Ever since we became aware that the universe extends past our planet and that space exists, people have looked to it as a final frontier. Humanity has made many great strides in our endeavors to conquer this last great unknown, but largely we have only really scratched the surface of getting there, with our progress of manned space missions still limited to the general vicinity of our planet. The desire to delve out into the cosmos is a powerful one, yet while most people may think that our true step towards space travel started in the 20th century, such aspirations have been around far longer than that. There have been serious plans put into space travel centuries before we even put the first animal in orbit, and one of these is certainly the time a 17th century scientist drew up his plans to reach the moon centuries before we actually did.
John Wilkins was born in Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, England, on 1 January 1614, and was from a young age gifted with great intellect and a passion for the natural world. He would graduate from Magdalen College, Oxford, with a B.A. in 1631 and an M.A. in 1634, mostly focusing on theology, natural philosophy, and astronomy, all subjects in which he excelled. He then went on to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, after which he took on various posts as chaplain to an array of the rich and powerful, including at one point Charles Louis, Prince Elector of the Palatine, and these posts would take him all over England and Germany, where he became acquainted with scholars from various fields. He would eventually in later years become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, serve as Bishop of Chester, and go on to be one of the founding members of the Royal Society, which had him spending much of his time among some of the greatest thinkers, scientists, and intellectuals of his time. Yet for all of these achievements, he is perhaps most remembered for his groundbreaking ideas on space, space travel, and alien life that were well ahead of their time.
Wilkins was considered a bit of a genius himself, and during these years he had made many advancements in science and proposed many ideas that were extremely unique for their era. In his 1668 book, An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, he proposed a universal language that could be used by scientists and travelers alike all over the world, and he also was a pioneer of the idea of using a universal system of weights and measure, as well as using pendulums to measure time and utilizing a universal measure of length. He was also an accomplished inventor, creating the first air gun, an artificial rainbow machine, a cypher and signal system that would allow one to “with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance,” and an inflatable bladder that would go on to serve as the prototype for the pneumatic tire, among others. Yet although these were all pursuits in which he was pushing new boundaries, it was space that truly fascinated him, and he spent most of his time looking up at the stars contemplating what was out there and how to get there.
This was an era in which a cascade of discoveries in all areas of science was going on, and astronomy and our understanding of the universe was undergoing a bit of an upheaval. Johannes Kepler had worked out the physical laws governing how planets orbit the Sun. Galileo had completely changed our view of the stars and planets using the newly improved telescope to smash the long held idea of an Earth-centered view of the cosmos, and replace it with Copernicus's heliocentric theory. We were now coming to an understanding that the stars and space itself extended farther than had ever been thought before. We also could finally see that the moon, which had long been an enigma, had a landscape in many ways similar to Earth, complete with mountains and plains. Humanity was suddenly thrown into a universe that was far more massive and stranger than had ever been thought before, and Wilkins was absolutely fascinated by this.
He would write two groundbreaking books on astronomy called The Discovery of a New World in 1638, and then in 1640 A Discourse Concerning a New Planet, in which he railed against the prevailing physics of Aristotle, which dated back 2000 years, and he introduced this new vision of the universe in plain English and clear vernacular terms that the average reader could understand, something very unique for its era. He also illustrated the idea that not only was Earth just one planet among many others, but that these other planets, as well as our own moon, might be inhabited as well. These were all ideas that had been doing the rounds for some time already, but of all of his ideas on space and the nature of the cosmos, his most bizarre and ambitious were his visionary notions of humans actually travelling to space to meet these beings for themselves. He would write of this:
In the first ages of the world the Islanders either thought themselves to be the onely dwellers upon the earth, or else if there were any other, yet they could not possibly conceive how they might have any commerce with them, being severed by the deepe and broad Sea. But the after-times found out the invention of ships, in which notwithstanding none but some bold daring men durst venture, there being few so resolute as to commit themselves unto the vaste Ocean, and yet now how easie a thing is this, even to a timorous and cowardly nature? So, perhaps, there may be some other meanes invented for a conveyance to the Moone, and though it may seeme a terrible and impossible thing ever to passe through the vaste spaces of the aire, yet no question there would bee some men who durst venture this as well as the other.
This was more than just a thought experiment for Wilkins, as he seriously believed that it was possible to fashion a craft to actually travel out into space, an idea which was mind-blowing for its time, the realm of wild, fanciful fiction. Inspired by such great explorers into the unknown as Columbus, Drake and Magellan, Wilkins truly believed that it was just the next logical step that we head past the horizon and into the new frontier of space. To do this, in around 1640 he proposed building a “flying chariot” that would be capable of reaching the moon, which he really felt was possible and which he really felt could be built.
In order to make this a reality, he had many ideas on how it could be accomplished. The first thing to do was to escape the pull of the planet, which was a bit of a challenge considering this was well before Isaac Newton had identified the force of gravity, but Wilkins thought he had it worked out. He believed that everything was held to the earth by a force of magnetism, but that if one could get just 20 miles into the air they would be free of this force, as the thinking at the time was that the power of gravity depended on the proportionate distance between objects, with the further apart they were, the weaker the force became. Wilkins reasoned that his could be done with a flying machine designed like a ship and equipped with a powerful spring, clockwork gears, gunpowder as a sort of propulsion system and internal engine, a vertical rotating sail sprouting from the backrest, wheels for when the thing landed, and a set of wings covered with feathers. This craft would then take off at a low angle, eerily predicting how planes would take off in modern times centuries before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight and in a time when inertia physics was scarcely understood.
Once in space, Wilkins suggested that the temperature might not necessarily be cold, and also explained that since the astronauts would be free from the magnetic pull of the planet, there would be nothing pulling on their digestive system to make them hungry and therefore they would not have any need for food in space. He similarly argued that astronauts would not have to worry about breathing either, as their lungs would get used to breathing the “pure air of angels” at that altitude. To him, flying across space would in a sense be even easier than flying on earth, and would merely be the next step past the ships used by the explorers of the past. He was under the impression, as was the common knowledge of the day, that Earth’s atmosphere was nearly identical to the conditions of space. All that needed to be done was to escape Earth’s attraction and we were set to make a journey to the moon that he estimated would take about 180 days, comparable to a long voyage across the oceans. Simple. He was sure his flying chariot would work, and said “I do seriously and upon good grounds affirm it possible to make a Flying Chariot; in which a man may sit and give such a Motion unto it as shall convey him through the air.”
Looking back at this with what we know now about flight and space travel, we understand that the whole plan is absurd and would have never worked at all, but at the time this was pretty visionary stuff. Although space travel and trips to the moon had been mentioned before in science fiction as pure fantasy, no one had ever seriously considered and drawn up plans for an actual working spaceship, and indeed this was an era in which the idea of real, actual space travel was not even really a thing. As the years went by and more discoveries were made, Wilkins himself would come to understand that travelling to the moon through his plan was not a possibility, although he did continue to experiment with various flying machines. Dr. Allan Chapman, a historian at Wadham College, Oxford, calls it the “Jacobean space programme,” and has said of the rise and fall of Wilkins’ grand vision:
His ingenuity was enormous. He saw his flying chariot as being the space version of Drake’s, Raleigh’s and Magellan’s ships. In the same way that it was an Englishman, Thomas Harriott, who beat Galileo in using the telescope, so on the anniversary of the landing on the Moon it was an Englishman who came up with the best argued possibility of getting to the Moon in his day. This was a honeymoon period of British science. The vacuum had not yet been discovered. In 1640, flying to the Moon was a heroic possibility. But by 1670, they realised it was impossible. They’d made so many discoveries in physics and astronomy in 30 years that they could see that flying to the Moon was not on. But in that glorious period around 1640, it seemed a real possibility.
Wilkins would go on to act as Bishop of Chester with a seat in the House of Lords in 1668, and continue his work in the Royal Society, as well as work as an educator all the way to his death in 1672. Although his ideas concerning space travel might seem extravagant, crude and silly by today’s standards, many of his basic ideas such as flying ships and long distance communication would eventually come true, things he was envisioning centuries earlier. During his era, he was a major influence and force in science, advancing the field and looking into the future frontiers of science, a visionary who may have failed in his quest in space, but holds a great legacy in science. He may not have ever reached the stars, but he was a consummate dreamer who encouraged others to dream too, and in many ways it is dreams that fuel our push into new realms of scientific discovery.