As a preeminent American literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe is widely known for his tales of horror and the macabre. Less well known about Poe is his place in literary history as inventor of detective fiction, his contributions to the emergence of science fiction, and as editor of a textbook on conchology (The conchologist’s first book). It is through his work as science fiction writer that Poe found his way into Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780-1910, a Smithsonian Libraries’ exhibition, now on display at the National Museum of American History in the Smithsonian Libraries gallery space located in One West.
Two examples of Poe’s foray into science fiction are both hoaxes and are featured in Fantastic Worlds. The earliest of the two, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”, was published on June 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger magazine. The other was “The Balloon Hoax”, as it became known in collected works by Poe, which was published in April 1844 in the New York Sun newspaper.
“Unparalleled Adventure” tells of one Hans Pfaall who travels via balloon to the moon with the aid of a new device which can compress the vacuum of space into breathable air. Knowledgeable of studies of the atmosphere carried out in balloons, Poe understood the character of atmospheric conditions, occurring at higher altitudes.
The story is largely told through a letter dropped from Pfaall’s balloon to a crowd in Rotterdam before he disappeared back into to sky. The letter tells of Pfaall’s reasons for and means of escaping from Rotterdam five years prior, along with his subsequent trip to the moon in said balloon. Poe intended to continue with the story and include an account of Pfaall’s time on the moon but abandoned his efforts after Richard Locke’s Great Moon Hoax of 1835 stole Hans Pfaall’s spotlight.
Poe’s “Balloon Hoax” of 1844 tells of how famed aeronaut Monck Mason crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 75 hours. The story published in the Sun included a diagram and specific information of the lighter-than-air craft. Like “Hans Pfaall”, and all of Poe’s science fiction stories, the “Balloon Hoax” contained enough scientific verisimilitude and cultural references to hopefully fool the reader into buying the entire truth of the story. The first several lines of the hoax declare how science has finally subdued the air, the earth, and the ocean with this great achievement of transatlantic travel.
Poe was influenced by scientific concepts and aeronautic adventures for this story including Monck Mason’s historic long-distance flight of 1836 from London, England to Weilburg, Germany. The other being that their fictional navigable flying machine (since the first navigable balloon was not until 1872) was based on the concepts of William Henson and George Cayley.
Familiar with the work of Cayley, Henson received a patent for a steam-powered flying machine, which was never built. While none of Cayley’s designs for navigable airships resulted in actual working powered flying machines, he did develop a working glider. Also, Cayley’s engineering work pioneered early studies in aeronautics and is considered the first truly scientific investigation of the underlying principles of flight.
Outside the literary worlds of hoaxes and science fiction, Poe was interested in the philosophy of science and scientific discovery including in astronomy. Poe’s interest in astronomy dates back to his youth when he first peered through the family telescope at the age of 16. It emerged in his poetry and short stories as both a topic and as a literary device, culminating in his last major work, the epic poem Eureka: A Prose Poem, first published in 1848. Eureka is a unique literary work that is a combination of satire, exposition, and scientific theory, with some literary critics viewing the work as a hoax since it contains elements common in Poe’s hoaxes.
Common critical consensus seems to lean towards the poem as a serious work of cosmology, which remarkably reflects current modern scientific thinking relating to the origins of the universe and multi-verses, the Big-Bang, black-holes, among other ideas. Poe’s approach is unique in a number of ways. At a time when astronomers tended to focus on observable phenomena, Poe pondered the big picture; the nature of the universe. Additionally, Poe didn’t just rely on standard knowledge, he also looked to his own intuition and imagination. In a way, Poe combined the science of the time with a Gothic or Romantic perspective of viewing nature through the lens of the sublime, perceiving nature as something beautiful, inspiring, and sometimes tragic, and not just as something scientifically measurable.
Poe’s critique of relying primarily on observation for scientific discovery is evident in Eureka. A quote from a passage in Eureka critiquing the limitations of observation and pure reason in science helps demonstrate Poe’s attitude:
“…it cannot be maintained that by the crawling system, exclusively adopted, men would arrive at the maximum amount of truth…. The error of our progenitors was quite analogous with that of the wiseacre who fancies he must necessarily see an object the more distinctly, the more closely he holds it to his eyes. They blinded themselves….”
Poe’s unique perspective created a fantastic world of science fiction inspired by scientific thought; one that still inspires, confounds, and enlightens today’s readers.