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How Victorian England Put Men on the Moon… Or Not

Iwan Rhys Morus on 19th-Century Fantasies of the Future

Not that long ago, in a galaxy not really all that far away…

It was 16 July 1909. There was a thunderous roar as His Majesty’s spaceship Victorious rose imperiously into the blazing blue sky, a stately column of silver and gold balanced precariously on a tongue of fire. His Majesty himself, Edward VII, had traveled all the way to India’s Deccan Plateau to see this latest triumph of scientific and technological ingenuity.

Accompanying him were the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, the Royal Society’s president, Sir Archibald Geikie, and the Royal Astronomical Society’s newly elected president, David Gill, as well as the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Fisher. The prestigious gathering of notables only served to underline just how epoch-making the momentous occasion really was. It was the prelude to a pioneering journey of exploration unparalleled in history. Authors of scientific romances, such as the Frenchman Jules Verne or even H.G. Wells, had merely speculated about putting men on the Moon.

Now, thanks to the combined expertise of the Empire’s engineers and men of science, it was really happening. This was no flight of fancy—it was taking place before their very eyes. In the tiny landing lighter Deliverance, perched on top of the huge rocket, three of His Majesty’s most experienced naval officers were ready to take the Empire into space and claim the Moon for Britain.

Underpinning the idea of progress and change in society—that things can only get better—was a new understanding of change in nature.

The triumphant flight of HMS Victorious was the culmination of more than twenty years’ determined effort by the leading men of science and engineering to conquer space and show to the world the superior reach and power of British technological ingenuity. The idea had first been mooted at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bath during the summer of 1888.

The society’s president that year had been the eminent engineer Sir Frederick Bramwell, and during the public dinner that concluded the meeting, he had started speculating about just how far into space projectiles might be fired. He was interested in big guns, after all, and had delivered an address on the topic to the Birmingham and Midlands Institute just two years earlier. While it soon became clear that no gun, however big, would be sufficient, someone suggested that something along the lines of a rocket of some kind might do the job.

Gradually, the enterprise took shape. Lord Salisbury, the Tory prime minister at the time of the meeting in 1888, was a scientific man and was easily persuaded that sending men to the Moon would not only be a scientific triumph, but that it was absolutely essential for the good of the Empire that Britain should get there first. Imperial and industrial rivals might not yet have the resources to accomplish such a stupendous task, but they would one day. It was imperative that Britain should lay claim to the Moon and its resources before it fell into potentially hostile hands.

As the enterprise took shape, committees were formed to deliberate over the immense task ahead. Naval architects from the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, more used to designing dreadnoughts than rockets, debated competing plans for a space traveling vehicle. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) and the Royal Society bickered over which institution should take the lead—although that issue was resolved with the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory in 1900.

In 1879, the BAAS had deliberated whether it was economically feasible to construct the Analytical Engine that Charles Babbage had designed, but never built, in the 1840s. They had thought the cost prohibitive then, but now the machine was essential, and engineers struggled with the task of not only getting it made but made much smaller and able to work by electricity, not steam. Chemists experimented to find the most efficient fuel and electricians worked on the complex circuitry that would allow the crew to control the colossal space-flying machine.

Resources from all over the Empire and beyond were poured into the attempt—the costs involved were astronomical. The three naval officers who would risk it all for the Empire were carefully selected and rigorously prepared—only the most self-disciplined men would be fit for the great adventure.

Four days after its successful launch into space on the tip of the Victorious, the Deliverance landed safely on the Moon’s surface and for the first time in history, human feet stepped onto an alien world. The landing ground had been carefully selected—an apparently unobstructed area in the Sea of Tranquillity. When the three men stepped out of the Deliverance and stood on the Moon’s surface, they were prepared for anything. They were armed, of course. There was a distinct possibility that this apparently lifeless surface might still contain life—the remnants, maybe, of some former civilization that had degenerated and collapsed as the lunar atmosphere seeped away into space. If some degenerate life remained, then it might well be hostile.

One of the reasons it is easy to imagine Victorians on the Moon is that they imagined it themselves.

The selenauts came prepared to prospect for potential resources as well. Was there water, hidden in some crevices somewhere, for example? A supply of water would be essential if Britain were ever to establish a permanent station on the Moon to exploit what mineral resources might be there. But in many ways, the mission’s main objective had already been achieved. The Union Flag now flew proudly over the Sea of Tranquillity, proclaiming to the world that the Moon belonged to Britain.

None of this really happened, of course, at least not in this universe. But there is still something compelling about this story. One reason for the contemporary popularity of steampunk, for example, is the sense that this fantasy of contemporary technology grafted onto the Victorian past is just teetering on the edge of reality. We can believe in Victorians with steam-driven computers. And we can believe Victorians or Edwardians traveling to space in ways we can’t really imagine of their predecessors. We can picture them belonging there, in ways that would be difficult to conceive a Puritan divine, or a Regency buck.

One of the reasons it is easy to imagine Victorians on the Moon is that they imagined it themselves. The Moon seemed to be within the Victorians’ grasp, teetering almost on the brink of reachability. Not only in the writings of those authors we still read today—Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, for example—but in the stories told by dozens of others, Victorian readers travelled to the Moon and beyond. Writers that we have forgotten, such as George Griffith or Edwin Pallander, took their readers beyond the atmosphere, as well. There was a sense in which the Moon was almost familiar territory by the end of the nineteenth century, so often had the place been visited by scientific romancers.

Victorian writers were not the first to imagine going to the Moon, of course. The Bishop of Hereford, Francis Godwin, fantasized about traveling to the Moon in his The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither, published posthumously in 1638. In it, he speculated that flying chariots might travel beyond the atmosphere and to the Moon, towed by a flock of geese. Inspired by the example, another English cleric, John Wilkins, later Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and then Bishop of Chester, speculated in similar fashion in his The Discovery of a World in the Moone.

Both clerics used their speculations about Moon travel as a way of popularizing the latest astronomical ideas about the plurality of worlds—the view, based in theology, that not only must there be many worlds like ours out there, but that, like ours too, they must be inhabited. The key difference between stories like these and Victorian speculations is that Victorian writers really thought that travel to the Moon and beyond was within their grasp. Their science already possessed—or would soon possess—the means of getting there. It wasn’t only scientific romancers that thought this.

The year 1900 saw a flurry of popular speculation about what the world would be like at the end of the new century—and the end of the second millennium. Travel to the Moon was routinely cited as a technological feat that would have been accomplished by then.

A key reason for this confidence was that a new way of thinking about the future and its possibilities was emerging during this time—the way we think about the future now, in fact. New technologies, new ways of making knowledge and new visions about the future came together during the nineteenth century to create a new kind of world. Just 50 years earlier, most people assumed that the future would simply be an extension of the present. Nothing much would change.

Another king might sit on the throne in a hundred years, but no one thought the world would turn into a completely different place. Forward-looking Victorians, on the other hand, were proud that they lived in an age of progress. It was what made them different. They congratulated themselves on the ways they were transforming the world around them, just as they prided themselves on having the self-discipline to turn dreams of the future into reality. They turned men of science and engineers into heroes.

Samuel Smiles included many of their biographies in his 1859 book Self-Help—he even suggested that reading about the lives of such great men was as useful as reading the gospels (a truly shocking thing to say in mid-Victorian England) The Victorian middle classes flocked to industrial and scientific exhibitions where they could see the future that science and technology would create taking shape before them. And if that were not enough, then they devoured scientific romances when they returned home. This book is about that transformation and the people who accomplished it, and how it produced our world today.

The very idea of progress was quite new and exciting at the beginning of the Victorian age. A young John Stuart Mill, who would mature into liberal England’s leading philosopher, wrote enthusiastically about the coming times. “The conviction is already not far from being universal, that the times are pregnant with change; and that the nineteenth century will be known to posterity as the era of one of the greatest revolutions of which history has preserved the remembrance, in the human mind, and in the whole constitution of human society,” he said. “It is felt that men are henceforth to be held together by new ties, and separated by new barriers; for the ancient bonds will no longer unite, nor the ancient boundaries confine.”

It was only in times of change, he thought, that people seriously considered the difference between the present and the past—and the future. Underpinning the idea of progress and change in society—that things can only get better—was a new understanding of change in nature. The world wasn’t static any more. Unlike the old cosmos, forever in equilibrium, the Victorian universe had a sense of direction.

Proponents of the nebular hypothesis—first suggested by Pierre-Simon Laplace—argued that the Solar System had not always been as it was since the creation of the world. It had begun as a cloud of dust and gas, floating in space, gradually coalescing into clumps of matter orbiting around a solid central mass. Over aeons of time, that central mass became the Sun, and the clumps of matter orbiting around it became the planets.

The same process was still taking place elsewhere in the Universe, as new systems slowly coalesced out of the nebulae observed by William Herschel, or by Lord Rosse with his gigantic telescope, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, during the 1840s. According to transformationists, those who believed in the idea of evolution, it was not just planets that had emerged from cosmic dust, but life as well, slowly working its way up the ladder of complexity towards humankind.

Unlike the old cosmos, forever in equilibrium, the Victorian universe had a sense of direction.

Radical social thinkers clung to ideas like these as evidence that change needed to happen in society too—that progress was part of the proper order of things. After mid-century, Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution by means of natural selection demonstrated to Victorian minds that competition and the survival of the fittest were natural and entirely inevitable elements of progress too.

There was a downside to progress, though. The new science of energy implied that the world could not last forever. There had to come a time when progress stopped. It was a basic principle of the energy physics developed during the second half of the century that work could only be done when energy flowed from a hot body to a colder body. But that process made the hot body colder, and the cold body hotter, as well. Eventually, when everything in the Universe had arrived at the same temperature, no more work could be done, no more energy could be transformed. There could be no life and no progress. This was the heat death of the Universe. At the same time, human progress carried the seeds of its own destruction.

More civilized societies coddled the unfit, so they bred and put natural selection into reverse. The very speed of modern life made people nervous and unbalanced. Society would degenerate. H.G. Wells played both with heat death and degeneration in The Time Machine, as his time traveller encountered the degenerate Eloi and Morlocks of the future as he travelled forwards towards the end of life itself. Built into these scientific theories and romances was the recognition that the future would be different—that it was a strange new world that needed to be conquered and controlled.

In all sorts of ways, the Victorians were deeply invested in the future they were in the process of inventing, and in how it would come about. Theirs was going to be a technological future, produced by science and innovation. They could see the future being made in just this way all around them. New inventions, like the telegraph, the telephone and the radio, fed this vision of a future transformed by science.

Right at the dawn of the Victorian age, satirists were already poking fun at the very notion of a future packed full of technological wonders. They pictured outlandish steam-driven chariots and baroque flying machines. Passengers were hurtled from one end of the Empire to the other through pneumatic tubes.

But by mid-century, even as they lived in an increasingly steam-driven world, more people were dreaming of an electrical future. Increasingly, it almost seemed as if it were impossible to talk at all about electricity without invoking the role it would have in transforming the future. There would be electrical vehicles and electric power generated directly from the forces of nature. It would be electricity that powered the flying machines that the Victorians imagined filling the future’s skies—and flight was a central feature of how the Victorian future was imagined.

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Excerpted from How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the 19th-Century Innovators Who Forged Our Future by Iwan Rhys Morus. Copyright © 2022. Available from Pegasus Books.

Iwan Rhys Morus
Iwan Rhys Morus
Iwan Rhys Morus holds PhDs in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He has spent much of his career working on the history of science during the nineteenth century, including the development of new electrical technologies, the popular culture of science, and the history of ideas about the relationship of electricity and the human body. Iwan has authored or edited ten books published in Britain, and he is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s "In our Time” and "Great Lives.” He lives in Wales.





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