January 10, 2014
Looking Back At 17th Century Scientist’s Idea Of Space Travel
[ Watch the Video: 17th Century Space Travel Ideas From John Wilkins ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineA lesser known pioneer of science who was one of the first in his field to look into space travel was born 400 years ago this month.
John Wilkins, a graduate of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, was born in Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, on 1 January 1614. Wilkins was ordained as a priest in the Church of England before he traveled around the UK and Germany to meet up with scholars.
“John Wilkins was the first person to discuss space travel from a scientific and technological perspective rather than as an aspect of fantasy literature. In his writing he initiates a ‘Jacobean Space Programme’, a serious proposal for traveling to other worlds,” Professor Allan Chapman, a historian at Wadham College, University of Oxford, said in a statement.
In 1640, Wilkins speculated on space travel by considering the problems of traveling to the Moon, such as overcoming the gravitational pull of the Earth, the coldness of space and what astronauts would eat during their journey.
Eight years later, Wilkins expanded this idea of space travel by writing a book entitled “Mathematical Magick.” This book describes a machine full of gears, pulleys and springs called a “flying chariot.” The ship looked like a vehicle with bird wings that was powered by springs and gears. According to Chapman, a posthumous diary written by Robert Hooke suggests that the two men actually built a model of this aircraft.
“His thinking was far ahead of his time. By the time of his death in 1672, new scientific discoveries had shown that the moon voyage of 1638 was impossible. And humanity would have to wait another 300 years before getting into space,” said Chapman.
The historian said that science was advancing more dramatically in Wilkin’s day when considering the philosophical shift was stark and the world was unrecognizable to someone born just fifty years earlier.
“Wilkins was a pioneer of English language science communication. Anybody who could read the Bible or enjoy a Shakespeare play could relate to Wilkins' vision of the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo,” says Chapman.
He said the 400th anniversary of Wilkin’s birth is a good time to look back and reflect on the life of a seventeenth century pioneer of science.
“As Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, John Wilkins shaped the careers of two two [sic] young men who were destined to become two of the greatest scientists in British history; Sir Christopher Wren - an astronomer before he became an architect - and Dr Robert Hooke,” Chapman said.