By Spencer Blohm
Jules Verne is one of the most influential and celebrated writers in the history of science fiction. But his novels contain more than just entertainment. His wild imagination and propensity for thorough research led not only to enthralling adventure stories, but some eerily accurate predictions in the realm of scientific advancement.
In the 1870 classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Verne describes the Nautilus, an underwater vessel capable of traversing the ocean’s depths. A ship of this concept had never been seen by the protagonists of the novel, or by its readers at the time. While primitive submarines existed at the time, electric powered subs like the Nautilus wouldn’t come about until the early 1900s. In fact, American submarine engineer Simon Lake credits Verne as a major inspiration for his work, and even received a telegram from Verne congratulating him on his own vessel Argonaut I completing an open-ocean voyage and becoming the first submarine to operate successfully in the open sea.
His accurate predictions were certainly not limited. Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon predicted space travel and the first moon landing with frightening accuracy. Built upon extensive research, Verne’s facts from the materials of the craft down to the projected cost of the project are just within reach of being spot on with those of Apollo 11 – which didn’t launch for another 104 years. While Verne’s idea of shooting the vessel from a cannon or gun proved to be impractical, both the carefully calculated location of the launch and the return of the capsule to Earth by landing in the ocean in the book parallel those of Apollo 11 in real life.
The first reference to the idea of solar sails is also in From the Earth to the Moon, which predates the first actual deployment of a solar sail by over 140 years. Verne speculated about light-propelled spacecraft, which is exactly what solar sails are – a propulsion device that uses solar pressure as a low energy propellant. The idea of propulsion using solar radiation was used again by Arthur C. Clarke in his short story Sunjammer in 1964, and was recently championed by NASA as the future of interstellar travel.
As a well-known aviation enthusiast, and having already covered ballooning in Around the World in 80 Days, Verne’s 1886 story Robur the Conqueror presaged the modern helicopter. The story follows a genius inventor who builds a flying machine out of pressboard that flew via rotors, with additional rotors at the bow and stern to aid in gaining height. Verne studied helicopter designs from the prototypes available to him, and suggested an electric motor as the power source for the aircraft’s moving wings, which were to be made of lightweight metals – and interestingly, predicting a machine that was powered by clean energy rather than steam, natural gas or oil. Crediting his inspiration to Verne, the first operational helicopter was finally produced in 1939 by Igor Sikorsky, and incorporated a rotor design similar to the one in Verne’s novel.
In 1889, Verne co-wrote a short story with his son Michel called In the Year 2889, centered around futuristic technologies. One of these was what the Vernes called the “phonotelephote”, a system of communication using the transmission of images and sound. This is the earliest known reference to a video phone in fiction according to Technovelgy.com, and while the Vernes’ concept involved the use of “sensitive mirrors connected by wires,” it nevertheless captured the imagination of the populace at the time.
Verne’s contributions to scientific imagination and advancement cannot be denied. Some of his visions, like the solar sail, are still in development and have yet to be perfected. His role as the fiction author who tirelessly researched concepts on the cutting edge of science was inherited by the hugely successful Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Now that Crichton has passed on, someone new will have to step up to carry the torch, but there is little doubt that the visionary spirit kindled by Verne in his time will live on in science fiction.
Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, lifestyle and culture blogger. He lives and works in Chicago where he can often be found at one of the many festivals and street fairs around the city.
Image: Photograph of Jules Verne by Félix Nadar c. 1878, Wikimedia Commons.