The Space Gun Was Conceived 199 Years Ago

In 1815 the British artist Edward Francis Burney (1760-1848) published a book of drawings called Q.Q. Esq.'s Journey to the Moon. In spite of the less-than-serious nature of the illustrated story, Burney put some thought into his launch system.

In what is apparently the earliest tale about a "space gun" ever written, Burney used the cosmic weapon to launch his hero on a journey to the moon. Three large cannons are used. They are bound together, their muzzles pointed vertically. Into each muzzle is placed a heavy pole that protrudes a foot or so from the mouth of each cannon. Balanced atop these is a small, circular platform barely large enough for Q.Q. to curl up on. The projectile itself was made aerodynamic by sheathing it with a partly-furled umbrella — the overall effect is that of a narrow cone with fluted sides.

The Space Gun Was Conceived 199 Years Ago

Burney was also one of the first to consider conditions beyond the earth's atmosphere and provided his astronaut with the earliest spacesuit ever described. This took the form of a bag-like helmet fitted with circular glass lenses and an oxygen supply. A valve in the top of the helmet allowed stale air to escape. Q.Q.'s spacecraft even had some instrumentation, in this case a device called a "motometer."

After the four cannons were fired simultaneously, the poles thrust the tiny projectile aloft. When the spacecraft arrived at its destination, it entered the lunar atmosphere base-first (just as the Mercury capsules did when returning to the earth). The parachute then opened, allowing Q.Q. to descend gently to the lunar surface.

In addition to a schematic diagram of the spacecraft, two of the book's original illustrations show the earth as it would appear from space. These not only may be be first such attempts at such a depiction but are also remarkably accurate—indeed, more so than many similar illustrations that appeared well into the twentieth century.