Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Scientific Dreams of the Past

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1196580Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 July 1891 — Scientific Dreams of the Past1891Albert de Rochas



MANY of the inventions which are the glory of our time were foreseen by certain dreamers, in whose imaginations they received a kind of virtual existence. The electric telegraph is foreshadowed by Strada in some twenty verses of his Prolusiones academicæ, which were published in Rome in 1617. To him it was a fancy, a simple wish:

"O! utinam haec ratio scribendi prodeat usu
Cantior et citior properaret epistola!"

The manner in which he understood the instrument was reproduced by all the students of the time, notably by a Jesuit of Lorraine, Père Leurechon, in his Hilaria mathematica, published in 1624. I quote a passage, in which it is mentioned, from the French translation published two years later at Pont à Mousson, under the title of Récréations mathématiques, by an author who signed himself Van Etten:

"There are some who have intimated that absent persons might be able to converse by means of a magnet or some similar stone. For example, Claude being in Paris and John in Rome, if each had a needle rubbed on some stone the property of which was such that as one of the needles moved in Paris the other would move in Rome, it might be that Claude and John would both have a common alphabet, and that if they had agreed to speak from a distance every day at six o'clock in the evening, arranging that the needle should make three turns and a half as a signal that it was Claude and no other that wished to speak to John. Then Claude, wishing to tell him that the king is in Paris (le roy est à Paris), will move his needle and stop it at L, then at E, and then at R, O, Y, and so on with the others. At the same time, John's needle, acting in correspondence with Claude's, will move and stop at the same letters so that it will be easy for it to write and make understood what the other means." "The invention is very nice," Père Leurechon remarks, "but I do not believe there is a magnet in the world that has such virtues."

Phonography is thus described in the April number, 1632, of the Courier Vèritable, a little monthly publication in which novel fancies were frequently aired: "Captain Vosterloch has returned from his voyage to the southern lands which he started on two years and a half ago, by order of the States-General. He tells us among other things that in passing through a strait below Magellan's, he landed in a country where Nature has furnished men with a kind of sponges which hold sounds and articulations as our sponges hold liquids. So, when they wish to dispatch a message to a distance, they speak to one of the sponges, and then send it to their friends. They, receiving the sponges, take them up gently and press out the words that have been spoken into them, and learn this by admirable means all that their correspondents desire them to know."

Cyrano de Bergerac, in his Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune, whose first edition is dated as early as 1650, is still more precise. He relates that the genius that guided him to our satellite gave him for his entertainment some of the books of the country. These books are inclosed in boxes. "On opening the box I found inside a concern of metal, something like one of our watches, full of curious little springs and minute machinery. It was really a book, but a wonderful book that has no leaves or letters; a book, for the understanding of which the eyes are of no use—only the ears are necessary. When any one wishes to read, he winds up the machine with its great number of nerves of all kinds, and turns the pointer to the chapter he wishes to hear, when there come out, as if from the mouth of a man or of an instrument of music, the distinct and various sounds which serve the Great Lunarians as the expression of language." A few pages before this, Cyrano speaks of transparent globes, that serve for lighting, in which a non-heating lamp has been placed.

We are next told about microbes: "Figure the universe as a great animal; the stars that are worlds as other great animals which serve as worlds to other people like. us, our horses, etc., and that we, in our turn, are like worlds in respect to certain animals still incomparably smaller than we, as are certain worms, fleas, and flesh-worms; that these are the earth to others still more imperceptible; and that just as we appear, each individual of us, a great world to these little people, it may be also that our flesh and our blood are only a tissue of little animals which maintain themselves, lend us motion by theirs and let themselves be led blindly by our will which serves them as a coachman, lead us in our turn, and produce altogether the action which we call life. Does not the itch prove what I am saying? Is the worm that causes it anything but one of these little animals which has deprived itself of civil society to constitute itself a tyrant of its country? That blister and that scab, of which you do not know the cause, have to come, either by the corruption of the enemies which these little giants have slain, or by the plague produced by the remnants of the food with which the disturbers have gorged themselves, and left in heaps of dead bodies on the field; or because the tyrant, after having driven from around himself his companions which were corking with their bodies the pores of ours, has given passage to the humor, which has become corrupt after having been ejected from the sphere of the circulation of our blood. For a further proof of this universal parasitism, you have only to consider how the blood runs to the spot where you are wounded. The doctors tell you that it is guided by Provident Nature, which desires to succor the debilitated parts; which would make us conclude that besides the soul and mind there is in us a third intellectual substance having its functions and organs apart. But for this reason I find it more probable to say that these little animals, feeling themselves attacked, send to their neighbors for aid, and they having come from all around, and the country being incapable of supporting so many people, they die of hunger, or are smothered by the pressure. This mortality takes place when the imposthume is ripe; for the corrupted flesh then becomes insensible in testimony that the animals have been smothered; and that the bleeding which we order to divert the inflammation is because that, having lost much by the opening which these little animals tried to cork up, they refused to assist their allies because they were hardly able to take care of themselves."

Cyrano tried to go up to the moon by tying around his waist bottles full of dew, which, according to the opinion then received, was attracted by the sun. He was not able to rise so high; but, after breaking a considerable number of bottles, he pretended almost to nullify the weight of his body, so that he could travel by long leaps, only grazing the earth, as many people fancy in their sleep that they are doing. "He reached the moon by means of a machine which he does not describe, and found there another terrestrian who had raised himself up by the aid of a Montgolfier and a parachute. He filled two large vessels with smoke, sealed them hermetically, and fastened them under his arms; the smoke, which tended to rise and could not penetrate the metal, immediately pushed the vessels up, and they carried the man with them. . . . When he had risen to the moon, . . . he promptly untied the vessels which he had bound as wings to his shoulders, and did it with such success that he had just reached the lunar air, four toises above the moon, when he took leave of his flippers. The elevation was still great enough for him to have been considerably hurt, if the wind had not inflated the voluminous folds of his robe, and gently sustained him till he set foot on the ground.'.

In 1760 another dreamer, Tiphaigne de La Roche, published under the title of Giphantie, an anagram of his name, a curious little work in which photography is described—in the ultimate state to which it has just been brought—with the reproduction of the colors. Tiphaigne supposes himself transported to the palace of the elementary genii, the chief of whom told him: "You know that the rays of light, reflected from different bodies, form a picture and depict those bodies on all smooth surfaces, like the retina of the eye, water, and ice. The elementary spirits have endeavored to fix those transient images; they have composed a very subtle and viscous matter, quick in drying and hardening, by means of which a picture is made in a wink. They wash a piece of cloth with this matter, and present it to the objects which they desire to depict. The first effect of the varnished cloth is that of a mirror, in which one can see all the bodies, near and distant, of which the light can bring the image. The cloth with its viscous coating holds the images, which the glass can not do. The mirror represents the objects faithfully to you, but retains none; our cloths represent them no less faithfully, but keep them all. The impression of the images is made the instant the cloth receives them. It is taken away at once, and put in a dark place; an hour later, the coating has dried, and you have a picture, all the more precious because no art can imitate the truthfulness of it, and time can not damage it in any way. We take from the purest source, the body of light, the colors which painters extract from different materials, and which time never fails to change. The precision of the design, the variety of the expression, the touches of more or less strength, the gradation of shades, the rules of perspective, are all abandoned to Nature, which, with a sure course that is never false to itself, traces on our cloths the images which are imposed by her on our eyes, and cause us to question whether what we call realities are not other kinds of phantoms imposed upon our sight, hearing, touch, and all the senses at once. The elementary spirit then went into physical details; first on the nature of the adhesive substance which intercepts and holds the rays; then on the difficulties met in preparing and using it; and, lastly, on the part played by light and the dried substance; three problems which I propose to the physicists of our time, and leave to their sagacity."

The function given by Tiphaigne to the elementary spirits suggests that that author had been initiated into the occult sciences, according to which all the substances in nature possess a proper life, a kind of mortal soul, defined by the term elemental, which directs their reciprocal actions.

"There is not a thing in the world, not a blade of grass, over which a spirit does not reign," says the Cabala of the Jews; "their life has not an eternal principle as its center; at their death, all is at an end with them." According to Paracelsus, "All the elements have a soul and are living. . . . They are not inferior to man, but they differ from him in not having an immortal soul. They are the powers of Nature—that is, it is they that do what we usually attribute to Nature. We may call them beings, but they are not of the race of Adam." A similar doctrine is developed in Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled. The same method of conceiving of the production of physical phenomena has had defenders in the world of positive science, as in the doctrine of monads of Leibnitz; in the anatomical elements of Claude Bernard, who speaks of our bodies as being composed of millions, milliards of minute beings or living individuals of different species, of which those of the same species unite to constitute our tissues, while the tissues join to constitute our organs, and all react upon one another with a harmonious concurrence for a common end;[1] and in Sir John Herschel, who wrote in the Fortnightly Review, in 1865, that all that has been attributed to atoms, their loves and hates, their attractions and repulsions, according to the primitive laws of their being, becomes intelligible only when we admit the presence of a mental quality in them. Modern scientific theories tend to assume the unity of matter, of a protyle, which forms all substances by different degrees of condensation. Some go still further, and assume that there is no matter in the ordinary sense of the word, but only force and energy. F. Hartman argues that we can change force into matter, and that is what takes place every instant in the human body, as well as in the vegetable and animal world, and we can change matter into force under like conditions. This etheric force, the base of all the others, is what Lord Lytton describes in his romance, The Future Race, as "vril." So these dreams are repeated—to receive, perhaps, possible verifications in future discoveries; and thus old follies may, as Beaumarchais says, in the Marriage of Figaro, become wisdom, "and the fictions of the ancients be transformed into pretty little truths."—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

According to calculations by M. L. Niesten, all the asteroids known (now more than 300), if combined into one, would form a body not quite 514 miles in diameter, or less than one twentieth the diameter of the earth; and it would require 8,575 bodies like it to form a planet having the volume of the earth. The largest of the asteroids, Vesta, is 230 miles in diameter, and the smallest, Agatha, four miles and a half. As all of these bodies having considerable size have most probably been discovered, the estimate of the mass of the whole is not likely to be materially affected by the detection of new ones.
  1. Revue des Deux Mondes, September 1, 1864.