We numismatists know John Leonard Riddell as the chief melter of the New Orleans Mint, author of the rare 1845 book, A Monograph on the Silver Dollar, and original recipient of one of the four original Confederate Half Dollars. But he had a wide career in science outside of the Mint, and was also an early writer of science fiction. Mike Marotta has been researching Riddell's career, and he published a great blog post about Riddell's pioneering fiction story.
Mike Marotta writes:
I found Riddell's science fiction yarn in the archives here at the University of Texas.
With the holidays making campus accessible, I am going to see if I can download a PDF of the entire publication. If so, I will post it to a website for general public access.
For now, I created a blog post about Riddelll and his "Narrative."
Here are some excerpts from Mike's article, titled "From Texas to the Moon with John Leonard Riddell"
Riddell then moved to New Orleans. An active Democrat, he won an appointment as chief melter of the New Orleans Mint. He published A Monograph on the Silver Dollar, Good or Bad (E. Shepard, 1845; and Soxiedad Numismatica de Mexico, 1969.) The reprint is based on the fact that in 1845,the “silver dollar” was the Mexican peso; US federal dollars were rare patterns and low mintages. Mexican silver circulated as legal tender in the USA until 1857. While at the Mint, he improved on the machineries; his rotary ingot machine was in use as late as 1904.
In 1839, Riddell came to Texas. He published “Observations on the Geology of the Trinity Country, Texas” in the American Journal of Science and Arts, November 1839. Riddell’s diary was republished as A Long Ride in Texas: The Explorations of John Leonard Riddell by Jo Breeden, editor, (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas: 1994).
John Leonard Riddell was acknowledged as brilliant – even without peer – among his contemporaries, for instance by Edward H. Barton, then also of the University of Louisiana, who debated against him on the germ theory of disease. Though given to no end of professional quarrels – even convicted of assault while at the Mint – Riddell was a favorite with his chemistry students. Riddell was uncompromising, flamboyant, even violent. His debates in the pages of newspapers wore out at least one editor. Riddell rejected the “miasma” theory of disease, the claim that unhealthy vapors cause sickness; and believed firmly that diseases are caused by “animiculae” or “germs.” In arguing for this theory, he engaged every tool and trick known to rhetoric and debate.
On the evening of April 30, 1847, Riddell delivered to the People’s Lyceum of New Orleans, a story of aerial navigation. On May 8, from the Branch Mint, Riddell answered a note sent by nine of those present asking him to publish the adventure. He agreed to bring out Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation with a Narrative of his Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere and his Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (New Orleans: Rea’s Power Press Office, 55 Magazine Street; 1847). I found this lost work archived in the microforms at the University of Texas Library. The full text runs 33 pages. Being Riddell presenting Lindsay’s story, it begins with several pages of background, including his own disclaimers and endorsements.
The story is remarkable for its scientific accuracy. Not only is it footnoted with laborious algebra to prove its points, but Riddell possessed the ability to imagine the physical consequences of space travel. “An indescribable sensation seized me. I could not tell up from down. I had lost all bodily weight. … The slightest springing effort, sent me slowly from one side of the balloon to the opposite.” He accurately described a candle flame in zero-g: “The flame of the taper became globular and less luminous; -- the heated air from it, seemingly not knowing which way to rise, diffused itself slowly in every direction.”
At 100 miles above the Moon, their orbit took “one hour, 54 minutes and 17 seconds. … We were everywhere presented with the evidences of former volcanic action.” On the dark side of the Moon, they saw an active volcano. “Respecting the appearance of the earth before starting from the moon, it is proper to relate that she looked like a new moon but fifteen times larger.” As they traveled back to Earth, the view changed. “She looked like an enormous moon, almost in her first quarter. …A delicate blue ring mottled with flakes of white… The prevailing green of fertile islands and continents, the pale sands of arid deserts, the naked rocks of mountain ranges, the glistening ramifications of rivers, and the polished convexity of the oceans all were clearly to be discriminated. … Brilliant beyond description were the icy regions about the South Pole, illuminated as they were by the sun.”
The balloon entered the atmosphere and the description could have come from The Right Stuff. “We felt a slight shock, and perceived a flash of light as we passed through the aerial billow; the friction of the balloon upon the air being sufficient to produce that effect. In a few moments our meteoric light ceased … and again the light reappeared accompanied by another slight shock… These singular phenomena, I presume were produced by the balloon’s rebounding from the aerial billows, just a cannon ball will ricochet along the surface of the water.”
After circumnavigating the Earth they land back at the launch site and the story ends.
Like other scientists from Thomas Huxley to Isaac Asimov and Rudy Rucker, Riddell wrote science fiction. Unlike anyone else, however, he was the first.
To read the complete blog article, see:
From Texas to the Moon with John Leonard Riddell
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