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The Artillery of Jules Verne

Jules Verne not only captured the imagination of the reading public in both Europe and America, he was able to tap into the "dread" his readers unconsciously felt toward technology, particularly the technology used to advance the ideals of imperialism and war. Verne began his career with a fair amount of optimism about the possible better uses of technology. In his later life, like Mark Twain, he became very pessimistic and, like Twain, he lost his sense of humor. Verne's most common theme was imperialism. France was in decline as a major European power. But Verne saw war all around him.

By the time Jules Verne appeared on the scene, science had changed, but men and their follies have not. The Industrial Revolution in England, America, and Europe had been well underway by 1863 when Verne published the first of his "voyages extraordinaires", Five Weeks in a Balloon. Jules Verne adapted and re-arranged factual material to suit the demands of an adventure story, in particular simplifying characters and exaggerating events for dramatic effect. Verne is well known for his intertextual use of material from both fictional and nonfictional sources. Verne incorporated nonfiction source material into his stories. Despite his apparent scientific accuracy, Verne is prone to exaggeration. Everything is bigger in Verne.

Baltimore Gun ClubThe Baltimore Gun Club Series by Jules Verne consisted of "From the Earth to the Moon" [1865], the sequel "Round the Moon" [1870], and the rather less known "The Purchase of the North Pole" [1889]. In the first book, the manic Gun Club builds a giant cannon which projects a steam-punk spaceship into a trajectory that takes it round the Moon and back home again.

In 1865, Jules Verne, writing From the Earth to the Moon, began with "During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland.... the point in which the Americans singularly distanced the Europeans was in the science of gunnery. Not, indeed, that their weapons retained a higher degree of perfection than theirs, but that they exhibited unheard-of dimensions, and consequently attained hitherto unheard-of ranges. In point of grazing, plunging, oblique, or enfilading, or point-blank firing, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn; but their cannon, howitzers, and mortars are mere pocket-pistols compared with the formidable engines of the American artillery.

"This fact need surprise no one. The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers—just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians—by right of birth. Nothing is more natural, therefore, than to perceive them applying their audacious ingenuity to the science of gunnery. Witness the marvels of Parrott, Dahlgren, and Rodman. The Armstrong, Palliser, and Beaulieu guns were compelled to bow before their transatlantic rivals.

"One day, however — sad and melancholy day! — peace was signed between the survivors of the war; the thunder of the guns gradually ceased, the mortars were silent, the howitzers were muzzled for an indefinite period, the cannon, with muzzles depressed, were returned into the arsenal, the shot were repiled, all bloody reminiscences were effaced; the cotton-plants grew luxuriantly in the well-manured fields, all mourning garments were laid aside, together with grief; and the Gun Club was relegated to profound inactivity. Some few of the more advanced and inveterate theorists set themselves again to work upon calculations regarding the laws of projectiles. They reverted invariably to gigantic shells and howitzers of unparalleled caliber...."

This humorous Jules Verne novel inspired the 1875 opera Le Voyage dans la lune, the Georges Melies 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, and the 1958 movie of the same title.

In Verne's Sans dessus dessous (1889), published in English as "The Purchase of the North Pole", J.T. Maston tries to shift the axis of the globe so that a group of American investors (who had purchased the North Pole during an auction) can drill for coal regardless of the amount of devastation and displacement such a cataclysm would provoke. The “Gun Club” engineers in Sans dessus dessous sought to change the earth’s axis through a giant cannon blast.

Les 500 millions de la Begum Les 500 millions de la Begum Les 500 millions de la Begum Les 500 millions de la Begum Les 500 millions de la Begum

Jules Verne's "The Five Hundred Millions of the Begum or the madness of the cannon" (1879) originates from a manuscript ( The Heritage of Langévol ) bought by Pierre-Jules Hetzel for a mouthful of bread (1500 F of the time all the same, plus an extension of 1000 F) to the former Communist Paschal Grousset ( 1844-1909), then escaped from New Caledonia's prison and fled to England. Verne's Les 500 millions de la Begum is so scathingly grim that it has traditionally been considered a "turning point" in Verne's career in terms of his own ideological evolution from cheerful optimist to guarded pessimist. Written shortly after the Franco-Prussian war, Les 500 millions de la Begum paints a dark picture of two scientists, a benevolent Frenchman, and an evil, despotic German.

Herr Schultze, builds Stahlstadt or "City of Steel," a dystopian factory. At the close of the war of 1870-71, France lay prostrate and helpless beneath the heel of Germany. Hence Germans, and back of them the whole Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon race, were anathema to this patriotic Frenchman. Professor Schultze outdoes himself in the savage, sneering, impossible picture of the utterly vulgar, selfish, insensate, dull, and yet iron-willed and powerful German. Nevertheless this hideously ugly and unhuman figure undeniably remains grotesquely and suggestively German.

A giant cannon designed by Professor Schultze fires a destructive shell from Stahlstadt on France-City. Verne describes " the most enormous piece of ordnance ... ever beheld. A breach-loader of at least three hundred tons. Its mouth measured nearly five feet in diameter. Mounted on a steel carriage, and running on rails of the same metal, it might have been maneuvered by a child, so easy were all its movements made, by a system of cogged wheels. A spring, fixed at the back of the carriage, had the effect of annulling the recoil, or at least producing a perfectly equal reaction, so that after each shot the gun returned to its first position. ... At twenty thousand yards we can pierce a forty-inch plate as easily as if it were a slice of bread and butter! ... this fellow, I would undertake to send, with tolerable precision, a projectile to the distance of thirty miles!.... [the shells] were enormous tubes, six feet in length and three in diameter, sheathed in lead in such a way as to fit into the rifling of the gun, closed behind by a steel plate, and the point finished off by a steel tip, supplied with a percussion button."

But the gunners having too much force on the powder, the projectile leaves with a speed of 10 km/s all round (is 20 times the performance of the classic guns of the time). It passes over the target and does not return to earth. This is the famous canon problem that Newton (1643-1727) introduced in his 1687 Principia to explain why the moon did not fall on the Earth.

The cannon features characteristics representative of the inventor’s work: it is superlative in size and power and it uses technology which is not yet available in the author’s time. In this case, the new technology is the recoil mechanism, which makes Schultze’s gun very accurate and fastfiring. Verne chooses this device because it is a much-anticipated, and much-feared improvement to Krupp’s current well-selling cannons. It is the perfect illustration of an inventor’s work, both futuristic and frightening.

Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:38:04 Zulu