"An important landmark in the evolution of interplanetary science fiction"

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Louis Guillaume de La Follie, 1733?-1780. Le Philosophe sans prétention, ou L’homme rare. Ouvrage physique, chymique, politique et moral, dédié aux savans. Par M. D. L. F., Paris, Chez Clousier, 1775. Call number: (Ex) Q157.L25. Purchased by the Library in 1998-99. Princeton copy has contemporary signature “Mlle de Beaufort” at the head of the frontispiece.

“A picaresque Oriental romance and conte philosophique that created the first airship powered by electricity. (Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning in the 1760s had impressed many observers, including, some years later, a young Percy Shelley.) The fact that fiction soon abandoned this opening to follow the balloon trail of the Montgolfier brothers should not reflect poorly on la Folie, argues Versins (see his Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science fiction, 2e ed., Lausanne, 1984, page 505), but on the writers whose imaginations could rise no higher than the earth’s atmosphere. But the author’s importance is far greater than that. Here, for the first time, he adds, is the outline of a theory for a new type of literature inspired by science and technology: a theory that would not be truly implemented until nearly a century later with the works of another Frenchman, Jules Verne. In his dedicatory epistle, La Folie compares science to a beautiful woman whose inherent charms are not noticed until she is dressed up attractively enough to excite the curiosity of onlookers. (Through the ages it has not been unusual for writers to misdirect readers in such prefaces, to avow sound utilitarian purposes which they could use for cover from certain kinds of criticism. Whether la Folie’s work really does function as a procurer for Science is another matter. Yet the argument could be made that sugar-coated science constitutes the main course served up by Verne — and many subsequent authors of science fiction.) The ostensible narrator of la Folie’s tale is an Arab named Nadir (an astronomical pun) who, in a vision, beholds the voyages of a Mercurian named Ormisais. In his description of life on Mercury, Ormisais relates the workings of an elite scientific-literary organization (like the British Royal Society or the French Academy) but much more restrictive, with only a dozen members. One of the applicants for the latest vacancy is a young inventor, Scintilla, the true hero of the tale. He shows the Academy members his flying machine, ‘an elaborate combination of wheels, globes of glass, springs, wires, glass-covered wooden uprights, a plate rubbed with camphor and covered with gold leaf’ (Nicolson, Voyages to the Moon, p. 197): altogether a far cry from the winged contraptions of the past. After a short demonstration flight, Ormisais is chosen to take the trip to Earth, but he crash lands and is thus stranded, a stranger in a strange land. He tells Nadir that it took him 500 hours to ‘ascend’ or ‘descend’ to Earth: take your pick, for the universe, he says (enunciating a surprisingly modern cosmology) has neither height nor depth nor center nor frontiers. An important landmark in the evolution of interplanetary science fiction.” - Robert Eldridge (courtesy of L. W. Currey, Inc., Elizabethtown, N.Y.)

See also: “The First “Electrical” Flying Machine” by Nora M. Mohler and Marjorie H. Nicolson in Essays contributed in honor of President William Allan Neilson. (Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1939), pp. 143-158.

Lafolie, (Louis Guillaume), a French chemist, born at Rouen in 1739. Discovered the yellow dye extracted from gaude, (dyer’s weed,) and wrote an imaginative work called the “Philosopher without Pretension,” (‘Philosophe sans Prétention,’ etc., 1775.) D. in 1780.” — Joseph Thomas, Universal Pronouncing Dictionary of Biography and Mythology (Philadelphia, London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1915), vol. 2, page 1471.

More biographical information at http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lowengard/glossShell.html?f#f07.

For more on the Library’s Aeronautica, see this article concerning chiefly books, and this article concerning prints.

1 Comment

That kind of prescience 100 years before Jules Verne? Impressive. Space and the sea, still the final frontiers.

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