The first desperate struggle

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine, 1891-4, on its rails

‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (1895)
by H G Wells,
in Selected Short Stories.
Penguin, 1958.

“… this story, which was written only to tell how the first of all flying-machines was launched and flew.”

In the last decade of the 19th century men like Otto Lilienthal and Sir Hiram Maxim experimented with gliders and heavier-than-air craft to attempt the conquest of the air. Maxim effectively stopped practical trials after an unfortunate accident in 1894, leaving it to fiction writers to imagine how the first powered flight might turn out until the Wright Brothers actually achieved success in 1903.

H G Wells rose to the occasion in his short story ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, first published in 1895, the year following when Maxim ceased his trials. He borrowed some aspects from Maxim’s abandoned flying-machine, but sited his craft’s launch track southwest of London rather than to the east.

Are the Wellsian engineers more successful than Maxim’s? Do his argonauts actually make it into the air? The writer leaves us guessing right to the final page or so.

Otto Lilienthal in his ornithopter near Derwitz, 1891

Wells wrote his short story at a time when strenuous efforts were being made to finance, invent and patent aerial craft. Fifty years before a so-called aerial steam carriage, a monoplane named Ariel, had been tested in model form by the Aerial Transit Company, and though it proved unsuccessful projects continued thereafter. In his story Wells describes how a financier called Monson, Woodhouse his designer, and a band of labourers under Hooper have been labouring for five years to achieve a world first.

But Monson is down to his last half million pounds with not much to show,  and Woodhouse is still tinkering around with design details. And for a year or so the two-mile long raised trackway for launching the propeller-driven (but still grounded) cylindrical winged craft has been quietly noised abroad as Monson’s Folly – until the financier has had enough of the public’s ridicule. For him it’s time to act, and a month later

“he stood with Woodhouse by the reconstructed machine as it lay across the elevated railway, by means of which it gained its initial impetus. The new propeller glittered a brighter white than the rest of the machine, and a gilder, obedient to a whim of Monson’s, was picking out the aluminium bars with gold.

We’re given further details of the machine’s appearance: a big apparatus with flat wings, these based on “a photographic study of the flight of birds, and by Lilienthal’s methods,” which varied from Maxim’s wing designs by being adjustable; these were intended to mimic the limbs of natural flighted creatures which were able to skim, glide and swoop.

Comes the day and Monson’s Flying-Machine, with himself and Woodhouse at the controls, takes off and soars in the direction of Wimbledon Common. And then… Fittingly the flight ends at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, adjacent to the Victoria and Albert Museum, though not in the precise manner originally envisaged by the aeronauts. Still, as Wells tells us, the “portentous avenue of iron-work” still stands “as witness to the first desperate struggle for man’s right of way through the air,” from which we gather Monson’s Folly was not an entirely successful enterprise.

What can I say about ‘The Argonauts of the Air’? It’s a slight piece, unable to quite decide on tone, but clearly on a theme that intrigued the author. Wells was to return to the theme of manned flight again and again, in 1899 in When the Sleeper Wakes (later revised in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes), in A Story of the Days To Come (1899) and of course in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) written long after planes were a reality. It was a topic that excited the public imagination, but it was an imagination that was only a few steps ahead of what was possible with contemporary technology.

Occasionally Wells felt able to edge towards science fantasy, as with the anti-gravity substance cavorite that allowed the lunar journey of The First Men in the Moon (1901). But in the more earth-bound ‘Argonauts of the Air’ it was Victorian technology that decided the limits of what was possible. That, and the fateful actions of its pioneers.

#VintageSciFiMonth @VintageSciFi_

16 thoughts on “The first desperate struggle

    1. I loved it that aspects of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (reviewed here anticipated in some respects the Apollo moon explorations in the 1960s, such as the launch taking place in Florida and the astronauts going on to orbit the moon, but otherwise getting much of the detail impossibly, even humorously, inaccurate. As for early flight there are wonderful silent-era newsreel clips of ambitious flights post-Wright Brothers going disastrously wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. An interesting and insightful review. Stories like these capture imagination and they definitely ignite this sense of wonder in me. Jules Verne has a special place in my heart, but I have not read a lot of Wells, or not as much as I would have liked to “have read”. I like the fact that this story keeps one guessing until the very end, and I guess it remains the product of its time. Undoubtedly, it felt much more exciting in the time Wells penned it.

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    1. Thanks, Diana. This piece felt very much like a potboiler for Wells, a slight plot where he couldn’t quite decide on reportage or humour as providing the principal tone. I was interested in it more for its historical context, written when various unsuccessful attempts were being made to achieve manned flight before the Wright Brothers actually did it.

      Verne was I think more careful with technology whereas Wells saw himself more as an ideas man. For example, I don’t think the science in The Time Machine (also published in 1895) stands up to scrutiny but his social commentary in it still has bite.

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    1. Thanks, Emma! The story selection in this Penguin collection is so varied it’s hard to give the individual items their due unless I review them separately or in groups where stories share commonalities.

      The one that most stuck in my mind when I read them decades ago was ‘The Country of the Blind’ from 1904, so I’m curious to see what stands out when I get to revisit the whole collection.

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    1. I agree, it’s easy to forget, but your comment has reminded me that I should remember! Before we moved to Wales we lived not too far from Malmesbury Abbey where in the 11th century a monk called Eilmer or Æthelmær, inspired by Daedalus, was reported to have attempted flight in a primitive glider, soaring some distance, breaking his legs but surviving. So I suppose I never really regarded the Wrights as the only true pioneers of flight!

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    1. I think ‘Argonauts’ may be more interesting to talk about than to wade through, Karen, so I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read; but I do hope to revisit the other stories in this collection over time as there are a handful that for me are either hazy or utterly opaque in my memory! Interesting ideas he does certainly have, I agree.

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