Here Was Erasmus Darwin's Plan To Destroy The World

Illustration for article titled Here Was Erasmus Darwin's Plan To Destroy The World

Erasmus Darwin was the grandfather of the more famous Charles, a scientist in his own right, and an inadvertent supervillain. In an effort to make afternoon strolls more pleasant, he came up with a terraforming idea that was outlandish, inspiring, and — looking back — nearly apocalyptic.

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Erasmus Darwin was a member of a society known as the Lunar Society or the Lunarticks. That on its own should have been a sign. This was a club of men who had an interested in the broadest possible definition of the sciences. They met once a month, when the moon was full, and discussed any idea they could come up with. It could involve philosophy, theology, linguistics, engineering, biology, or any other subject that required study but was open to new ideas.

Illustration for article titled Here Was Erasmus Darwin's Plan To Destroy The World

The society also drank during its meetings, which is possibly why one of its members invented a sail-driven carriage that went so fast it was considered a danger by the local townspeople. (No judgement. I would love a sail-driven carriage. In fact, that might be the most viable option for travel in San Francisco.)

Darwin went even further. He came up with a way to “terraform” the world. This was at a time when, to colonial powers, “life in the tropics,” meant malaria, dengue fever, and a thousand other maladies. The heat alone was a challenge — one Darwin decided to overcome. He knew that the nations of Europe had huge navies, and he read the accounts of explorers out in the arctic. The world should unite, send all their boats out to the arctic and antarctic, rope some icebergs, and take them down to the equator. The icebergs needn’t be dead weight. It would be relatively simple to affix sails to them and sail them through the ocean like a wind-powered-carriage through a township.

To the people of Darwin’s time, that sounded like a kind of madness. To us, it sounds like several kinds of madness. We’re trying to stave off the damage done by climate change, and he was literally trying to equalize the temperature everywhere on Earth, without a thought to the consequences. Needless to say, the plan didn’t go through. So let’s all take a brief moment to give thanks for global strife, which kept the world from uniting to destroy itself.

Image: NSF/Josh Landis

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DISCUSSION

iCowboy

Erasmus Darwin deserves to be better known than just as Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He was a prominent activist in the abolitionist movement that eventually outlawed slavery in Britain and the Colonies. He invented what is now known as the Ackermann linkage which steers your car around corners without the tyres slipping, and he drew up a detailed plan for a hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine more than a century before it was actually built.

As for the Lunar Society of Birmingham - it was a staggeringly influential group of people who literally shaped the modern world. As well as Darwin, you have Matthew Boulton and James Watt (the steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (industrial ceramics) John Smeaton (civil engineer), James Hutton (to which all us geologists bow down), Joseph Wright (artist), Joseph Priestley (discoverer of oxygen), William Herschel (astronomer and discoverer of Uranus) and one Benjamin Franklin whatever happened to him?