A 17th Century Space Race

In 1638, an entry appeared in the Stationers’ Register, the book maintained by London’s publishing industry that recorded names of new books for nascent copyright purposes. It noted the publication of a work called The Man in the Moone. Subtitled “A Discourse of a Voyage Hither,” it is regarded today as the first English-language work of science fiction.1 Its author was not, despite the cover’s claim, Domingo Gonsales – who is nevertheless an important part of the book – but rather an English cleric who had died five years prior.

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Francis Godwin (1562-1633). Source: National Portrait Gallery

Francis Godwin was born 1562 in Hannington, a small village about 100 kilometers west of London. Educated at Christ Church in Oxford, where he learned some mathematical astronomy, the moderate Calvinist later became bishop of Hereford where he served until his death.2 Sometime in the late 1620s, Godwin began to compose The Man in the Moone. The book’s incorporation of the era’s natural philosophy have helped scholars precisely date it. Godwin included, for example, discoveries from the “new astronomy” as catalyzed by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.

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Cover of Godwin’s book

The protagonist of Moone is Domingo Gonsales, a diminutive Spanish merchant and nobleman. Godwin’s choice was slightly daring as his book’s narrator came from a nation with which the kingdom of England was at war. As the story unfolds, Gonsales is forced to flee Spain after killing a man in a duel. After visiting the West Indies, Gonsales is stranded on a remote but “blessed Isle of St. Hellens.”

It’s on that speck of land that Gonsales finds a means of escape in the form of a “certain kinde of wild Swan.” Christened by Gonsales as gansas (Spanish for geese), the slight Spaniard trained 25 of them to draw him through the air. Gonsales contrives an “Engine,” a pulley-and-string frame to which he harnesses the geese. After trial flights around his island, he boasts of his plan to travel back to Spain so that he might “fill the world with the fame of my glory and renowne.”  Once aloft, however, Gonsales discovers the geese have their own intentions. The time of year is important here. As Godwin tells us, it was “now the season that these birds were wont to their flight away, as our cuckoes and swallowes doe in Spain toward the autumne.”

In the seventeenth century, many unresolved questions persisted around the causes for the annual migration of birds as well as their destination. One theory was that, come autumn, some birds migrated to the moon. Charles Morton, an English natural philosopher who himself emigrated to the American colonies, based his theory on his readings of both science and scripture. His Compendium Physicae claimed, with its own internal logic, that since no one knew where birds went in the winter months, one could just as well suppose that they flew off the earth.3

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Moon bound?

Back to Gonsales’s predicament: To his amazement and fear, “with one consent” the gansas rose up, “towring upward, and still upward.” The geese, yielding to their autumnal urge to fly – where? – soon continued to pull the Spaniard away. But, soon, the birds seemed to labor less. The lines connecting Gonsales to his geese slackened and he found himself “having no manner of weight.” Freed finally from the earth’s pull, Gonsales found himself moon-bound.

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Detail showing Gonsales’ flight.

Not all ideas from early seventeenth century natural philosophy appealed to cleric Godwin. Although offering one of the first descriptions of weightlessness, Godwin’s book attributed this curious state to diminishing magnetic attraction, not gravity. As Gonsales relates, he would not “go so farre as Copernicus, that maketh the Sunne the Center of the Earth, and unmovable.” Nonetheless, Bishop Godwin adopted an idea from Galileo – that the motion of the Jovian moons might be used to keep track of time’s passage – and had Gonsales use the Earth’s diurnal rotation to record the duration of his voyage. Slight in size and speculative in form, The Man in the Moone nonetheless gives a gauge for the degree to which new astronomical knowledge reached a wider audience in the 17th century.

In Godwin’s telling, Gonsales and his gansas touched down on the lunar regolith in mid-September 1599 after a twelve day voyage. In actuality, this fictional moon landing occurred in the midst of a seventeenth century space race.

The same year that Godwin’s book appeared – 1638 – another lunar-themed work came out. John Wilkin’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone showed similarities between our planet and its moon. In it, he referenced the tales related in Godwin’s book. Wilkins later went on to co-found the Royal Society, a group occasionally mocked for its far-fetched ideas.

We might imagine 1638 – the year both Godwin and Wilkins’ books appeared – as “England’s lunar moment.”4 But unlike the Cold War version, it was imagination, not hardware, that allowed early English readers to bound around the lunar landscape.

Godwin’s speculations were aided by advances in scientific instrumentation and publications which helped bring the moon closer. In 1609, for instance, telescopic observations revealed the moon not as the unchanging sphere as imagined by Aristotle but earth-like with a cratered and mountainous landscape. Moon gazing grew in popularity. Hundreds of thousands of almanacs, printed annually in Stuart England, told viewers when they could see lunar eclipses. Two of these events, in fact occurred in the same year that Godwin and Wilkin’s books appeared, fueling the fad.

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Example of 17th century almanac

What of the lunar dwellers who greeted Domingo Gonsales and his gansas? Inhabiting an environment lush with trees and shrubs “at least three times so high as ours,” they were likewise giant-size but with a “color and countenance most pleasing.” Godwin made his “Lunars” – to the relief of some theologians – Christian. Kind, devout, and morally superior to earthlings, Godwin contrasted his more perfect lunar state, more than a century after Thomas More penned Utopia, with the imperfect world marred by religious conflict, political turbulence, and outright warfare that he (and Gonsales) called home.

Despite some derision, Godwin’s book enjoyed a long life, both in England and on the continent. Within two decades after its publication, translations of Moone in Dutch, German, and French circulated. The playwright and libertine Cyrano de Bergerac encountered Bishop Godwin’s book soon after copies of it appeared in Paris in 1648.

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Under the impression that the sun “draws up” dewdrops, Cyrano de Bergerac suggested fancifully that one might fly by trapping dew in bottles and standing in sunlight.

In de Bergerac’s own L’Autre Monde, ou Les Etats et Empires de la Lune, a fictional traveler goes to the moon and there meets “a little man…an European, native of Old Castile” who had found “a means by Birds to arrive at the Moon.” No longer a welcome guest, in Cyrano’s re-telling, the man – clearly, modeled after Domingo Gonsales –  has been demoted by the moon dwellers to the status of a pet.

Although woven into English comic opera and drama, Godwin’s book was gradually occulted until the mid-nineteenth century. Rediscovery followed, first by Edgar Allan Poe – the protagonist in his 1835 story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” was also a lunar voyager of diminutive size – and then H.G. Wells who adopted some of Godwin’s ideas for his 1901 book The First Men in the MoonBut all of these owe a debt to the flock of lunar-themed books that circulated around Europe during the seventeenth century’s space race.

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  1. Kepler’s 1634 Somnium is generally seen as the pioneering sci-fi work. []
  2. Information on Godwin as well as his book comes from Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone, ed. William Poole (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009 [1638]). Italics are in the original. All quotes from Moone come from Poole’s excellent edited version. []
  3. Thomas P. Harrison, “Birds in the Moon,” Isis, 1954, 45, 4: 323-30. []
  4. David Cressy, “Early Modern Space Travel and the English Man on the Moon,” The American Historical Review, 2006, 111, 4: 961-82. []

Leaping Robot Heads Back to the Classroom

Today is the first day of the spring quarter at UCSB.  This naturally translates into less time for blog writing. But – on the plus side – I’m teaching two classes which should generate some interesting ideas for future posts.

One of them is an upper-division undergraduate course framed around the idea of “Technology, Power, and the American Century.” The goal is to look at the myriad ways technology and power (of all kinds) intersected during the long American century. (I’m defining this as roughly 1870 to the end of the Cold War…from when the U.S. became a key industrial power and a major figure on the global stage to when America emerged as the sole hyper-power after the collapse of the USSR). If you’re interested, a copy of the syllabus is here.

I am also co-teaching a graduate level class with a colleague from the Communications Department – it’s the “gateway seminar” for our Technology and Society doctoral emphasis (sort of like a graduate minor). We decided to focus on questions – historical as well as contemporary – about data for a class we’re calling “Data: Big & Small, Raw & Cooked.” Besides thinking about the changing historical context of data – what is it? How have people collected, managed, and used it over time? – we will also address contemporary issues associated with data, especially those related to Big Data.

As always, thanks for your interest in Leaping Robot 🙂  More anon…