Almost 150 years after the publication of Around the World in 80 Days, people still refer to Jules Verne’s fictional adventure each time someone comes close to breaking a record for circumnavigating the globe. Such was the case for this year’s Vendée Globe, a round-the-world sailing challenge, where the winners crossed the finish line after exactly 80 days at sea. Last Monday, February 8th, marked 193 years since Verne’s birth. What better time to share some fascinating facts about the life and work of one of the world’s greatest science fiction writers.
A Fruitful but Afflicted Life
During his life, Verne wrote more than 60 romans de science, launching the modern-day genre of science fiction. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any author but Verne also published several plays, poems, song lyrics, short stories, and a large number of scientific essays. Verne dreamed of being a writer from an early age but his father insisted that he study law which he abhorred. After obtaining his degree, he refused to enter the legal profession but struggled to make ends meet as an author. Around the age of 30, he began working as a stockbroker in order to support his family, but he found that this too was an unfulfilling, if not a soul-sucking, profession.
At the age of 35, his persistent writing endeavors finally appeared to be paying off when he published his first novel, Cinq Semaines en Ballon. He lived to be 77 but historians now realize that Verne probably suffered from a form of colitis, Bell’s palsy, high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, and type-2 diabetes throughout much of his life. When Verne was 58 years old, his nephew shot him during a psychotic episode and left him with a painful limp for the rest of his days. Considering all of the obstacles that the man had to surmount, the extent of his creativity and output is even more impressive.
An Auspicious Harbinger
Perhaps more than any other author, Jules Verne’s writing was remarkably predictive of where science and technology were heading. The astonishing frequency at which imaginary contraptions and devices from his novels became realized inventions earned him the sobriquet of “the man who invented the future.” During his 20s and early 30s, Verne spent countless hours in the Bilbliothèque Nationale de France, poring over scientific journals and keeping up with the latest advances. He occasionally produced his own scientific papers and managed to get them published but his dream was to become a playwright. These early scattered efforts, coupled with a life-long interest in new discoveries informed every chapter of his eventual bestsellers.
By the end of his life, Jules Verne had conceived and described myriad unrealized vehicles, devices, techniques, foodstuffs, and survival strategies. His imagined creations included submarines, helicopters, armored vehicles resembling tanks, air conditioning, diving chambers, oxygen tanks, and electric-powered devices such as pumps, water heaters, clocks, lights, and barbed-wire. Verne also conceived skyscrapers, moving sidewalks, internal combustion engines, elevators, and mechanical calculators that could communicate with each other over a network.
In his book De la Terre à la Lune, Verne envisioned a rocket-like space ship that broke into several stages in order to make the trip. He even placed the rocket’s launch site in Florida and described test flights with animals before human lives were put at risk. The inventive author dreamed up a massive telescope to track the rocket’s path and located it in California, a state which almost a century later became home to many ground-breaking astronomical observatories. He anticipated elements of space travel such as breaking the sound barrier, air friction heating the rocket’s exterior to unbearable temperatures, retro-rockets to cushion the spaceship’s landing, a mechanism to escape a planetary object’s orbit, and returning to earth via an ocean landing. His breathtaking ability to imagine the future, if not prescient, was certainly thorough.
Inspired by Disaster
One of Verne’s early adulthood friends and source of inspiration was Félix Tournachon, known by the pseudonym Nadar, a successful photographer, cartoonist, and balloonist. They both believed that the modern era would be defined by the triumph of science and human intellect over nature. In the 1860s, Nadar became obsessed with building a colossal balloon, Le Géant, capable of hoisting a two-story cabin into the heavens. For weeks, Verne devoted every minute of his free time to working on the project. He soon became an expert on all known aspects of balloon flight. On the day of the launch, however, Verne was unable to attend. He was heartbroken upon hearing that the monstrous inflatable had failed to lift its cargo, broken from its tethers, and ruptured into shreds.
Verne had been counting on writing about the balloon’s voyage. When it failed, he decided to create an imaginary logbook that would dramatize a successful trajectory. He quickly realized, however, that a few hours of flying over Northern France did not make for a gripping plot. Around this time, reports from Africa, describing the exploits of European adventurers, were regularly in the news. The English explorers, Burton and Speke, had recently discovered Lake Victoria during an expedition to locate the source of the Nile River. These events gave rise to the idea for Verne’s first successful novel Cinq Semaines en Ballon, which describes a 5-week balloon flight over Africa in search of the mysterious continent’s secrets.
A New Kind of Hero
Verne had difficulty finding a publisher who found his work worth printing. He eventually showed it to Pierre-Jules Hetzel who represented Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. Hetzel liked the premise of the book, but he wanted Verne to add more details. Verne at first resisted but when the publisher offered him a contract wherein Verne would receive a handsome salary in exchange for producing two novels per year, he enthusiastically complied with Hetzel’s request.
The book was published in January 1863 and was immediately successful. Verne’s readers were excited about technology and sensed that they were on the cusp of a new era where man’s ingenuity would deliver many exciting technological advances. The new details that Verne had added to the storyline were so comprehensive that some people mistakenly assumed the book described one of Nadar’s actual undertakings. The heroes of Verne’s bestseller were atypical, to say the least. Rather than chivalrous swordsmen, courageous freedom-fighters, or devoted paramours, Verne’s heroes were unflappable adventurers and calculating scientists that made careful preparations, put faith in their own resourcefulness, and revered the power of nature.
A Credible and Hailed Celebrity
According to a biography by Franz Born, Verne’s stories were so well-formulated that in the spring of 1864, “five hundred persons of the male sex” appeared outside Hetzel’s office hoping to join Verne on a trip to the moon. The astonishing turnout, I imagine, was due in no small part to Hetzel’s brilliance as a promoter. In addition to representing several great novelists, Hetzel published a family magazine, called Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation. All but the first of Verne’s novels were serialized in this periodical before being printed in their entirety. As soon as one of Verne’s new narratives hit newsstands, the literate of France eagerly awaited each subsequent issue.
Verne became adept at leaving his characters on the brink of disaster or the edge of victory at the end of each installment. In Les Aventures du Capitaine Hatteras, a tale about the first expedition to reach the north pole, Verne kept even his central characters in the dark regarding the nature of their mission for as long as possible. Verne’s long-held passion for science gave him the expertise needed to expose readers to the real dangers of crossing the arctic wasteland. While the book was billed as a story for children, many adults, including sea captains and geographers learned from its pages.
The Inspiration for Many an Adventurer
Verne’s fictional conquest of the North Pole was published 45 years before Captain Peary actually set foot there. In Verne’s version, the British Captain Hatteras and his men are in a race to reach the pole before an American team gets there first. Hatteras succeeds and returns to England but the strain of the voyage has rendered him deranged. Meanwhile, the American team succumbs in the icy landscape.
Nearly 50 years later, a similar rivalry played out when a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole, led by Roald Amundsen, triumphed over an English expedition led by Robert F. Scott. In the real-life saga, Amundsen survived the trip while Scott, along with all of his men, perished. Both Amundsen and Scott, as well as the polar explorer Admiral Byrd, were young fans of Verne’s novels.
Other famous Verne enthusiasts include:
- Norbert Casteret a famous spelunker, writer, and adventurer who discovered a network of caves and prehistoric cave drawings beneath the Pyrenees.
- Lieutenant Harry E. Rieseberg, an underwater explorer, treasure hunter, and author who wrote about the many shipwrecks he found and plundered.
- Jacques Cousteau, the celebrated oceanographer, filmmaker, and conservationist.
- Igor Sikorsky, a 20th-century pioneer of aviation who is credited with designing and flying the first American helicopter.
- Frank Borman, an American astronaut from the Apollo 8 moon mission who commented, “In a very real sense, Jules Verne is one of the pioneers of the space age.”
An Advocate of Preparedness and Collaboration
The research that Verne put into his novels made them not only plausible but reliable sources of information. People enjoyed reading them in part to hear a good story but also to learn about other regions of the world, exotic species, geographic wonders, indigenous peoples, and practical survival skills. Verne populated his expeditions with well-informed experts, each member a specialist whose knowledge and skills complemented those of his fellow teammates. Just when all seemed lost, and a mission hung on the brink of failure, collective efforts would succeed in moving the narrative forward.
Today, the notion of forming teams of experts seems fundamental to the success of most endeavors. But, in the mid-19th-century, the concept was refreshingly novel.
A Lasting Popularity
Verne wrote in French but his books quickly gained worldwide popularity. They have been translated into roughly 150 languages. That’s more than can be claimed for William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, many of the early English translations were dumbed-down to be marketed to younger children rather than adolescents and adults. In addition to simplifying the science and pruning down the dialogue, some translations removed all perceived criticism of the British Empire. These shoddy English reproductions persist but are slowly being replaced by new translations that adhere more closely to Verne’s original texts.
During his life and up until today, many critics have described Verne’s works as commercially successful but not worthy of serious academic consideration. One of Verne’s deepest regrets was never being nominated for membership in the Académie Française. Yet, his stories have continued to influence popular culture for nearly 200 years, appearing in movies, television series, theme parks, radio shows, broadway productions, children’s cartoons, musical scores, graphic novels, and computer games. To this day, adventurers, authors, inventors, and scientists continue to herald Verne’s name. It’s unlikely that the world will see another author who captures mankind’s spirit of adventure and technological future so brilliantly.
- Overblog, Cinq semaines en ballon par Jules Verne, illustrations de Henri Dimpre
- OpenCulture.com, Jules Verne’s Most Famous Books Were Part of a 54-Volume Masterpiece
- ImageText, Reading the Illustrations of Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires: The Example of Le Superbe Ornoque
- MentalFloss.com, Fifteen Things you might not Know About Jules Verne
- l’Obs, Centenaire de la mort de Jules Verne
- Wikipedia, Jules Verne
Special thanks to fellow blogger and Verne enthusiast, Robyn Lowrie of My French Quest, for turning me on to Franz Born’s biography, The Man Who Invented the Future.