Category Archives: Literature

The down-to-earth influence of travel to the Moon


The idea of travelling to the Moon has captured the imaginations of politicians and writers alike for many years.

In making the apparently impossible sound possible, authors like Jules Verne (From The Earth to the Moon) (1865) and H. G. Wells (The First Men in the Moon, published in 1900 – see illustration) gripped their readers’ imaginations by transporting them away from all the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives.

Daniel Defoe‘s The Consolidator, or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon, recounts a trip to the Moon and meetings with its inhabitants, the Lunarians, following a journey to China.

Of course, this was long before anyone climbed aboard a real rocket. But once it turned out that the impossible was indeed possible, and astronauts finally did make it into space and onto the surface of the Moon, we hung on their every word as they described their sense of wonderment.

In time our feelings of awe at the scientists’ technological achievements, the skills and bravery of the crews and the beauty and fragility of the Earth have become more muted. Even manned missions have slipped down the news agenda, as we’ve come to accept space travel as simply part of everyday life, albeit often a source of spectacle and wonder. We’ve learned not to expect any more inspirational speeches on the subject, such as that by John F. Kennedy, or quotes from heroic astronauts, such as this observation by Frank Borman:

“When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we live together like decent people?”

This kind of reaction has been a valuable by-product of space missions, giving our species a new perspective on our place in the cosmos, and inviting us to reassess our squabbles and sense of self-importance.

However, there’s little about an unmanned mission that delivers the kind of eye-witnessed, experiential feedback provided by the pioneering astronauts. China’s various successes in unmanned Moon landings are impressive. The recent touchdown on the far side of the Moon will no doubt add significantly to our store of knowledge about the geological history of our nearest neighbour, together with close-up map-making, according to press reports. But it’s not the same if there are no humans involved …

Daniel Defoe wrote about travel to the Moon – coincidentally by the Chinese, and also involving map-making – more than 300 years ago. He recognised the potential of the Moon as an allegorical device which could stir up politicians and religious groups. In The Consolidator, published in 1705, he used a supposed trip to the Moon and meetings with its inhabitants to satirise the current political situation in Britain and make a veiled attack on China.

In real life, Defoe was highly antagonistic towards the Chinese and what he saw as the pernicious effects on England of many aspects of their culture. He thought their social structure was tyrannical and viewed their religion as idolatrous. He also saw little benefit to England in trade conducted by the East India Company.

In the book (“a curious political satire”, according to George Saintsbury), Defoe’s narrator visits China and discovers that the Chinese have been flying to the Moon for many years. The narrator is allowed to make the trip himself, travelling in a rocket named the Consolidator, which is powered by the wings of two feathered creatures. The creatures represent the two houses of parliament.

Whilst on the Moon, he meets a Lunarian philosopher, who shows him a wide range of scientific inventions. In particular, he is shown magnifying glasses which enable him to view the Earth in close-up. But the glasses reveal more than just the surface features; they are also able to bring out all manner of social and political foibles across Europe and more particularly in England, like the conflict between Anglicans and the various dissenting religious groups.

Whilst Defoe’s story is far less ‘down-to-earth’ than his more well-known works such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, I find it interesting that – as with other writers who would follow him – he was far-sighted enough to envision ways in which space travel had the potential to change ways of thinking and influence political and social debate.




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Greetings from the Flip Flap

Here’s a postcard from our family archive that was sent from Camberwell, in London, to Doncaster in 1908 – just over 110 years ago.

Well before people were able to email selfies from Niagara, tweet their first thoughts about Katmandu, do a Facebook Live broadcast from the Serengeti or transmit Periscope broadcasts from Sydney Opera House, picture postcards were a great way of briefly describing (tweeting?) one’s delight or disappointment with a particular holiday destination.

This greetings card finds the sender at the Franco-British Exhibition of Science, Arts and Industry of 1908. From the postmark, it appears that the card probably made it for the last post of the day on September 7th, at 5.10pm (or is that 5.30?). The stamp cost a halfpenny (or ha’penny, pronounced “haypenny”; bear in mind that there were 240 pennies in a pound in those days). There’s the portrait of the reigning monarch, Edward VII, who would die less than two years later, on 6th May, 1910.

“May the Franco-British Exhibition encourage rivalry and stimulate interchange of ideas, strengthen the brotherhood of nations, and in so doing help on the work of civilisation, and promote peace and prosperity throughout the world”, said the then Prince of Wales, soon to be King George V, when opening the exhibition.

This all happened quite soon after the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904, just six years before the start of World War I, some sixty-five years before Britain joined the EEC (after a referendum) and around 110 years before Brexit reared its head. With the current ongoing debate about Brexit and a People’s Vote, it’s chastening to realise that the lady sender of this postcard would not have had the vote. Votes for women didn’t arrive until The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. Indeed, this photo of suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst holding a placard was taken in the same year, 1908, that our postcard was sent.

In terms of fame in Britain’s exhibitions timeline, I suppose this one would rank third after the Festival of Britain of 1951 and the Great Exhibition of 1851. It’s interesting to read that a Channel Tunnel was mooted just three years earlier by the French Ambassador as “an instrument of reciprocal penetration”, which I confess is not a form of words that has ever sprung to my mind when thinking about it …

But what about the Flip Flap itself?

According to the Museum of London, “The Flip-Flap was one of the most popular attractions at White City. It comprised two long steel arms, stretched out on opposite sides of a central base. At the end of each arm was a platform that could accommodate fifty people. The arms rose from the ground to a height of 200 feet, over 60 metres, giving a spectacular view of the exhibition grounds”.

The whole idea of flying through the air was becoming a highly popular talking point at this time, of course, as brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in America, just five years earlier.

In fact, the term ‘Flip Flap’ was already in use: the terrifying Flip Flap Railway (see below), a very early roller coaster, was being tested in Toledo, Ohio in 1888 by designer Lina Beecher before being moved to Coney Island.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are no accounts of any accidents with the Flip Flap. But there was one tragic incident at the exhibition: just three weeks or so prior to our relative’s visit, two people were killed and six injured when a balloon owned by Captain Lovelace of the New York Aero Club exploded.

According to the New York Times, one of those killed was a male employee of Captain Lovelace. The other was Captain Lovelace’s secretary, Miss Hill. The paper’s sub-headline helpfully informs us that she was “Burned to a Cinder”.



Sources: Museum of London; New York Times Times Machine archive; Wikipedia

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