I have been reading The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells. A fascinating little tale first published in 1900-1901 about an inventor, Mr. Cavor, and a failed business man, Mr. Bedford, who travel to the moon by a rather strange vehicle. Mr. Cavor, has theorized that just as certain substances are opaque to heat and light, there must be a substance that is opaque to gravity.
Mr. Cavor manages to create this theoretical substance with an alloy of metals, and I’m not sure what all. Plus helium. A very interesting idea, to be sure. They make no small mess in the process of learning how to create this substance. Ultimately, however, they build a small ship that will take them into space.
This whole idea made me curious about when the element helium was discovered, and how new it was when Mr. Wells wrote this story. When I looked it up, I found that helium was first discovered in 1868 by a French astronomer who noticed a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum while studying an eclipse. It was later identified and named by an English astronomer. The element wasn’t found on Earth until 1895 by a Scottish chemist conducting experiments on a mineral called clevite.
According to an article on the JeffersonLab website, “Helium makes up about 0.0005% of the earth’s atmosphere. This trace amount of helium is not gravitationally bound to the earth and is constantly lost to space.”
It was this property of helium that no doubt intrigued H. G. Wells and sparked his curiosity. This story was first published between December 1900 and August 1901 as a serial novel in The Strand Magazine. The story then, was written in the years immediately following the discovery of helium.
I love that this story-written more than a hundred years ago and using what is now outdated science-could still inspire curiosity today. Now we live in a world where helium is used to entertain children at parties, and men really have been to the moon. And here I am, reading this antiquated little tale of adventure and learning something I didn’t know about my world.