Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 763:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 763.

Today, Cyrano's dream is more solid than we thought. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac in 1897. We've laughed ever since at Cyrano's nose speech. We've wept as he dies reciting his love of Roxanne in another man's name.

But did you know that Cyrano was a real 17th-century writer? He wasn't born in Bergerac, but in Paris -- in 1619. He began as a soldier but had to quit after he was wounded twice. From then 'til his death at only 36, he wrote.

That doesn't explain the play -- swordsman, wit, tragic figure! Cyrano in the play wasn't the historic Cyrano. Rather, he was built on the revolutionary spirit of the real person.

Cyrano was 23 when Galileo died. He knew Galileo's intellectual inheritor, Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi helped end the old Aristotelian science. He was one of the new atomic theorists.

Cyrano, too, worked to change his world. The writers around him hated his daring theatrical stuff. It was, they said, wild and far-fetched. Galileo and Gassendi had built a new science of bold extremes. Now Cyrano built baroque prose to match it.

Galileo's telescope had changed the moon from perfect Aristotelian essence to a real place with a craggy surface. Toward the end of his short life, Cyrano turned the telescope of his imagination on that real moon.

Cyrano joined a handful of people who used science fiction to deal with the new cosmos. Kepler had already used science fiction to tell about his sun-centered universe. That way, he kept out of trouble with the Church.

But Cyrano wrote for a larger audience. He wrote much flashier stuff. It took the hero of his book, Voyage to the Moon, several attempts to get there. And what means he used!

He surrounded his body with glasses of morning dew. When the sun drew the water up, it drew him with it. A group of soldiers tied their ordnance to his flying machine and, like a modern rocket, it rose into the sky.

So science fiction was one way pioneers in a new world of discovery came to grips with that world. You couldn't very well fantasize about going to a moon of pure empyrean essence. But a tangible moon -- that touched our dreams in a new way.

Cyrano's contemporary, John Donne, also reacted to the new vision of space. "Goe and catch a falling Starre," he said. And that's what Cyrano did. External reality fueled the baroque mind.

The real Cyrano didn't dream of some mythic Roxanne. He dreamt instead of a world being changed, from the stuff of dreams into solid flesh and solid rock.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Von Braun, W., and Ordway, F.I., III, History of Rocketry & Space Travel.(revised ed.) New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1969.

For a translation of Cyrano's science fiction and some bibliographic history of it, see: Cyrano de Bergerac, Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. (tr. Richard Aldington) New York: The Orion Press, 1962.

And to read a translation of some of Cyrano's Book about visiting the moon, The Other World or the States and Empires of the Moon, see: http://www.bewilderingstories.com/special/index.html

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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