Astronomer John Wilkins planned a lunar mission in 1640 AD with a flying chariot!

In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. In 1969, the American Apollo 11 lunar mission placed the first human boots on the surface of the moon. These nations, however, were not the first to gaze at the stars and ponder the possibility of space travel. Mankind has long marveled at the skies and sought to take flight, and it was in England in 1640 that a scientist first proposed a manned lunar mission, and it was to be accomplished with a flying tank!

John Wilkins was a clergyman, mathematician and astronomer

John Wilkins was a mathematician, astronomer, and clergyman. He was born in 1614 to goldsmith Walter Wilkins and Jane Dod, a descendant of Northamptonshire nobility. Educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in mathematics, Wilkins was also an ordained member of the Church of England.

Throughout his life, he would hold several high-ranking positions, both academically and ecclesiastically. In 1644, he was appointed chaplain to Charles Louis, then Elector of the Palatine; in 1648 he was appointed headmaster of Wadham College, Oxford, and would help found the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1660. Wilkins strung the two worlds well, but also argued for the separation of science and scripture in his 1640 book, A speech concerning a new planet.

A circa 1670 AD portrait by John Greenhill (attributed) of John Wilkins, a 17th century English clergyman and prolific scientific scholar, who was probably the first to attempt to build a contraption to fly humans to the moon. (John Greenhill / Public domain )

In John Wilkins’s time, the Moon was really another planet

The prevailing (though changing) wisdom of John Wilkins’s day was that celestial bodies like the moon were made very differently from the Earth, and as such did not obey the same natural laws. Wilkins posted A discovery of a new world… in the moon in 1638 (at which Speech would be added as an addendum in 1640) to challenge this thought.

He argued that the moon was a natural object made of stone and with an atmosphere of its own by comparing its characteristics with those of the Earth through telescopic observation. Although Wilkins was not the first to offer these ideas (indeed, the book is largely a defense of Galileo and Copernicus), he presented the ideas in language the average person could understand and even included illustrations. The book also includes a chapter dedicated to exploring the challenges and mechanics of a potential trip to the moon.

Defeat the forces of Earth and survive in space

Wilkins anticipated and sought to overcome many objections and challenges when planning his space and lunar mission program. First, the mysterious force that holds earthly objects to the ground – that of Aristotle gravity – must be overcome. This Wilkins considered akin to magnetism.

Drawing on the work of William Gilbert, Wilkins observed that the force of attraction between two objects varied with location and weakened with distance. So, just escape the range of the earth’s pull and it would be smooth and easy sailing from there.

Using a series of methods, including geometry and trigonometry, Wilkins postulated that the Earth’s pull ended 32 kilometers above its surface.

It was well known, however, that temperatures drop drastically as one climbs in altitude and the air becomes thinner; presumably the air in space would be much thinner. Despite his own argument against mixing scripture and natural science, Wilkins turned to theology to address these issues.

He argued that the mountain tops froze because they were closer to the clouds, which God created before the sun and are therefore cold. As for the air, Wilkins felt that the air becomes thinner as one moves away from the sin-polluted world of men. Clean air was something the lungs of man were not used to but would acclimatize. Both problems would resolve beyond the twenty-mile (32 kilometer) line; the air would be warm, unpolluted and completely breathable.

Improvement by John Wilkins of Stevin’s land-sailer with moving sails (p. 160 of Mathematical Magick published by John Wilkins in 1648). (Historia Mathematica / Deutsches Museum )

Math Magick: The Chariot Flying to the Moon by John Wilkins

In 1648 Wilkins published his book Mathematical Magic; or, The wonders that can be achieved by Mechanical Geometry , in which he offers a series of designs for marvelous machines. One of them was the Flying Chariot, a device intended to transport mankind to the moon.

The chariot, designed according to nature, would use wings to fly, propelled by springs and wheels and a bit of gunpowder to keep things moving. Wilkins discusses what material should cover the fenders, ultimately recommending constant experimentation with many mediums to find the right one. Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Wilkins, seems to have carried out several of these experiments in his book micrography (1665) as he sought to design his own machine.

Ultimately, Wilkins Flying Chariot was never manufactured, and its proposed space program was forgotten. Science continued to make new discoveries in the decades that followed. A discovery and math magic which refuted many of Wilkins’ hypotheses. The concept of a vacuum in nature was proven, making space travel impossible, and the limits of gears, wheels, springs, and torque to keep a machine aloft were revealed. However, John Wilkins went on to have a successful career, and although his space mission never became a reality, his work has inspired scientists for generations.

Top image: This must have been the imaginary landscape of John Wilkins’ lunar mission in the 17th century, just as his flying chariot left the clouds behind. Source: flash movie /Adobe Stock

By Mark Johnson

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