Ye final frontier: the 17th-century space race

In the golden age of science and exploration, one young scholar devised a plan to fly to the moon. In this feature from the May 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine, Allan Chapman looks back to the early 17th century, when scientists had ingenious plans

The would-be spaceman, John Wilkins, wearing his robes as the Bishop of Chester, c1670. (Image by Alamy)

Utter the  word “Jacobean” to most people and chances are they’ll think of antique furniture design and stately homes. Yet the Jacobean and early Stuart periods, which span the first half of the 17th century, also saw one of the most ambitious space programmes in history – the first efforts to fly to the moon.


This was a turbulent period in British history, culminating in bloody civil war. Yet at the same time that political trouble was brewing in England, scientific knowledge was bounding ahead faster than ever before. Galileo’s discoveries in astronomy, made in Italy with the newly-invented telescope after 1610, and the Royal Physician Dr William Harvey’s description of the circulation of the blood around the bodies of living creatures in 1628, constitute two notable examples. Indeed, a whole range of useful inventions, including mechanical clocks, telescopes, gunpowder and the magnetic compass, were radically altering the boundaries of human perception, and making people ask more and more questions about the world in which they lived. Perhaps nothing grabbed the imagination of the age more than the great geographical explorations of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, and their discoveries of exotic new continents and vast oceans.

Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin stands beside an American flag, soon after landing on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. (Photo by NASA/Liaison)

New world on the horizon

When Galileo first looked at the Moon through his telescope in January 1610, he was astonished to find that it seemed to be a “world”. For, unlike the Moon when seen with the naked eye, the telescopic view of our satellite revealed mountains, continents, and what Galileo mistook for seas. Meanwhile, the contemporary Welsh astronomer Sir William Lower said that his telescope made the Moon resemble a Dutch sea chart: all bays, islands, and inlets.

These discoveries caught the imagination of European thinkers, and in that deeply religious age, it was natural for people to ask that if God had made the Moon a world, then had He perhaps not put intelligent beings on it? And could we communicate with these beings? This tantalising possibility lay right at the heart of the Jacobean space programme.

Alien spaceship landing on rural road

The scene was set for Reverend Dr John Wilkins, a young English clergyman and passionate lover of the new science. In 1638, his Discovery of a New World… in the Moon provided the first real opportunity for English readers to interpret Galileo’s ideas. What’s more, Wilkins was a Copernican, who believed that the Earth moved around the Sun, and he seriously suggested that not only might the Moon be within reach of human voyagers, but perhaps other planets as well. Wilkins was widely read in the science of his day, and also drew inspiration from one or two contemporary works of “science fiction” such as Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (“The Dream”) of 1634, which speculated about human journeys through space.

Harnessing science

John Wilkins’ approach, however, lay not in storytelling but in attempting to use the most advanced science and technology of the age to design some kind of space craft. His “Flying Chariot” would incorporate such technical details as ship design, atmospherics, self-acting automata, ornithological studies, and experimental physics. Over the next decade he used this array of theories and skills to come up with an amazing proposal.

Central to Wilkins’ scheme was his understanding of the Earth’s gravitational pull, for this is what any potential space traveller needed to escape from. At this time, however, 50 years before Sir Isaac Newton’s work, scientific thinking still confused the pull of gravity with the attraction of the Earth’s magnetic field. From his observation that a magnet ceased to attract a compass needle at a given point of separation, Wilkins concluded that the Earth’s pull ceased 20 miles above its surface. Of course, we now know that he was wrong to believe this, but science has often been advanced by mistakes.

Russian cosmonaut dog Laika, c1957. Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth, travelling on board the Sputnik II spacraft launched on 3 November 1957. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

To rise these initial 20 miles, Wilkins proposed a remarkable vehicle. His Flying Chariot was to be like a small ship, in the middle of which would be a powerful spring-driven clockwork motor. The force of gunpowder could be used to wind up this machine, so that when its mechanism was switched on, it would cause a large pair of wings to beat, resembling those of a bird. The Chariot would now fly upwards, though once it had ascended 20 miles and escaped the Earth’s pull, the motor could be switched off. From this point onwards, it would hopefully glide towards the Moon.

Searching for the Selenites

The astronomers of 1640 knew the distance to the Moon quite accurately, so the voyagers could now settle down to a relatively routine trip of several weeks, such as those that faced the great ocean navigators. And when the spacemen entered the Moon’s much weaker pull, they simply needed to switch on the clockwork-powered wings to ensure a safe descent and landing. Would there be inhabitants (Wilkins called them “Selenites” from the Greek moon goddess Selene) coming to greet them? If so, English merchants might engage in commerce, to establish new, lucrative celestial markets.

Among other things, Wilkins suggested that supplying food for the space voyagers would not pose a problem. For, he argued, we only feel hunger because of the Earth’s constant pull on our stomachs; so once free from the Earth, in space, the lack of gravity will mean that we will no longer be hungry.

Needless to say, John Wilkins’ Flying Chariot never became an astronautical reality. In fact science was moving ahead so rapidly that, while Wilkins could make plausible suggestions for a Flying Chariot in the early 1640s, by the time he was 50, in 1664, he would have realised its impossibility. By 1659, the researches of his friends, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, had led to the discovery of the vacuum, and the realisation that space itself was probably airless and hence impassable.

An engraving from Harvey's seminal work showing blood flowing through the veins of the lower arm. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Yet while Dr Wilkins never got any higher off the ground than he could jump, his lively intellect, genial personality, and power to inspire others placed him at the forefront of the English scientific movement. As Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, between 1648 and 1659, he assembled around him a “Clubbe” of scientific friends, while at the same time working closely with experimentalists in astronomy and physics at Gresham College, London. And when the monarchy was restored after the civil wars in 1660, Wilkins’ scientific circle became chartered as the Royal Society, which is still Great Britain’s most august scientific body. John Wilkins became Bishop of Chester in 1668, and his brilliant protégé, Robert Hooke, became the age’s greatest experimental physicist.

John Wilkins and his friends belonged to what might be called the “honeymoon” period of science: enough had been discovered to open up wonderful prospects, yet only time would tell how much more was needed to make space flight a reality. With the re-opened Shuttle programme once again sending people into space, let us not forget that it was an English scientific visionary who first proposed a journey to the moon in a “Flying Chariot”.


Dr Allan Chapman is a historian of science at Oxford University. His main areas of research lie in the history of astronomy and medicine, and the relation between science and religion

10 space journeys



Galileo uses the newly-invented telescope to discover mountains and continents on the Moon.


Johannes Kepler’s posthumously-published Somnium (“The Dream”) is the first piece of science fiction literature describing a journey to the Moon. But Kepler’s astronaut was propelled by spirits.


John Wilkins writes Discovery of a New World … in the Moon and Mathematical Magick, in which he reviews current advances in mechanical technology and proposes a journey to the Moon in a “Flying Chariot”.



Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros advances the argument that beings living on Saturn must be technologically advanced, and are probably looking at us with telescopes.


The Montgolfier brothers in France build their hot air balloon, taking men up, up and away into the atmosphere. By 1783, however, scientists knew that space was an impassable freezing vacuum.



The “Lunar Hoax” is perpetrated by the New York Sun newspaper to boost circulation. Its bogus claim that intelligent moon men had been seen with a giant telescope caused a huge sensation.



Robert H Goddard in America launches the world’s first “modern” rocket, using a liquid fuel burning engine.



Russia launches “Sputnik”, the first spacecraft or artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. Then in 1961 Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to survive a space journey.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wearing his helmet for the first ever manned flight in space. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wearing his helmet for the first ever manned flight in space. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)


The Americans Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong land on the Moon in Apollo 11, becoming the first men to set foot on another world.



Launch of the Columbia manned space shuttle. Over 100 successful flights had taken place by 2003, when the astronauts were killed as the craft burned up upon re-entry.

An age of enlightenment: the real scientific discoveries of the 17th century

Though the “Jacobean Space Programme” never got off the ground, the 17th century saw the birth of modern science. Carefully-controlled experiments and observations made with newly-invented instruments, such as the telescope, microscope, precision clock, barometer and thermometer, fundamentally changed the way in which people thought of the natural world. 

The telescopic observations of Galileo, Huygens, Cassini and others showed the Universe to be vast and possibly inhabited. At the same time, the pioneering microscopic studies of Robert Hooke revealed a whole new world of wonders that could be explored with magnifying lenses. Robert Boyle’s work with the vacuum pump laid the foundations of modern quantitative chemistry. And, while having little effect on practical medicine, the anatomical and physiological researches of William Harvey, Thomas Bartholin and Thomas Willis demonstrated how the heart caused the blood to circulate and the chemical role of air in respiration, and led to the first scientific studies of the brain. Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton both created modern optics and explained the physics of light, while also making rival priority claims for the elucidation of the laws of gravitation. And, contrary to persistent myths, the Christian church did not try to suppress science; most scientists were devoutly religious men.

Books: The Man in the Moon by Faith K Pizor and T. Allan Comp (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971); 2000 Years of Space Travel by Russell Freedman (Collins, 1965); England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution by Allan Chapman (Institute of Physics, 2004).