A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

X is for Xenos

Popular interest in astronomy and the nature of neighbouring planets thrived among Victorian stargazers, whose belief that the extra-terrestrial, as David Clifford (2006, 172) puts it, were ‘beyond mortal reach’ allowed for all kinds of speculation and conjecture as to what might be found in space.

In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne depicted the efforts of the Baltimore Gun Club to build the enormous Columbiad gun to shoot a projectile to the moon in the aftermath of the American Civil War. His 1869 sequel, Around The Moon, follows the adventures of the passengers on board the Columbiad’s projectile as they orbit the moon, which they conclude is entirely barren. A more genteel lunar experience was depicted for Chocolat Lombart in 1912, with a smooth return from the moon (‘Retour de la Lune’) in just eight hours.

In the meantime, the vast expanse of the increasingly visible universe prompted debate as to whether other planets might also be inhabited. In 1894 American businessman and writer John Jacob Astor looked to the year 2000 in his novel, A Journey in Other Worlds. Thanks to the anti-gravitational forces of ‘apergy’, space travel allowed for the exploration of Jupiter, where ‘a battle royal’ ensues with an ‘enormously exaggerated ant’, and Saturn, where the human protagonists shoot at ‘poisonous dragons’. Schiaparelli’s 1878 observation of artificial canals across the surface of Mars renewed speculation as to the nature and inhabitants of the red planet (Markley 2005). Writing in the near future, in the wake of the Martian battle described in H.G. Wells’ 1897 War of the Worlds, astronomer and writer Garrett Serviss depicts Edison’s Conquest of Mars. From the ruins of New York, Thomas Edison leads a group of scientists to develop ‘a machine which could navigate the atmosphere and the regions of interplanetary space’ and ‘machines of war’ that would enable US-led forces to attack Mars and prevent another invasion. The martian enemy are highly intelligent and giant –  ‘at least fifteen feet tall’, ‘like men, and not yet like men’ – and only Edison’s ‘disintegrator’ allows for their ‘remorseless slaughter’. Like Astor’s rendering, Serviss’ tale reflects the rise of the United States, the seeming inevitability of imperial conquest, and prevailing anxieties as to the threats posed by non-white migrants.

Garrett P. Serviss, ‘Edison’s conquest of Mars’, Los Angeles Herald, February 27, 1898, 22. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.