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Wilkins, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Community.

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(1614-1672) UK philosopher who served as the Bishop of Chester. He wrote no fiction, but was one of the first popularizers of science and a propagandist for scientific progress whose speculative nonfiction is remarkable. The nonfiction The Discovery of a New World; Or, a Discourse Tending to Prove, That 'tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in the Moone (1638), which seems to reflect a reading of Johannes Kepler's Somnium ["The Dream"] (1630), like that book suggests an Ecology for the Moon, and espouses the possibility of Life on Other Worlds. The revised title of the third edition, The Discovery of a New World or, a Discourse Tending to Prove That 'tis Probable There May be Another Habitable World in the Moone: With a Discourse Concerning the Possibility of a Passage Thither (1640 2vols), reflects Wilkins's encounter with Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone: Or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638) [for full titles see Checklist below; some further titles, which may be spurious, have not been given]. Wilkins's reading of Godwin inspired him to speculate interestingly on the nature of interplanetary flight, his most prescient suggestion being a kind of flying chariot, whose passengers would survive the voyage in something like a proto-Suspended Animation.

Mercury, Or, the Secret and Swift Messenger: Shewing how a Man May with Privacy and Speed Communicate his Thoughts to a Friend at any Distance (1641) deals primarily with the encoding of messages, but contains instructions as to how to convey messages across great distances, and speculations about a Universal Language. Mathematicall Magick; Or, the Wonders That May be Performed by Mechanicall Geometry (1648) [for full title see Checklist] is a treatise on Technology, including essays on submarines, flying machines and perpetual-motion Machines (about whose feasibility he was sceptical). While he was Master of Wadham College, Oxford, he founded the Philosophical Society, which in 1662 became the Royal Society. His most important single work, An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), proposes an universal, artificial language (or conlang), illustrating its taxonomic reach by means of a single tree whose branches classify, connect and label all forms of knowledge expressible through language (see Linguistics; Utopia); though the conlang itself proved impracticable, the modes of argument of the text itself are a significant moment in the development of scientific method. On his deathbed, Wilkins is reported to have said that he was now "prepared for the great experiment".

Wilkins appears as a character in Neal Stephenson's historical fantasia about the Enlightenment, The Baroque Cycle (2003-2004), where he is described as the author of a text called Quicksilver, which presumably represents a transubstantiation of Mercury (see above), a text named in the sequence. [BS/JC]

see also: Religion; Spaceships; Transportation; Under the Sea.

John Wilkins

born Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire: 14 February 1614

died London: 19 November 1672



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