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Technology and Society: A Study Examining Science Fiction Novels in the Early 19th and 20th Centuries: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Three science fiction novels are analyzed to show the relationship between technology and society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Technology in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne, arguably one of France’s greatest authors, wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea a work of science fiction in 1870. Verne was a creative genius who used real life technology in his novel and made it extraordinary. The marine technology depicted  in his story was based off of actual technologies, such as submarines, marine technology, and scuba diving. One of the largest and most complex technologies in the novel was Captain Nemo’s submarine.

While Captain Nemo’s vehicle was a work of science fiction, many technologies within his submarine bear an uncanny resemblance to  technologies developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Submarines were most commonly used in the military and have a long history in naval warfare, especially during in World War I. However, Verne’s novel was published approximately 44 years before the Great War. Therefore, perhaps it can be concluded that the use (and want) of submersibles in society could have been driven by the want of a new technology for amusement, not just for military purposes.

Research Question: Did Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea have to do with the revival of submarine development and creation? Or was basic submarine technology destined to mirror that of Captain Nemo’s?

Submarines

The first submarine was built in 1624 by Cornelius Drebbel, with its design similar to a modern day racing shell; however, it was designed to be underwater. It was the only one of its kind and not necessarily effective. Yet, it represented the first successful attempt to create an underwater vessel.

Robert Fulton’s Nautilus (the inventor of the steamboat, who created the original Nautilus), was built in France in 1799 with the financial support of Napoleon Bonaparte. The submarine was not very popular; it required three crew members to operate. Two crewmen powered the vessel with the help of a visible sail above the water line while the third man steered the vessel. Not only did Verne name his fictional submarine after Fulton’s, but many different countries across the world, including Italy, Britain, the United States and France, used the name Nautilus at some point for one of their submarines.

Submarines and Power

One of the biggest problems with the development of the submarine, was in fact, power. There was no certain way to power a submarine, especially when machinery and air supply were such important parts of running and maintaining the vessel. Eventually, in 1888,  batteries were used to power submarines, to generate electricity, sometimes in a combination with gasoline engines for movement. However, batteries were not used in submarines until 1888-1890 in order to produce electricity, roughly 20 years after Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was written. The French vessel, Le Morse, also built in 1888, was even fitted with a periscope, the first submarine to do so. These facts are important because they did not occur in submarines until 1888; yet, Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was powered by electricity and even had a periscope!

“...more remarkable than his (Verne) literary output was his uncanny ability to predict technological developments. Nemo’s Nautilus had many capabilities that are now found in nuclear submarines 130 years later.”

Verne and Future Technology

The Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea can be considered one of the most famous and successful submarines, even though it was a work of fiction, and the impact and influence that Captain Nemo’s submarine had on society is undoubtedly impressive. The periscope and electricity used in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was not the only surprising aspect of Verne’s accuracy in predicting  future submarine technology, but also his discussion of other science discoveries and technological innovations, which appear later in submarines.

It seems that Verne had a great impact on submarine technology. Two of the most impressive technologies he predicted were the use of hydroelectricity and the periscope. As Captain Nemo explains, “I owe it all to the ocean; it produces electricity, and electricity gives heat, light, motion, and, in a word, life to the Nautilus.

Quote Importance

This quote, from Don Walsh, who is a marine policy specialist and oceanographer is important because it supports the claim that Verne had an uncanny way in predicting future submarine technology.