Monday, July 20, 2009

Journeys to Space: Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong

Benjamin Franklin was a man ahead of his time. On the fiftieth anniversary of the moon walk, he might have asked, “What took you so long?”

In a letter to Jane Mecom dated 1786, he mentions an Italian Poet who gives an account of a voyage to the moon, “telling us that all things lost on Earth are treasured there.” Franklin quips that, if so, the Moon must hold a great storehouse of Good Advice.

The Italian author Franklin’s referencing is probably Cyrano de Bergerac, a freethinking philosopher who penned The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon in 1657. In this story, the traveler’s first attempt at space travel involves tying various glass globes filled with dew to his torso; when morning comes and the dew rises, he begins to ascend toward the sun, but then begins to break the globes when his ascent becomes too fast and plummets back to terra firma. Eventually successful in reaching his destination, he discovers a world where the inhabitants live in cities built on wheels, equipped with giant sails and mechanical bellows to self-propel across the landscape. The rest of the account is equally fanciful.

Franklin records quite a different encounter with moon men in a fragment posted to the American Philosophical Society in 1768, where he details the experiences of one William Henry who lived as a captive among the Seneca Indians. On hearing that Europeans believe there is but a single God, the native chieftain objects: “You say there is but one great good Manitta. You know of no more. If there were but one, how unhappy must he be, without friends, without companions, and without that equality in conversation, by which pleasure is mutually given and received! I tell you there are more than a hundred of them; they live in the sun and in the moon; they love one another as brethren; they visit and converse with each other; and they sometimes visit, though they do not often converse with us.” As an avowed polytheist, Franklin was probably not shocked by the idea.

The idea of space travel—and of encountering the inhabitants of other spheres--has stretched the imagination throughout time. From Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong, Americans will continue to explore the universe, in dream and reality.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Benjamin Franklin a polytheist? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Brad Hart said...

It's actually the 40th anniversary, not the 50th.

Phil Johnson said...

Ideas get better when they're tossed around.
Aren't you glad the old philosophers talked about space travel?