WTF Fun Fact 13619 – Jacobean Space Travel

Over three centuries before space travel to the Moon’s surface, England was the site of a little-known, audacious space proposal. The architect of this early space program was Dr. John Wilkins, a 17th-century scientist and theologian. Wilkins, also Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, dreamed of a lunar voyage, crafting plans for a spacecraft propelled by an extraordinary blend of wings, springs, and gunpowder.

Wilkins’ Revolutionary Concept

In 1640, at the young age of 26, Wilkins penned a meticulous description of the machinery necessary for interstellar communication and even commerce with extraterrestrial beings. His proposal marked the first earnest contemplation of space flight, grounded in the era’s most credible scientific documentation.

Wilkins’ era, as delineated by Professor Allan Chapman of Oxford University, was a golden period of scientific revelation. This era rested between the astronomical breakthroughs of Galileo and Copernicus, who unveiled a universe with potentially habitable worlds, and the subsequent realization of the vacuum in space.

Wilkins hypothesized that Earth’s gravitational and magnetic influence spanned only 20 miles upward. Beyond this boundary, he posited, space travel to the Moon would be feasible. His vision was fueled by the era’s spirit of exploration, mirroring the terrestrial voyages of renowned explorers like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh.

Divine Space Travel

Wilkins, balancing his scientific pursuits with theological insights, argued from a divine perspective. He believed that if God created other worlds, it was within divine providence to inhabit them. His design for a ‘flying chariot’ was a blend of clockwork, spring mechanisms, feather-coated wings, and gunpowder boosters – an embodiment of ingenuity and ambition.

However, by the 1660s, Wilkins’ theory began unraveling. Scientists like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke demonstrated the vacuum of space, contradicting Wilkins’ assumptions. Wilkins also later understood the distinction between magnetism and gravity, realizing the impracticability of his ‘sphere of magnetic virtue.’

Wilkins’ notions of space travel also included some unconventional beliefs, like the reduced need for food in space. He reasoned that gravity’s pull on Earth necessitated food consumption to replenish the constantly emptying stomachs, a premise that would not apply in the vacuum of space.

Jacobean Space Travel, Grounded

Wilkins’ theories, while never tested, represented a remarkable leap in thinking. His vision, though grounded by later scientific revelations, paved the way for future explorations and opened a dialogue about space travel’s possibilities.

This early foray into space exploration, termed by Professor Chapman as the ‘Jacobean Space Programme,’ laid the foundational ideas that would much later catapult humans into space. Wilkins’ pioneering spirit, albeit based on flawed premises, showcased the boundless curiosity and ambition that drive human endeavors beyond Earth’s confines.

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Source: “Cromwell’s moonshot: how one Jacobean scientist tried to kick off the space race” — The Independent

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