A 1735 science-fiction story synopsis – from the scientist who was and invented Celsius

Ahrvid Engholm
Ahrvid Engholm

One of the early Swedish contributions to science was the invention of the Celsius temperature scale, which is now used universally. It is of course named after its inventor, the astronomy  professor Anders Celsius (1701-1744) from Uppsala University (80 km north of Stockholm).

His scale based on the freezing and boiling temperatures of water was proposed in 1742, and originally had 0 degrees at water’s boiling temperature. The famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, known for Systema Naturae classifying plants and animals and giving them Latin names, reversed the scale in 1745 – water boiling at 100 degrees – the year after Celsius’ death in tuberculosis. The Celsius scale is also linked to the often used Kelvin scale, with the steps being the same but Kelvin starts at “absolute zero” around -273 degrees Celsius.

But Celsius (a Latinisation of hill or heap, from the name of his family’s clergy manor Högen) wasn’t only a notable scientist. He also toyed with much more far-sighted speculations of the science-fiction type: war in space and the air, travel to and trade with the stars, invisibility, improved medicine and longlivety! Rather advanced thoughts for its time.

A text of this content by Anders Celsius was published, probably for the first time, in a collection of essays in 1991 (Gyllene äpplen, “Golden Apples”, publisher Atlantis, ed Gunnar Broberg), and in a foreword to the section with Celsius the astronomer and sf author Peter Nilson says Celsius’ text to is likely be from around 1735.

With the kind assistance of sf expert and author Bertil Falk I obtained a photocopy of Celsius original manuscript from the Uppsala University library Carolina Rediviva. (And with a magnifying glass, I was able to fill in a detail from “Golden Apples”, after 278 years… It’s too long to go into, but is reflected in the translation below.) Celsius’ manuscript has two pages, numbered 15 and 16, and seems to be from some sort of “scientific diary” were he writes down thoughts and inserts notes from his scientific correspondents from all over Europe.

Both pages are in two columns. Left column of page 15 is headlined “Astrologica” and has notes on that subject, of no interest here. The right column of page 15 has the headline “Astronomia” and contains most of the sf-related text. It continues on page 16 (right column). The left column page 16 has a note in Latin(which seems of low relevance here – starts “Mathematica…” says something about Plato and the meaning of the word “uhr”, ie “ancient”). The right page 16 column ends with a quote in Italian which must remain undechiphered at present. A short piece from the end of the “Golden Apples” transcription is missing, but is probably on page 17 (which wasn’t obtained).

In my translation of “Astronomia” by Anders Celsius to follow, I’ve tried to use reasonably modern English. The original Swedish used old, strange spelling, some Latin phrases, the astrological symbols instead of actual planet names, and somewhat strange phrasing and word order, which will be particulary noticeable. But this is what the inventor of the temperature scale speculated:

ASTRONOMIA

Anders Celsius
Anders Celsius

When astronomy has reached so far that we are sure of the status of the inhabitants of the planets; and physics is so forward that we find ways to travel from Earth to the planets, they none-the-less begin to make war in the air and trade and navigate on the planets, and thus they want to conquer each other. Later Earth will be considered as a united realm in opposing e g the Kingdom of Mars. They will then find out how to make alliances with each other, e g Mercury, Venus and Tellus, on one side, and on the other side Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But as Jupiter and Saturn has conquered so many small kingdoms on their satellites; Mercury, Venus and Tellus would then likely oblige the inhabitants of the Sun to be on their side to keep the balance in the Solar system, and instead they now have Europa. By the way, if science would become as advanced that we could trade with other planetary systems, e g Sirus, our system would then once again be considered as one Kingdom, and then wars start between different systems, and so on ad infinitum. But since you cannot travel between systems in shorter time than a few hundred years, medicine should be improved so that people could become as old as during the time of the Patriarchs.

Who did originally think you could sail the seas, so you couldn’t see see land? Who thought you could begin to do battle on water? Now we have little belief in that people in due time could sail and battle in the air. It could be possible that flesh and skin would become transparent. If one in the future could imagine such people and animals, it would become a possibility for an excellent novel – medicine would then make people long-lived.

Celsius seems to have seen this as a synopsis for an “excellent” novel. And what a story it would have been!

What we are exposed to are ideas of interplanetary and interstellar war and trade, way before e g H G Wells. Celsius also beats good old George Herbert to it on invisibility. He talks about alliances between planets, which is the beginning of a plot – the innermost planets, allied with the Sun, in war against the outer planets. The 18th century was very war-like so thinking in terms of conflicts must have seemed natural. But Celsius also mentions trade, even with other star systems (Sirius is the brightest stars in the sky) and has a clear idea of the immense distance to other stars. Star distances weren’t know at his time, but he says it would take hundreds of years to travel to them. Celsius has a solution to the timespan, though, in improved medical science and longlivety.

Celsius never wrote the story he proposed (as far as is known) but one gets an impression of a very flexible mind with ideas far ahead of his time. Or to put it another way:

The ming-boggling speculations from the Father of Temperature were very, very – hot.

2 Comments on A 1735 science-fiction story synopsis – from the scientist who was and invented Celsius

  1. This is amazing! Thanks for writing this article. I love the history of science, and all the early Western scientists and their stories. I do have one question, though. Is the use of the word “novel” in this passage truly referring to his thinking to write a fiction story about these ideas:

    “If one in the future could imagine such people and animals, it would become a possibility for an excellent novel – medicine would then make people long-lived.”

    Maybe this is just an example of the strange word order you mentioned, but it seems strange to me that he says “if you could imagine it” – when he is doing exactly that! And further confusing me, is the implied If-Then statement, which seems to be “If you could imagine it…Then medicine would make people long-lived.”

    In any case, a forward-thinker indeed! Thanks again.

  2. It could be possible that flesh and skin would become transparent. If one in the future could imagine such people and animals, it would become a possibility for an excellent novel – medicine would then make people long-lived.

    These two sentences seem to be linked – in other words he’s saying “if only we could see through skin and flesh, we would be able to improve medical treatments and make people live longer”. He’s not talking about invisibility, he’s talking about MRI scans!

    He lived slightly after Robert Boyle, who wrote this list of research topics:
    http://blogs.royalsociety.org/history-of-science/2010/08/27/robert-boyle-list/

    The Prolongation of Life.
    The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
    The Art of Flying.
    The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
    The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
    The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
    The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
    The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
    The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
    The Transmutation of Metalls.
    The makeing of Glass Malleable.
    The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
    The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
    The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
    The making Armor light and extremely hard.
    The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
    The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
    Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
    A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
    Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
    Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
    Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
    A perpetuall Light.
    Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

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