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Ground Control to Major John…


Centuries before Neil Armstrong and crew made it– and indeed several years before a falling apple set Isaac Newton to the description of gravity– John Wilkins, a founder of The Royal Society (and a brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell) drafted plans for an expedition to the moon.

Wilkins believed that we are held on Earth by a form of magnetism. His observations of clouds suggested to him that if man could reach an altitude of just 20 miles, he could be free of this force and be able to fly through space.  So he drafted plans for a real “spaceship,” a flying machine designed like a ship but with a powerful spring, clockwork gears, and a set of wings (covered with feathers from high-flying birds such as swans or geese). He planned to use gunpowder as a primitive form of internal combustion engine.

His plan was materially less costly than NASA’s.  He reckoned that ten or 20 men could club together, spending 20 guineas each, to employ a good blacksmith to assemble such a flying machine from his plans.  Another area of economy was food:  Wilkins was convinced by suggestions that people could go long periods without eating, and imagined that in space, free of Earth’s “magnetism”, there would be no pull on travellers’ digestive organs to make them hungry.

Similarly, breathing presented no problem. It was known that mountaineers suffered breathlessness at high altitude. Wilkins said this was because their lungs were not used to breathing the pure air breathed by angels. In time his astronauts would get used to it and so be able to breathe on their voyage to the Moon.

Records show that Wilkins did in fact experiment in building flying machines with another leading scientist of the age, Robert Hooke, in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, around 1654. But by the 1660s, he began to realize that space travel was not as straightforward as he had imagined.

Readers can find the whole story at SkyMania.com

As we raise our sights, we might we might smile to recall that this is the birthday (1844) of another notable Oxonian, William Archibald Spooner, an Anglican clergyman who became Warden of New College, Oxford…  Spooner, the personification of the addled, absent-minded professor, gave us the concept of “Spoonerisms”– the reversal of the opening sounds of words on a phrase– as he  (allegedly) uttered such immortals as:

(In a sermon)  “The Lord is a shoving leopard”

(To a callow student) “You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain”

(At a high table dinner) “Let us raise our glasses to the queer old Dean”

(On preparations for a patriotic occasion) “We’ll have the hags flung out”

Spooner (again, supposedly) once invited a faculty member to tea “to welcome our new archaeology Fellow.”  “But, sir,” the man replied, “I am our new archaeology Fellow.”  “Never mind,” Spooner said, “Come all the same.”

Spooner (by Leslie Hart, for Spy); source: Art.com

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