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Sunday 12 June 2016

18th Century Electrostatic Flying Machine

Here is an interesting book illustration I came across a few days ago. When I first saw it I had no idea what it was meant to depict, but having done a bit of research it turns out to be really quite remarkable. I’m surprised it doesn’t crop up more often in histories of science fiction – or of ufology and “ancient aliens” for that matter.

It’s the frontispiece from a French-language novel called Le Philosophe sans PrĂ©tention (The Unpretentious Philosopher), written by Louis-Guillaume de la Folie and published in 1775. The original French edition can be found on the Internet Archive, although I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English. However, I did find the following summary on Google Books:
This strange but rather wonderful work concerns a visitor from the planet Mercury called Ormisais who flies to Earth in an electrically powered sky-chariot, which he breaks by crash-landing it on Earth. Aided by an Earthling named Nadir, Ormisais searches for materials to mend his spacecraft. [A. Roberts: The History of Science Fiction (2006), p. 79]
It’s worth remembering just how long ago 1775 was. The first manned flight – in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon – was still eight years in the future. Apart from lighter-than-air balloons, the only other means of controlled flight known at the time involved aerodynamic lift (birds, kites etc). “Electricity” in those days meant static electricity – electricity in the modern sense of a flowing electric current wasn’t really discovered until the 19th century.

After a bit of searching within the French text, I found the following on page 30: “I saw two glass globes three feet in diameter, mounted above a small seat” (a French writer measuring things in feet – that shows how old it is!). Presumably the glass spheres somehow collected or stored the static electricity. The next page describes the globes “turning with a prodigious rapidity” – and from the picture it looks like they’re coupled to some sort of gear arrangement to control the craft’s motion.

Of course it could never work – but then it’s only a novel, not an engineering treatise. It’s interesting to see state-of-the-art science (in this case electrostatics) invoked as hand-waving technobabble, in just the same way that a modern-day science fiction writer might use wormholes or quantum entanglement!

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