Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
A Journey to the Moon Possible
By Bishop John Wilkins (16141672)
From The Discovery of a New World
ALL that hath been said concerning the people of the new world is but conjectural, and full of uncertainties; nor can we ever look for any evident or more probable discoveries in this kind, unless there be some hopes of inventing means for our conveyance thither. The possibility of which shall be the subject of our enquiry in this last proposition.
And if we do but consider by what steps and leisure all arts do usually rise to their growth, we shall have no cause to doubt why this also may not hereafter be found out among other secrets. It hath constantly yet been the method of providence, not presently to show us all, but to lead us on by degrees from the knowledge of one thing to another.
It was a great while ere the planets were distinguished from the fixed stars; and some time after that, ere the morning and evening star were found to be the same: and in greater space (I doubt not) but this also, and other as excellent mysteries will be discovered. Time, who hath always been the father of new truths, and hath revealed unto us many things which our ancestors were ignorant of, will also manifest to our posterity that which we now desire, but cannot know. Veniet tempus (saith Seneca) quo ista quæ nunc latent, in lucem dies extrahet, et longioris ævi diligentia. Time will come when the endeavours of after ages shall bring such things to light as now lie hid in obscurity. Arts are not yet come to their solstice; but the industry of future times, assisted with the labours of their forefathers, may reach that height which we could not attain to. Veniet tempus quo posteri nostri nos tam aperta nescisse mirentur. As we now wonder at the blindness of our ancestors, who were not able to discern such things as seem plain and obvious unto us, so will our posterity admire our ignorance in as perspicuous matters.
In the first ages of the world, the islanders thought themselves either to be the only dwellers upon earth, or else if there were any other, they could not possibly conceive how they might have any commerce with them, being severed by the deep and broad sea. But aftertimes found out the invention of ships: in which notwithstanding, none but some bold daring men durst venture, according to that of the tragedian:
Audax nimium qui freta primus
Rate tam fragili perfida rupit.
Too bold was he, who in a ship so frail
First ventured on the treacherous waves to sail.
And yet now, how easy a thing is this even to a timorous and cowardly nature? And, questionless, the invention of some other means for our conveyance to the moon cannot seem more incredible to us than this did at first to them; and therefore we have no just reason to be discouraged in our hopes of the like success.
Yea, but (you will say) there can be no sailing thither, unless that were true which the poet does but feign, that she made her bed in the sea. We have not now any Drake, or Columbus, to undertake this voyage, or any Dædalus to invent a conveyance through the air.
I answer, though we have not, yet why may not succeeding times raise up some spirits as eminent for new attempts and strange inventions as any that were before them? It is the opinion of Kepler, that as soon as the art of flying is found out, some of their nation will make one of the first colonies that shall transplant into that other world. I suppose his appropriating this pre-eminence to his own countrymen may arise from an overpartial affection to them. But yet, thus far I agree with him, that whenever that art is invented, or any other whereby a man may be conveyed some twenty miles high, or thereabouts, then it is not altogether improbable that some or other may be successful in this attempt.
For the first. Though it were supposed that a man could fly, yet we may well think he would be very slow in it, since he hath so heavy a body, and such a one too, as nature did not principally intend for that kind for motion. It is usually observed, that among the variety of birds, those which do most converse upon the earth, and are swiftest in their running, as a pheasant, partridge, etc., together with all domestic fowl, are less able for flight than others which are for the most part upon the wing, as a swallow, swift, etc. And therefore we may well think that man, not being endowed with any such condition as may enable him for this motion; and being necessarily tied to a more especial residence on the earth, must needs be slower than any fowl, or less able to hold out. Thus it is also in swimming; which art though it be grown to a good eminence, yet he that is best skilled in it is not able either for continuance or swiftness, to equal a fish: because he is not naturally appointed to it. So that though a man could fly, yet he would be so slow in it, and so quickly weary, that he could never think to reach so great a journey as it is to the moon.
But suppose withal that he could fly as fast and as long as the swiftest bird, yet it cannot possibly be conceived how he should ever be able to pass through so vast a distance as there is betwixt the moon and our earth. For this planet, according to the common grounds, is usually granted to be at the least fifty-two semidiameters of the earth from us; reckoning for each semidiameter three thousand four hundred and fifty-six English miles, of which the whole space will be about one hundred and seventy-nine thousand, seven hundred and twelve.
So that though a man could constantly keep on in his journey thither by a straight line, though he could fly a thousand miles in a day, yet he would not arrive thither under a hundred and eighty days, or half-a-year.
2. But if he could, yet he must have some time to rest and sleep in. And I believe he shall scarce find any lodgings by the way. No inns to entertain passengers, nor any castles in the air (unless they be enchanted ones) to receive poor pilgrims, or errant knights. And so consequently he cannot have any possible hopes of reaching thither.