History

The Man Who Planned A 17th Century Moon Landing

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Dr. John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College at Oxford, was a natural philosopher who lived from 1614 until 1672. While he was an accomplished intellectual who had the freedom to pursue any number of scientific endeavors, Wilkins was fixated on getting to the moon and meeting the inhabitants who surely lived there. As a clergyman and theologian, Wilkins believed that anything as roomy and Earth-like as the moon must have been created by God for living beings, and he was determined to meet them—despite the fact that he was three centuries ahead of his time.

Why He Thought It Was Possible

In the 1600s, the scientific understanding of gravity and outer space was limited, to put it mildly. Wilkins believed, like many 17th-century scientists, that there was no difference between the atmosphere of Earth and the conditions in space, and that Earth's pull was due to magnetism. It was only reasonable, then, that Wilkins believed a winged chariot with enough speed could lift high enough off the ground to break free of the Earth's magnetic pull and reach the moon.

With the launch figured out, Wilkins moved on to more pressing issues: how would travelers feed themselves during the journey? He theorized that the main cause of hunger was simply the act of working against gravity, so getting to the moon without being burdened by it would be doable. He also referenced something that echoes to modern ears like deep-space hibernation: "If animals can hibernate, why not humans?" he asked. "Epimenides is said to have slept for 75 years." There was some knowledge at that time about the fact that air gets thinner and colder the higher up you go, but he had a fix for that too: "moistened sponges might help us against its thinness."

How He Did It

He didn't. By studying the way in which birds fly, which also happened to be part of the studies that led to planes and rockets centuries later, Wilkins put his theory to the test with the help of a colleague, Robert Hooke. Neither of the two ever recorded their attempts, just that they performed experiments, so it's somewhat safe to say that it didn't work out. Hooke himself may have been the reason he gave up hope, in fact, since he was part of the team that discovered space wasn't breathable, but was instead a vacuum devoid of oxygen.

From our modern vantage point, it's easy to ridicule Wilkins' plans as the ignorant ramblings of an overconfident old timer. But his ideas were revolutionary, if only because he was arguably the first to have them. As Oxford's Allan Chapman writes, "As a perceptive young man of twenty-six, as he was in 1640, John Wilkins lived at the 'honeymoon stage' of the scientific revolution, when the old learning was being overthrown, while the possibilities of the new seemed exciting and as yet unbounded." Who could blame him for dreaming big?

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