wonderland.

During the twentieth century the moon-voyage
turned from the “imaginary voyage” to settle into a
pattern of “science fiction.” The literary career of
H. G. Wells suggests something of a change that was
occurring. His twentieth-century novels were to deal
largely with social reform; during the last decade of
the nineteenth, he wrote such pseudo-scientific works
as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897),
The War of the Worlds (1898). In 1938 Orson Welles
startled and terrified large segments of the United
States by a radio version of that last-named work of
H. G. Wells, and was widely believed to be reporting
an invasion from Mars. It is doubtful that any radio
or television version of such a pseudo-scientific work
could today startle many Americans, who seem to have
drawn in scientific fiction with their mothers' milk. But
even the most blasé readers and auditors remained
close to their radios and televisions during the period
which came to its climax on July 21, 1969, when the
first two human beings landed on the moon.