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by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

One Bohemian night in 1608, the Imperial Mathematician gazed up at the moon and the stars. In the seven years since he had received that title, Johannes Kepler had discovered many things about these celestial bodies, some true and some (as Hesiod said) like the truth: that planets moved around the sun, not the earth; that they moved in ellipses, not perfect circles; that they were enormous magnets – to name a few. The following year, he would publish these discoveries as his New Astronomy, a book which would make his name a fixed star in the firmament of science. On this particular night, however, a different book was on Kepler’s mind. His curiosity had been aroused by popular historical comparisons to the current troubles between Emperor Rudolph and his brother, the Archduke Matthias; while investigating Bohemian legends, Kepler had come across the story…

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[UPDATE Aug 2015: ‘1500 Miles an hour’ is now available as a free ebook at Project Gutenberg, many thanks to  FreeLiterature.org]

Among the one million book images the British Library have released on Flickr are a set of fantastic illustrations by Arthur Layard from 1500 MILES AN HOUR, an early “scientific romance” by author Charles Dixon. The novel features a manned space flight from the earth to Mars and was published in London in 1895, two years before THE WAR OF THE WORLDS featured a Martian invasion in the other direction. In 1896, a brief review of 1500 MILES in London’s Spectator magazine compared the story to the scientific romances of Verne and Poe, but scoffed at the idea of going to Mars:

“Mr. Dixon’s narrative is serious, as far as journeys to Mars and such things can be serious. We must own to a preference for having the marvellous kept within terrestrial limits.”

1500 MILES AN HOUR (66MB pdf) is the story of 4 men and a dog who travel to Mars on a spacecraft – the Sirius – designed and built by “Doctor Hermann FRS, FRAS, FRGS”. Dr Hermann has discovered that the space between planets is not airless but filled with a rarefied atmosphere that can be traversed with electric propellers, driven by a petroleum fuel-cell of his own devising. He estimates the trip will take two and a half years at top speed.

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First, as to my means of conveyance. I have here a design for an air carriage, propelled by electricity, capable of being steered in any direction, and of attaining the stupendous speed of fifteen hundred miles per hour. It can be made large enough to afford all necessary accommodation for at least six persons, and its attendant apparatus is capable of administering to their every requirement. Here is a model of the machine. You will perceive that the material of which it is composed is no metal in common use, nor is its composition, and the method of its manufacture, known to any mortal man but myself. It is remarkable for its extreme lightness, toughness,and power of withstanding heat. Wrought-iron melts at something like 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit ;my metal will stand a fiery ordeal three times as great. This is of the utmost importance, for our high rate of speed would soon generate sufficient heat to melt any but the most enduring substance.

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On a clear night in the Southern Hemisphere the sky is filled by the brightest parts of the Milky Way and the prominent dark nebula named the Great Rift, a veil of interstellar cloud drawn across the Milky Way itself for almost a third of the sky from Cygnus to Centaurus. The Great Rift is most visible where it contrasts with the bright hub of our galaxy near the constellation Sagittarius.

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The Great Rift is formed by overlapping clouds of cosmic dust about 300 light years distant between our own Orion Arm of the galaxy and the Sagittarius Arm, the next spiral arm inwards towards the galactic centre. The visible gap between the bright spiral arms isn’t empty – the darker dust clouds are some of the densest parts of the galaxy and make up around half of its mass.

2015-07-07 15_03_53-Artist's conception of the Milky Way annotated with arms, and galactic longitude

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