Jules Verne

Jules Verne: An Author Before His Time?

This 19th century author's novels predicted submarines, flying machines, skyscrapers and even the moon landing while at the same time inspiring some of the world's most important scientists. How did he do it?

On the 31st of January, 1863, a small volume began appearing in bookstores all over France. It was the adventure of three travelers, led by a Dr. Fergusson, who dared to penetrate the interior of darkest Africa using a balloon. The brave explorers in the story risk angry, spear-carrying natives, ferocious baboons, and slow death by dehydration during their trip. Readers found themselves puzzled by this account. Was it fact or fiction? It read like an authentic travel diary, including detailed descriptions of natural phenomena that was seen and notes taken on the longitude and latitudes as the travelers moved, but the adventures seemed fantastic!

In the Paris daily Le Figaro a review read, "Is Dr. Fergusson's journey a reality or is it not? All we can say is that it is bewitching as a novel and as instructive as a book of science. Never have the serious discoveries of celebrated travelers been summed up as well."

The title of this amazing work was Five Weeks in a Balloon and its first-time author was a man named Jules Verne.

Early Life

Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in the city of Nantes, France. His father, Pierre Verne, was a lawyer. From the family's summer house just outside the city, young Jules could look out and see the great docks and shipbuilding facilities of the region. Jules prided himself at having grown up "in the center of maritime life of a great commercial city, port of call of innumerable long voyages." He watched the great clipper ships and three masted schooners come and go as he used his imagination to climb their masts and ride the great vessels to foreign ports of call.

For payment of a franc Jules and his younger brother Paul would rent a boat for the day and go sailing behind their summer house. It was during one of these times that Jules found himself stranded about 30 miles downstream when a plank came lose and the boat sunk. Stuck on a small islet, he was forced to wait until low tide to wade across to the mainland and walk home. The incident was embellished by an early biographer into an attempt by the young Verne to sail off across the Atlantic as a cabin boy on a ship headed for the West Indies, only to be rescued by his father at the last moment. The tale, while a favorite with Verne fans, shows not the slightest sign of being true.

Verne's father, wishing to see his son follow in his footsteps, sent him to Paris to study law. While there he found himself attracted to the theater. Encouraged by his friend, the elder Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers), Verne tried his hand at writing plays. The first one was produced in 1850. Over the next ten years Verne tried to make a living as a playwright. He gave up the law (to the great alarm of his father) to create a series of not terribly successful works for the stage including The Companions of the Marjolaine and Blindman's Bluff. In order to support himself Verne became a stockbroker, a career that did not capture his heart, but gave him enough financial stability to marry a widow named Honorine in 1857. In 1861 their only child was born, Michel Jean Pierre Verne.


It was the year 1862 in which Verne's career took off in a new direction. There is legend that he stood on the steps of the Paris stock exchange and declared to his associates there, "My boys, I believe that I'm about to desert you. I had the kind of idea Emile Girardin says every man must have to make a fortune. I've just written a new kind of novel, and if it succeeds it will be an unexplored gold mine. In that case I'll write more such books while you're buying your stock. And I think I'll earn the most money!" When his friends laughed at his comments, he replied, "Laugh, friends, we'll see who laughs longest."

Early illustration of Verne's manned projectile from the book From the Earth to the Moon.

It is hard to say if the above story is true. However, Verne certainly did invent a new kind of novel, and it did bring him fortune and fame.

When he set out to write Five Weeks in a Balloon Verne had no knowledge of ballooning, nor had he ever been to Africa. He probably drew heavily on the writings of others including Edgar Allan Poe's The Balloon Hoax, a story about a group of Englishmen who accidentally cross the Atlantic in a balloon, and Poe's The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall, a tale about a trip to the moon in a balloon.

To make his accounts of Africa realistic Verne undoubtedly relied on magazines such as Louis Hachette's Le Tour du Monde-Nouveau Journal des Voyages. This weekly publication contained articles on explorations around the world and included maps, illustrations of ships, and descriptions of customs in remote locations. These details would have certainly been invaluable to Verne in fleshing out his novel.

The Publisher

Every writer needs a publisher, and Verne's was a man by the name of Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel and Verne were introduced to each other in 1862 by a mutual friend, writer Alfred de Brehat. Shortly afterward they entered into a partnership that would last most of their lives. In Hetzel, Verne had found the ideal publisher, and in Verne, Hetzel had found the ideal writer. Hetzel's careful editing and insightful suggestions for changes to Verne's manuscripts perhaps made Hetzel nearly as responsible for their success as was Verne himself. Together they would turn out one lucrative novel after another.

Hetzel also introduced Verne to Felix Nadar, a renaissance man with interests in aerial navigation and ballooning. Though it is impossible to say if Nadar contributed any ideas to Five Weeks in A Balloon, we do know that Nadar, in turn, introduced Verne to his circle of scientific friends. Conversation among them undoubtedly guided Verne while writing his early scientific stories. Later when Nadar founded the Society for Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier-Than-Air Craft, Verne was listed as a member of the board.

Though many people think of Verne as a scientist or a world traveler, in truth he was neither. Much of his research for his works was done through reading books and periodicals or discussing the scientific breakthroughs of the day with his knowledgeable friends. We are often amazed when his scientific predictions in his books turn out right, but the truth is we more easily forget the ones that are wrong.

Verne realized that he had finally found his place in the world and threw himself into his work with great enthusiasm. In a progress report to Hetzel while working on a novel about exploring the North Pole he wrote, "I'm in the middle of my subject at 80 degrees latitude and 40 degrees centigrade below zero. I'm catching cold just writing about it!" In the next ten years he was to create many of his classic novels for which he is best remembered.

Even before the first copies of Five Weeks in a Balloon went on sale, Verne was hard at work on this next adventure: The tale of a tenacious explorer named Captain Hatteras and his difficult journey to reach the North Pole. Hatteras's odyssey was published as two books, The English at the North Pole and The Wilderness of Ice, but before these were released Verne was already starting on a book that is still widely read today, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Even in these early books it is easy to see that Verne was fascinated in building a closed universe in which his characters could act. In some cases it was a balloon basket, in others an island, cave or a ship. Almost always Verne's heroes are characters that can thrive in that universe, making do with whatever available materials there are to build a solution to the obstacles that arise.

Paris in the 20th Century

Though today we think of Verne as an optimist and an unswerving supporter of scientific progress, this was not really the case. Early on he had doubts about the effects of too much technology on human lives. In 1863 he penned Paris in the 20th Century, a novel about a young man living in a future world with skyscrapers of glass and steel, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network. The hero cannot find happiness in this highly materialistic environment, however, and comes to a tragic end.

Verne took this novel to Hetzel, who declined to publish it. Hetzel, knowing the mood of the times, thought that the novel would not be successful and might even damage Verne's career. "Wait twenty years to write this book," Hetzel wrote in the margins. "Nobody today will believe your prophecy, nobody will care about it." Verne followed Hetzel's advice and the manuscript was dropped into a safe where it lay until 1989 when it was discovered by Verne's great-grandson. It wasn't until Hetzel's death in 1886 that a more pessimistic side of Verne reemerged in his literature.

From the Earth to the Moon (1865) was Verne's next major novel and the resemblance to the actual Apollo program is uncanny. Following the civil war a group of gun enthusiasts decides to fire a cannonball to the moon. At first the flight is to be unmanned, but then the French daredevil Michel Ardan (an anagram for Verne's friend Nader) volunteers to ride in it. To test the idea of manned flight they launch a cat and a squirrel (NASA would later use monkeys) and recover them at sea. Two Americans join Ardan and the three of them (the same number of astronauts as the Apollo program used) are launched from an enormous cannon located in Florida just a few miles from where the Kennedy Space Center would eventually sit. When they return, they splash down in the Pacific, another similarity to the first real moon shots. The book ends with the successful launch of the 19th century astronauts. Readers would have to wait four years until the sequel was published to find out what happened to the intrepid adventurers.

In 1867, Verne, accompanied by his brother Paul, made his single trip to North America crossing on the huge steamship, the Great Eastern. Ironically, as much as Verne was fascinated by the United States and the American people, he only stayed a week. In that short amount of time he was able to cram in a visit up the Hudson River to Albany, then on to Niagara Falls. The short trip would remain locked in Verne's memory, with portions of his experiences appearing in several of his later works.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Nemo and Aronnax explore Atlantis in this early 20th century illustration.

His idea for his next major novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was perhaps sparked by a note from fellow Hetzel author George Sand in 1865. After reading several of Verne's novels, she wrote "...I have only one regret concerning these stories, which is to have finished them and not to have a dozen more to read...I hope that you will soon take us to the depths of the sea and have your characters navigate in diving vessels that your science and imagination will manage to improve."

It took years for Verne to complete what is probably his most beloved book. In it his characters Professor Pierre Aronnax, his manservant and Canadian harpooner Ned Land join a United States expedition to kill a sea monster that has become a menace to navigation. They attack the creature, but realize too late that the monster is actually a submarine. Thrown into the sea during the battle, Aronnax and his companions become unwilling guests of the ship's owner, the mysterious Captain Nemo. Nemo, a genius of unknown nationality, has cut ties with humankind on the land and lives his life totally aboard his submarine, the Nautilus. He refuses to let his guests return to the land, but takes them on a series of adventures under the sea. These include walking in the sunken city of Atlantis and fighting giant octopi that attack the ship. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that Nemo is waging a war against some nation he holds responsible for the death of his wife and children. When the Nautilus is pulled into the giant Maelstrom whirlpool off of the coast of Norway, Aronnax and his companions escape in a small boat, but the fate of the submarine and Captain Nemo are unknown.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was released in two volumes, the first appearing in 1869 and the second in 1870. Before it was completed, there was a lively exchange between Verne and Hetzel over the nationality of the mysterious Nemo. Verne had originally planned that the Captain would reveal himself as a Pole, avenging himself against the Russians who had killed his wife and taken his children to Siberia where they had died. The readership of Hetzel's magazine included, however, Russians so Verne's publisher insisted Nemo's enemies not be named. Verne unwillingly conceded to this demand, leaving both the nationality of Nemo and his attackers a mystery until a later book.

In 1872 Verne completed the novel that would be the most popular in his own lifetime, Around the World in Eighty Days. The story of the reserved Englishman, Phileas Fogg, who bets his entire fortune that he can travel around the globe in less than eighty days was not only a successful novel, but was produced on several different occasions for the stage during Verne's lifetime. This was something that undoubtedly made Verne, a playwright from his earliest days, very happy.

Mysterious Island, Verne's next major novel, had a rough start. For many years Verne had wanted to write a Robinson Crusoe-type novel about a group of people stranded on an island. His first attempt, Uncle Robinson, was flatly rejected by Hetzel. "Where is the science?" the publisher wrote in the margins, "Drop all those people and begin with new ones!" he added.

Verne's second try pleased Hetzel more. The books starts at the end of the U.S. Civil War when five companions escape from behind confederate lines in a balloon. The trip lasts a lot longer then they expected. They are swept out to sea and after several days land on a remote island dominated by a volcano. A mysterious agent, later revealed to be the dying Captain Nemo, helps them survive (in this book Verne finally reveals the nationality of the Captain, but by this time it has been changed to Indian and his enemies are the English). The volcano finally explodes, destroying the island, but not before the group is rescued.

In the years that followed Verne moved away from scientific novels, but returned in 1886 with the Clipper of the Clouds. In this story the evil genius Robur threatens the world from the Albatross, a flying ship which maintains its altitude through the use of helicopter-type rotors. At the time, the question of whether the future of air travel was with heavier-than-air craft or balloons was being hotly debated. Verne, a supporter of heavier-than-air flight, had intended to promote the idea through this book

Late Life Misfortunes

The attack of the octopi upon the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Eighteen-eighty six was a difficult year for Verne. On March 9, Verne's nephew, Gaston, fired two shots at the famous author just as he was coming home from his club near his home in Amiens. One bullet missed, but the other entered Verne's left shin. The wound was slow to heal and would leave him limping for life. It is unclear why Gaston assaulted his uncle, but it appears he was mentally unbalanced. He lived out the rest of his life in an asylum.

Shortly after the shooting, Verne's longtime friend and publisher Peirre Hetzel died. Although the publishing arrangement would continue through Hetzel's son, Jules, Verne had lost a major confidant. "I've never saw my father as affected as he was when told of this misfortune," wrote Verne's son, Michel to Jules Hetzel.

If there was anything positive to come out of this difficult time it was that Verne and his only son were drawn closer. Michel had been rebellious and difficult through most of his life. At one point, when he was 16, Verne had even shipped him off to spend eighteen months on a steamer going around the world in hope that the time at sea would teach him some responsibility. This failed, but his father's close brush with death seemed to cause Michel to take life more seriously.

In his later years Verne wrote a number of books and stories concerned with the misuse of technology and its impact on the environment. In Propeller Island, he lamented destruction of the native cultures of various Polynesian islands. In the story The Ice Sphinx he predicted the decimation of whale populations. His book The Begum's Fortune warns that technology and scientific knowledge in the hands of evil people can lead to destruction.

Verne continued to work and produce novels until his death on March 24th, 1905, at the age of 77. Several of his novels that were either finished or in progress at the time of his demise were published after his death, including The Lighthouse at the End of the World. His son Michel edited much of the unfinished material and added missing chapters himself when necessary. All in all, Verne had written over 70 books and created hundreds of memorable characters.

The Verne legacy, though, is not only his words, but his readers. Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, "...we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne." Admiral Richard Byrd said on the eve of his polar flight, "Jules Verne guides me." William Beebe, one of the first men to explore the depths of the sea in a bathysphere, got interested in oceanography because of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robert Goddard, considered the father of rocketry, was an avid Verne reader as a child.

The Verne imagination, both through his books and derivations of his works that have appeared in stage and motion picture form, continue to entertain and inspire people today almost a hundred years after his death. It is likely they will continue to do so for many years to come.

Copyright 2002. Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.

A Partial Bibliography

Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography by Herbert R. Lottman, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Jules Verne, Misunderstood Visionary by Arthur B. Evans and Ron Miller, Scientific American.

The Jules Verne Encyclopedia by Brian Taves and Stephen Michaluk. Scarecrow Press, 1996