Jules Verne’s Space Gun

Happily, the internet still has worthy initiatives that elevate and entertain humankind with no dark sides that I know of. Project like Gutenberg.org, a site that releases works in the public domain free of charge to read on your e-reader. Many of these are classics whose copyright has expired. Like the collected works of Jules Verne.

During his lifetime Verne wasn’t as famous abroad as he was in his native France. Abridged and simplified translations of his works gave him the undeserved reputation of a children’s author. Many early English translations were subpar, which didn’t help either. So read him in the original if you can — my high school French wasn’t up to it. Even so, Verne is still the undisputed father of science fiction.

Science fiction supposes that certain technological innovations or quantum leaps of knowledge have become commonplace; things that actual humankind has not invented or perfected yet. The writer then involves the consequences in their story. It helps if the scientific underpinnings don’t upend all that modern physics has taught us. An invisibility pill or time machine pushes the narrative into Star Trek territory, still engrossing, but no longer plausible.

A hundred years before the Apollo missions Verne wrote De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon) about the ambitious quest to shoot a projectile towards the moon. Along with the frantic race against time to cast the biggest canon ever made, an amusing subplot unfolds recounting the peeing contest between Impey Barbicane, architect of the enterprise and president of the Baltimore Gun Club, and his arch-rival captain Nichol, who has wagered fifteen big ones that Barbicane’s space dreams will come to nothing. The stakes are raised even higher when French adventurer Michel Ardan volunteers to board the projectile on a one-way trip to the moon and persuades the two rivals to accompany him on his adventure, minutes before their intended duel to the death.

Verne is both entertaining and appears to have done his homework in coming up with plausible solutions to the scientific challenges of the enterprise — with a mid-19th century outlook, let’s not forget. How to calculate when the moon is closest to the earth? What initial velocity will allow the projectile to escape earth’s gravitational pull and reach its destination, having no other means of propulsion? How many tons of guncotton do we stuff down the barrel of the 900 ft long cannon, so it produces a big enough explosion? And what’s it going to cost? His answers sound reasonable for a lay reader unversed in astronomy, chemistry, ballistics, or logistics.

Verne couldn’t conceive of plastics, carbon fiber or lightweight titanium alloys. The interior of the projectile is therefore fitted out like a cozy first-class railway carriage of the times, with plush velvet sofas and leather upholstery everywhere. And you wouldn’t expect the crew to survive on a diet of dry army rations, not with a Frenchman on board! Once in space they regularly crack open a decent bottle. There’s no mention of pipes or cigars, though, and Verne tactfully omits the practicalities of how to answer the call of nature.

From a modern view, Verne’s space gun solution is of course patent nonsense. To leave the atmosphere the projectile needed to reach a speed of over 10,000 yards per second before it exited the barrel of the 900-foot-long canon, because after that moment gravity would pull it back relentlessly. This is roughly fifteen times the speed of a modern rifle bullet. To suggest you can scale up traditional artillery like that is highly dubious, but to do it with a manned projectile? You’re pushing it, Jules.

The thought crossed our heroes’ minds, though. Their solution was a wooden floor floating on a column of water, which would be pushed out of the projectile through ducts, thus dampening the initial shock. Nice try et très ingénieux, but the sheer G-forces would turn the poor passengers into mush before they had a chance to say bon voyage.

Research into jet propulsion didn’t start until seventy years later, in the 1930s. Guns and gun powder had been around for centuries in Verne’s days. So even the writer of fiction stuck to his proverbial guns and built on what he knew. Yet by doing so he pushed legacy technology beyond what is possible. Some impossible things can seem plausible, like the space gun, which is useless for a manned mission. Conversely, a teenager today cannot imagine the gadgets she will be giving her grandchildren for Christmas in fifty years. People over sixty don’t stop to think that the iPhone they use every day does things they would never have believed possible in their teenage days of black and white tv. Let’s go easy on Jules Verne for not predicting more accurately how a hundred years hence three men would go to the moon and back for real.

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Dutch; former English teacher, software developer since 1999, writing about the many things that delight or annoy me.

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Jasper Sprengers

Jasper Sprengers

Dutch; former English teacher, software developer since 1999, writing about the many things that delight or annoy me.

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