A few years ago the world was suddenly astounded by hearing of an experiment of a most novel and daring nature, altogether unprecedented in the annals of science. The BALTIMORE GUN CLUB, a society of artillerymen started in America during the great Civil War, had conceived the idea of nothing less than establishing direct communication with the Moon by means of a projectile! President Barbican, the originator of the enterprise, was strongly encouraged in its feasibility by the astronomers of Cambridge Observatory, and took upon himself to provide all the means necessary to secure its success. Having realized by means of a public subscription the sum of nearly five and a half millions of dollars, he immediately set himself to work at the necessary gigantic labors.
In accordance with the Cambridge men's note, the cannon intended to discharge the projectile was to be planted in some country not further than 28° north or south from the equator, so that it might be aimed vertically at the Moon in the zenith. The bullet was to be animated with an initial velocity of 12,000 yards to the second. It was to be fired off on the night of December 1st, at thirteen minutes and twenty seconds before eleven o'clock, precisely. Four days afterwards it was to hit the Moon, at the very moment that she reached her perigee, that is to say, her nearest point to the Earth, about 228,000 miles distant. The leading members of the Club, namely President Barbican, Secretary Marston, Major Elphinstone and General Morgan, forming the executive committee, held several meetings to discuss the shape and material of the bullet, the nature and position of the cannon, and the quantity and quality of the powder. The decision soon arrived at was as follows: 1st—The bullet was to be a hollow aluminium shell, its diameter nine feet, its walls a foot in thickness, and its weight 19,250 pounds; 2nd—The cannon was to be a columbiad 900 feet in length, a well of that depth forming the vertical mould in which it was to be cast, and 3rd—The powder was to be 400 thousand pounds of gun cotton, which, by developing more than 200 thousand millions of cubic feet of gas under the projectile, would easily send it as far as our satellite.
These questions settled, Barbican, aided by Murphy, the Chief Engineer of the Cold Spring Iron Works, selected a spot in Florida, near the 27th degree north latitude, called Stony Hill, where after the performance of many wonderful feats in mining engineering, the Columbiad was successfully cast.
Things had reached this state when an incident occurred which excited the general interest a hundred fold.
A Frenchman from Paris, Michel Ardan by name, eccentric, but keen and shrewd as well as daring, demanded, by the Atlantic telegraph, permission to be enclosed in the bullet so that he might be carried to the Moon, where he was curious to make certain investigations. Received in America with great enthusiasm, Ardan held a great meeting, triumphantly carried his point, reconciled Barbican to his mortal foe, a certain Captain M'Nicholl, and even, by way of clinching the reconciliation, induced both the newly made friends to join him in his contemplated trip to the Moon.
The bullet, so modified as to become a hollow conical cylinder with plenty of room inside, was further provided with powerful water-springs and readily-ruptured partitions below the floor, intended to deaden the dreadful concussion sure to accompany the start. It was supplied with provisions for a year, water for a few months, and gas for nearly two weeks. A self-acting apparatus, of ingenious construction, kept the confined atmosphere sweet and healthy by manufacturing pure oxygen and absorbing carbonic acid. Finally, the Gun Club had constructed, at enormous expense, a gigantic telescope, which, from the summit of Long's Peak, could pursue the Projectile as it winged its way through the regions of space. Everything at last was ready.
On December 1st, at the appointed moment, in the midst of an immense concourse of spectators, the departure took place, and, for the first time in the world's history, three human beings quitted our terrestrial globe with some possibility in their favor of finally reaching a point of destination in the inter-planetary spaces. They expected to accomplish their journey in 97 hours, 13 minutes and 20 seconds, consequently reaching the Lunar surface precisely at midnight on December 5-6, the exact moment when the Moon would be full.
Unfortunately, the instantaneous explosion of such a vast quantity of gun-cotton, by giving rise to a violent commotion in the atmosphere, generated so much vapor and mist as to render the Moon invisible for several nights to the innumerable watchers in the Western Hemisphere, who vainly tried to catch sight of her.
In the meantime, J.T. Marston, the Secretary of the Gun Club, and a most devoted friend of Barbican's, had started for Long's Peak, Colorado, on the summit of which the immense telescope, already alluded to, had been erected; it was of the reflecting kind, and possessed power sufficient to bring the Moon within a distance of five miles. While Marston was prosecuting his long journey with all possible speed, Professor Belfast, who had charge of the telescope, was endeavoring to catch a glimpse of the Projectile, but for a long time with no success. The hazy, cloudy weather lasted for more than a week, to the great disgust of the public at large. People even began to fear that further observation would have to be deferred to the 3d of the following month, January, as during the latter half of December the waning Moon could not possibly give light enough to render the Projectile visible.
At last, however, to the unbounded satisfaction of all, a violent tempest suddenly cleared the sky, and on the 13th of December, shortly after midnight, the Moon, verging towards her last quarter, revealed herself sharp and bright on the dark background of the starry firmament.
That same morning, a few hours before Marston's arrival at the summit of Long's Peak, a very remarkable telegram had been dispatched by Professor Belfast to the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. It announced:
That on December 13th, at 2 o'clock in the morning, the Projectile shot from Stony Hill had been perceived by Professor Belfast and his assistants; that, deflected a little from its course by some unknown cause, it had not reached its mark, though it had approached near enough to be affected by the Lunar attraction; and that, its rectilineal motion having become circular, it should henceforth continue to describe a regular orbit around the Moon, of which in fact it had become the Satellite. The dispatch went on further to state:
That the elements of the new heavenly body had not yet been calculated, as at least three different observations, taken at different times, were necessary to determine them. The distance of the Projectile from the Lunar surface, however, might be set down roughly at roughly 2833 miles.
The dispatch concluded with the following hypotheses, positively pronounced to be the only two possible: Either, 1, The Lunar attraction would finally prevail, in which case the travellers would reach their destination; or 2, The Projectile, kept whirling forever in an immutable orbit, would go on revolving around the Moon till time should be no more.
In either alternative, what should be the lot of the daring adventurers? They had, it is true, abundant provisions to last them for some time, but even supposing that they did reach the Moon and thereby completely establish the practicability of their daring enterprise, how were they ever to get back? Could they ever get back? or ever even be heard from? Questions of this nature, freely discussed by the ablest pens of the day, kept the public mind in a very restless and excited condition.
We must be pardoned here for making a little remark which, however, astronomers and other scientific men of sanguine temperament would do well to ponder over. An observer cannot be too cautious in announcing to the public his discovery when it is of a nature purely speculative. Nobody is obliged to discover a planet, or a comet, or even a satellite, but, before announcing to the world that you have made such a discovery, first make sure that such is really the fact. Because, you know, should it afterwards come out that you have done nothing of the kind, you make yourself a butt for the stupid jokes of the lowest newspaper scribblers. Belfast had never thought of this. Impelled by his irrepressible rage for discovery—the furor inveniendi ascribed to all astronomers by Aurelius Priscus—he had therefore been guilty of an indiscretion highly un-scientific when his famous telegram, launched to the world at large from the summit of the Rocky Mountains, pronounced so dogmatically on the only possible issues of the great enterprise.
The truth was that his telegram contained two very important errors: 1. Error of observation, as facts afterwards proved; the Projectile was not seen on the 13th and could not have been on that day, so that the little black spot which Belfast professed to have seen was most certainly not the Projectile; 2. Error of theory regarding the final fate of the Projectile, since to make it become the Moon's satellite was flying in the face of one of the great fundamental laws of Theoretical Mechanics.
Only one, therefore, the first, of the hypotheses so positively announced, was capable of realization. The travellers—that is to say if they still lived—might so combine and unite their own efforts with those of the Lunar attraction as actually to succeed at last in reaching the Moon's surface.
Now the travellers, those daring but cool-headed men who knew very well what they were about, did still live, they had survived the frightful concussion of the start, and it is to the faithful record of their wonderful trip in the bullet-car, with all its singular and dramatic details, that the present volume is devoted. The story may destroy many illusions, prejudices and conjectures; but it will at least give correct ideas of the strange incidents to which such an enterprise is exposed, and it will certainly bring out in strong colors the effects of Barbican's scientific conceptions, M'Nicholl's mechanical resources, and Ardan's daring, eccentric, but brilliant and effective combinations.
Besides, it will show that J.T. Marston, their faithful friend and a man every way worthy of the friendship of such men, was only losing his time while mirroring the Moon in the speculum of the gigantic telescope on that lofty peak of the mountains.