The Mother of all Clockpunk stories – The Jacobean Space Program

One of our readers Michael DeLuca pointed out a story that fits well with the Clockpunk theme. I think that a novel based on this idea would be awesome or may be even a TV series, who knows? The sky is the limit! Even though the project to go to the moon would not have been a success but it may have spawned many other inventions. Who knows? Here is an excerpt.


Dr Allan Chapman

Once again, it’s a great honour and a great delight to speak here. The last time I spoke here, in the early part of this year, I spoke about medicine in London. Being a historian of science, I am now going to be looking at another area which I hope is topical certainly within the context of coffee house society, largely because this was born out of the very period of coffee shop society. At the time when coffee first started to be sold both in London and in Oxford in the late 1640s and created what the diarist and writer John Aubrey spoke of as “a convivial drink which men could drink [not mentioning women of course in those days] but men could drink all day and become delighted rather become inebriated and start fighting,” which is one of the ways in which coffee had such a fundamental role in the spurring of the intellectual life of Britain, especially in the period of the Royal Society, which just comes slightly after the period I’m talking about today.

Now, to talk of the Jacobean Space Programme may sound rather odd. Whilst we speak of Jacobean furniture, Jacobean art, and architecture and so on, flying to the moon 400 years ago seems palpably idiotic to most people. I’d like to say why this was being spoken of at the time. It also is part of a narrow window in European knowledge at a time when there had been already colossal discoveries made in geography, in optics, in astronomy, in anatomy, right across of the range of the sciences as they were understood at that time, but also too before even more discoveries had been made which simply showed that they were totally and utterly impossible. The period of the Jacobean Space Programme, circa 1630 to 1660/65, something like that, was a sort of honeymoon period in the history of science, when immense possibilities were expected and things had not yet started to go wrong.

What were the roots of this movement? The first and the most important I think is the realisation that the ancients had got one thing after another wrong. If you look at the scientific ideas of Medieval Europe, in places like Paris and Oxford and Montpelier, Bologna and so on, you have a profound reverence for the ancient scholars, particularly for Aristotle, for Ptolemy, Hippocrates and so on, the general belief being that the Ancients knew best. They were closest to the Creation, the human mind was fresher, we hadn’t degenerated, we weren’t approaching Armageddon, a natural Armageddon, hence of course they knew more, saw more, and understood more.

On the other hand, things started to happen in the 15 th Century, and started a cascade which changed this. I would say the most profound things that began this movement of re-evaluating the Ancients were the great geographical discoveries, and it’s not for nothing that the Reverend Dr John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham, and also Bishop of Chester, as he was in the latter part of his life, was so entranced by Magellan, by Drake, by Columbus, by all the great early navigators, the idea being that geography had not only opened up new vistas to human understanding, but had shown the Ancients to be wrong. If you look at Strabo or you look at Ptolemy or Tacitus or any of the other writers on the nature of the world in the Greek and Roman period, whilst it’s perfectly true they got the shape of the world right, yes – they all knew it was a sphere, it had been measured to about 8,000 miles in diameter, all of this was known, but where they were completely wrong was on the land, sea, continent, ocean distribution. The general belief was that there was far more land on the Earth’s surface than there was water, and that the big oceanic tracts of the Atlantic, the Indian, which were the only two really big oceans known in the ancient world, were little more than big lakes in a great terrestrial continental mass. The Portuguese navigator, Christopher Columbus, and then of course the great circumnavigation of Magellan show that there was more water on the Earth’s surface and there were vast land masses that the Ancients had never known of, particularly the Americas, literally from pole to pole, a vast slab of land that they had great difficulty getting through into the sea beyond it. Now, what all of this does is two things. It shows that the Ancients have really come up wrong on this one, haven’t they? What else might they have come up wrong on? And if we are what you might call the intellectual runts of the human litter, at the end of time and not long to go before Armageddon, why have we discovered all of these things that the wise men of antiquity never knew of? This is one important thing.


On the other hand, you may say, where does the gunpowder come in? (I mentioned gunpowder in the title of this lecture.) They never thought of using gunpowder as a form of propulsion, but they were suggesting it as a sort of primitive internal combustion engine. If you had a very powerful canon with some kind of plunger, rather like a piston, perhaps you could use the explosion of a canon to tension an immensely strong spring, hence you could use an explosion to generate the mechanical energy for the springs.

Finally, although Wilkins realised, certainly by the time he became Bishop of Chester in 1668, that you would never fly to the Moon the whole perspective of scientific knowledge had changed beyond recognition in the intervening 30 years. He nonetheless was aware that perhaps these machines would be useful for terrestrial travel. For instance, why not have a machine that could fly up for 20 miles, get outside the Earth’s pull, switch the wings off, and wait for the Earth to turn around you? And so if you were flying to, let’s say, Boston from England, you just simply fly down to the latitude of Boston, somewhere over France, hang there in space, wait until Boston had become below you, and go straight down. He suggests this as a mode of travel around the world. After all, China in ten hours, you simply can’t beat that! The fertility of this man’s imagination is incredible.

If you look at the portrait of Dr John Wilkins which hangs in the Senior Common Room in Wadham College, Oxford, I think the geniality of his face comes over, and one can understand how he was a figure who won friends very, very easily.

Wadham College, Oxford at the time looked very much like 17 th century Gresham College. It had a walled Medieval gatehouse, the great enclosed place, where you have the front gate– of course in Gresham’s case it was Bishopsgate Street – and all of the staircases, chapel, dining places within the great quadrangle. It was probably in ornamental gardens. You couldn’t try out spaceships there, but we do know that there was a sort of home farm, and it was probably in the fields of the home farm. We know this happened because in 1674 Robert Hooke has an entry in his diary, that he was attending a meeting at the Royal Society where one Dr Croon, a famous anatomist, was giving a lecture on birds and how they fly, and he says: “I did say to Dr Croon that Dr Wilkins and I did make flying machines in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, 20 years ago, circa 1654.”

A mid-16 th century engraving shows the use of water power, and part of this sense of the wonder of mechanical force. It depicts a stream, and a number of little sluices, each one powering wheels, the idea being, that a wheel, through a crank, makes the hammer go up and down and hence you can use it for forging metal. It was part of a much wider culture of the sheer fascination with mechanical technology.

Another wood-cut, 1620, shows an Oxfordshire-peculiar stunt called the Flying Ship of Lamborne, where something of an entrepreneur had the idea of a pair of ropes up Lamborne Church tower, where a small model ship, big enough for him to sit in, was being pulled up and down, and the very idea of the image of a ship literally going into the air, I think, has an enormous power in the Flying Ship of Lamborne.

Another picture shows one of Wilkins’ devices about the powers of spring.

There is a man blowing into something rather like a child’s windmill. All of the gears rotate, and out of the ground, comes the oak tree – a puff of breath pulls an oak tree out of the ground. Of course it doesn’t really follow the laws of dynamics as we understand them nowadays! Put a clockwork motor up there, put a pair of wings down here, and you’re up 20 miles.

Wilkins was always bringing in ingenious inventions he knew of in reality. There was a wind ship a rather dangerous looking contraption which shot across Holland at something touching 30 miles an hour. Now being in this device at 30 miles an hour with a good headwind from the North Sea behind you must have been hair-raising to say the least! But his idea is something that can perhaps do that and then go up into the air as well.

Another of Wilkins’ suggestions is a wind car – with a rotary vane and a differential axle on the back wheel, and you now have a wind car which can drive in any direction because the vane will rotate irrespective of the wind’s direction.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of one of the extraordinarily fruitful periods in not only British but European scientific history. One of the great things about this movement is the flash quality about it. By that, I don’t mean flash as cheap, but rather suddenness, the fact that all things which seemed to be coming together by about 1630, but which by 1660 were obviously recognised to be technologically impossible. But I do think that the Jacobean Space Programme warrants at least some recognition in a wider understanding of the history of science, and all of these men were connected in one way or another with Gresham College in Bishopsgate Street


4 Responses to “The Mother of all Clockpunk stories – The Jacobean Space Program”

  1. 1 Rebecca Nesvet November 27, 2009 at 5:03 am

    Actually, there is a feature screenplay based on Wilkins’s project.

    It’s called A HABITABLE WORLD, and I won an Alfred P. Sloan Writing Grant (for screenplays about scientists) for it at New York University in 2008. I went to the fascinating Sloan/AFI Symposium in Los Angeles because of this, had a meeting with a very nice agent, and he told me that a film on this theme wouldn’t be compelling/commercial/ever shot.

    If anybody wants to try as a no-budget guerrilla filmmaking endeavour, I’m happy to share the screenplay.

  2. 2 Mark Francis April 17, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Bit late for Jacobean isn’t it, seeing as King James I died in 1625?

  1. 1 Karl Jobst Trackback on March 6, 2015 at 2:19 am

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