The Man Who Imagined the Future


Seek out wisdom, and the reason of things (Eccl. 7:25).

The Man Who Imagined the Future

Early one summer morning in 1839, an eleven-year-old boy tiptoed quietly out of his house. The grass was still wet with dew as he hurried across the town square. He headed for the harbor, where he asked a man with a boat to row him out to the three-masted ship anchored nearby. The ship, the Coralie, was sailing that morning for the Indies, and young Jules Verne was running away to sea.

But Jules didn’t get very far. Before it reached the Atlantic Ocean, the Coralie put into the port of Piamboeuf, where Jules’s father caught up with the ship. In angry silence Pierre Verne took Jules home. At home the silence ended. While Jules’s mother cried, his father scolded. Jules was spanked, given bread and water for supper, and sent to bed.

The next morning Jules promised his family that in the future he would travel only in his imagination. It was a promise that would take him far. For in his imagination, Jules Verne traveled not only around the world, but to the center of the earth, to the bottom of the sea, to the moon, and far into the future. And through the many books he wrote, he shared his journeys with the rest of us. We, too, can go with Professor Aronnox and Captain Nemo aboard the submarine Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with Axel in his Journey to the Center of the Earth, and with Phileas Fogg in his hectic trip Around the World in Eighty Days.

As a boy, Jules loved to read. He read books by Sir Walter Scott and by Edgar Allen Poe. His favorite book was The Swiss Family Robinson. He loved to imagine he was stranded on an island like the Robinsons, and he dreamed up all kinds of devices that could be used in such a situation. Jules’s imagination was always at work. He filled his notebooks with imaginary drawings of ships and flying machines.

When he was a young man, Jules went to Paris to study law. He shared rooms with his friend, Edouard Bonamy. The two friends had little money. They had only one good suit and one pair of dress shoes between them, so they took turns wearing the suit and shoes when they went out in the evenings.

But poor or not, Jules couldn’t do without books. His heart was set on owning all the books by Sir Walter Scott and a complete set of Shakespeare’s works. Almost every day, he passed by a store where the books were displayed. He spent what little money he had to buy the set of Shakespeare. For the next three days, he had no money to buy food, and nothing to eat except some moldy prunes. But he had his books!

While living in Paris, Jules met Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas. Encouraged by their examples, he began writing articles and plays. But his works weren’t very successful, and the stress of trying to earn a living by writing caused him many sleepless nights. He had earaches and facial paralysis. These symptoms reoccurred the rest of his life whenever he was under stress.

In 1857 Verne met Honorine, a young widow with two daughters. Marriage to her meant that he had a family to support, so it was important that he earn more money. He and a friend went into business as stockbrokers.

Meanwhile Jules kept writing. His first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1862, was an instant success. He was able to quit his job as a stockbroker and write full-time. He continued writing until the last few months of his life. Master of the World was published in November 1904, four months before he died.

Jules Verne’s books are still popular. They are remarkable for their vision of the future. In Around the Moon, he described the weightlessness of space and the use of rockets to alter the course of the orbit. He even chose a launch site in Florida and included a splashdown at sea. Star of the South is about the effort to make artificial diamonds—which wasn’t really possible until 1955. And the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was a submarine far ahead of its time.

Verne was not a scientist. His books are fiction. But as science advances, as we reach into space and explore the ocean depths, we continue to be amazed by the man who guessed the future, and traveled there in his imagination.

[illustration] Illustrated by Doug Roy