By: Ben Nechmad
Jules Verne seems to be peering into the future in his notable novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1870, the book is far ahead of its time. It is rife with concepts that were previously unheard of, such as deep-sea travel and nuclear-electric power. However seemingly prophetic Verne’s ideas were, they were often scientifically possible to a degree and largely influenced by the 19th-century infatuation with technological progress.
The author’s description of submarine technology is strikingly similar to the technology that we have today. There is also some foresight present in his other works. His book, “From the Earth to the Moon,” portrays space travel and even goes to state how Florida is the most opportune place to launch a rocket to the moon. These coincidences may give the impression that Jules Vern could see into the future, but in actuality, his work is reflective of a time period in which scientific thought and theory seeped into popular culture. Timothy Unwin highlights this in the book, “Jules Verne: Narratives of Modernity.” He writes,
“Verne has been hailed as a prophet of space-travel, and his lunar novels are probably the first to envisage a journey to the moon as a real possibility—but the launching of the Columbiad in Florida and its eventual touchdown in the Pacific are not the visions of a prophet who foresaw the Apollo space programme. They are based on known and, for Verne, readily available calculations of the moon’s movement around the Earth and of the most favourable launching opportunities.” (Ch. 4 Pg. 49)
Jules Verne did not completely make up the technology in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” he merely took the scientific knowledge of his time and placed it into a practical context.
Verne’s books were written at a time of great technological development spurred by the military-industrial complex of the Civil War. New inventions and scientific discoveries were a major aspect of the latter half of the 19th century. There were newer and faster ships, trains, and even primitive cars. These and other inventions left much of the population wondering what would come next. Scientific progress was apparent to everyone and was shaping the world like it had never been before. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” among other novels by Jules Verne, is the embodiment of the scientific curiosity that enshrouded 19th century society. This curiosity laid the framework for the major technological development of the 20th century. His work incorporated radical ideas and characters because progress, according to Verne, was to push the barriers of science and society. Carter Kaplan discusses this in his article, “Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and the “question of the monster.” He writes,
“Verne exhibits strict adherence to known science or pseudo-science, a journalistic style ornamented by a wealth of technical detail, and a curiosity for radical character types existing at the fringes of conventional society.”
During the 19th century, much of the scientific knowledge that had recently been discovered had no practical application yet. The electrical apparatus that powered the Nautilus for example, would not be possible at the time Verne was writing the novel, but electricity was still very much on people’s minds. It was this fascination of pushing the limits of science and adventure that inspired Verne to imagine an electrically powered submarine. This imaginative drive eventually allowed humanity to actually develop this technology in the next century. The 19th Century was full of confronting unknowns from the seemingly endless land of the American West to the discovery of bacteria. Jules Verne, imbued with a desire to dream and hope, took the emerging scientific knowledge of his time and came up with a strikingly human story of confronting the unknown.
Science fiction has not changed much in the Century after Verne’s death. Star Trek for example, “predicted” the cellphone decades before it was invented. These novels and stories are the embodiment of humanity’s progress and desire for discovery. Who knows? In the digital age that we live in, with new earth-shattering technology coming out every day, the science fiction on Netflix today could become the reality tomorrow.
An example of a Thomas Edison lightbulb. One of the 19th Century Technologies that revolutionized the way we live today. Jules Verne could have easily incorporated it into a novel, only for it to be invented a few short decades later. The lightbulb among many other 19th Century inventions were the products of the imagination and dreaming spurred by the major scientific discoveries of that time.
Smyth, Edmund J. Jules Verne: narratives of modernity. Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2000. Citing from Chapter 4: The Fiction of Science, or the Science of Fiction by contributing author, Timothy Unwin
Kaplan, Carter. Extrapolation. Summer, 1998, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p139, 9 p. Kent State University Press, 1998.
Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 1870