Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in the busy port city of Nantes, France. It was a stirring time and place, with ships constantly on the move and new scientific discoveries coming to the public attention at a rapid pace.
Little wonder that Verne early on felt the spirit of adventure. He was a dutiful student and pleased both teachers and parents with his keen memory, his talented singing, his knowledge of geography, and his mastery of Greek and Latin. But there were two things he longed to do—write and travel.
Verne’s writing talent perhaps came from his father. Pierre Verne loved the literary arts and could pen a few lines of poetry himself. But he never sought to profit by his writing, a decision Jules Verne later said was motivated by humility. The elder Verne was a lawyer by trade, and he expected his oldest son Jules to follow suit.
The Making of a Writer
Jules Verne consented to his father’s wishes as far as he was able. He went to Paris to study law and left the life of a sailor to his younger brother. But in Paris, Verne came under influences that only sharpened his urge to write. For one thing, there was the theater. Verne loved the theater, and even dabbled in writing theatrical works, although with little financial success. For another thing, Verne met Alexandre Dumas, a popular novelist in that day. For still another thing, in Paris, Verne frequently found himself rubbing elbows with scientists and explorers of all stripes.
Verne completed his law degree as required, but at last he was forced to admit that he simply could not take over his father’s practice. He was destined to be a writer.
So write he did. He wrote poems, plays, books, and more. But none of them met with much success. When Verne got married, he found himself in greater need of money than ever before. His father-in-law helped him find employment as a stockbroker, so that he could make a living but still find time to write.
The Extraordinary Voyages Begin
Verne still dreamed of travel. The unexplored regions of the world fascinated him. So it was little surprise that his thoughts eventually turned to Africa. Africa was a mysterious and rather dangerous country in those days. It had claimed the lives of many explorers. But perhaps, Verne mused, those grave dangers could be avoided if the intrepid explorer made his voyage in a balloon.
Despite the fact that a work of fiction based on the exploration of geographical and scientific facts was rather unheard of in that time, Verne sat down and penned his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, which he sent off to prominent Paris publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel.
At that time, Hetzel himself was also developing a unique blend of science and fiction, but in the form of a biweekly family-oriented magazine. It was to be known as the Magazine of Education and Recreation, and Verne’s well-researched geographical adventure novel fit perfectly. The result was a contract and a long-lasting friendship between Hetzel and Verne.
Despite the fact that Five Weeks in a Balloon sold very poorly, neither Verne nor Hetzel were daunted. Both men had an ambitious plan in mind. The next two books were A Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon. Then came The Adventures of Captain Hatteras.
In this book, published in 1866, Hetzel revealed the purpose of the series, which he titled the Voyages Extraordinaires or Extraordinary Voyages:
“…to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format…the history of the universe.”
In Verne’s later words:
“It is my intention to complete, before my working days are done, a series which shall conclude in story form my whole survey of the world’s surface and heavens….”
The Father of Science Fiction?
It is interesting to note that both Verne and Hetzel placed a great emphasis on the fact that the Extraordinary Voyages described the real world. Jules Verne himself once commented, “I always tried to make even the wildest of my romances as realistic and true to life as possible.” This is in stark contrast to other works typically categorized as science fiction, which typically depict a sort of alternative reality where the dimensions of time and space are bent almost beyond recognition.
Furthermore, true science fiction authors frequently “invent” new technology to fit into their new worlds, not based on any scientific principles known at the time. Contrast this with the works of Jules Verne. While Verne has been regarded as somewhat futuristic in his writings, having sent man to the moon in fiction well before it happened in reality, he was a meticulous researcher who took pride in basing his flights of imagination on solid scientific fact. In a sense, he adopted the rudimentary inventions of the time, transformed them into the brilliant machines they could become with future advances of science, and used them as vehicles for travel. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus had its predecessor in a craft of the same name constructed by Robert Fulton, while the inventor of Robur the Conqueror’s Albatross was a personal acquaintance of Jules Verne’s.
And even when Verne was compelled to invent new machines for his extraordinary journeys, as when he designed a spacecraft in which President Barbicane of the Baltimore Gun Club could set forth on his way to the moon, his approach was guided by close attention to genuine scientific principles and mathematical calculations.
Rediscovering Jules Verne
Given the amount of thought and effort Jules Verne put into his books, it seems a great shame that they were regarded lightly for so long a time. One issue that plagued Verne was, ironically, the success of some of his titles. This very popularity caused him to be categorized for about a century as a commercial author instead of a literary genius worthy of study.
Some of the blame, however, must be laid to the account of the American and British publishers who attempted to mangle Verne’s works into cheap fiction that would sell many copies. Usually one of the first changes these publishers oversaw was stripping the books of their lengthy descriptions of scientific principles, material that was deemed too dry to appeal to children. Next was discarded any reference even remotely anti-American or anti-British, depending on the nationality of the publishing house; or, if the reference was truly necessary to the story, an apology might be made to the reader.
At the same time, the publisher would periodically add material that he felt would “improve” the story. A Journey to the Center of the Earth probably suffered the most at the hands of English-speaking translators, one edition having undergone a complete renaming of the main characters (Professor Lidenbrock becoming Professor Hardwigg, his nephew Axel becoming Harry, and so on), as well as an appallingly extensive revision of the scenes involving strange underground creatures culminating in the addition of several completely new chapters—one on the exploration of the ruins of a subterranean castle and one on “Harry’s” nightmare vision of the hideous ancestor of the African gorilla, Ape gigans.
Fortunately, the Jules Verne sesquicentennial in 1978 kindled new interest in the varied works of this intriguing author. Scholarly studies on his writing began to appear, highlighting some of the translation problems. While a few improved translations have appeared since that time, the poor-quality editions continue to circulate, not only through online sources of public domain works, but in fresh print books as modern publishers continue to revive the old translations regardless of their accuracy.
Jules Verne himself, however, has at last garnered a high degree of respect as an author of quality literature. More importantly, Verne has left his mark on those who have come after him, having influenced explorers and scientists ranging from Admiral Richard E. Byrd to bathysphere inventor William Beebe to astronaut Neil Armstrong.
In fact, Verne’s realistic bent was probably exactly why his writings were later paralleled by subsequent feats of science. In his own words:
“Whatever one man is capable of imagining, other men will prove themselves capable of realizing.”
Jules Verne is believed to have suffered from diabetes most of his life. This disease was likely the cause of a stroke that claimed his life on March 24, 1905, at the age of 77.
You’ll find resources to help with these suggestions below.
- Find Jules Verne’s birthplace — Nantes, France — on a map.
- Learn more about Alexandre Dumas. Why would he be likely to inspire Verne?
- Review Fulton’s Nautilus, the basis for the fictional character Captain Nemo’s vessel of the same name.
- Copy a passage from your favorite Jules Verne title.
- Choose a novel by Jules Verne that you have not yet read to read and narrate.
- Choose one of Verne’s inventions to describe and illustrate.
- Design one of your own inventions by first putting in some time to do your research.
- Create an author page for Jules Verne.
- If you have time to spend on the topic, create a Jules Verne notebook that includes:
Biography at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
A Jules Verne Centennial: 1905-2005
Short biography of sorts from the Smithsonian.
Titles of the most accurate translations.
Author Jules Verne Prophesied the Link Between Texas and the Moon
Transcript of Texas radio show pointing out the similarities between the moon launch and From the Earth to the Moon.
10 Inventions Inspired by Science Fiction
Not surprisingly, Jules Verne shows up a few times….
Explore the Collection
Digital copies of Jules Verne books at the Smithsonian.
Downloads at Gutenberg.
LibriVox: Jules Verne
The English at the North Pole and The Field of Ice by Jules Verne
Volumes I and II subtitled, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, regards a crew on their way to an Arctic adventure. Includes a great deal of history regarding the Northwest Passage and those who sought it. Free public domain downloads for older students.
Volume 1: (Various formats) (PDF)
Volume 2: (Various formats) (PDF)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Not to be missed. Also available in PDF.
The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
Castaways land on a Pacific island by way of balloon. Excellent adventure with a surprise ending. Not to be missed by Jules Verne fans. (This classic illustrated by N.C. Wyeth is a favorite.) Also available as a free eBook.
Movie: Apollo 11 Lunar Mission
Listen to Neil Armstrong note the similarities of Jules Verne’s science fiction to the lunar mission.
Straw Rockets are Out of this World
Build a straw rocket. Think From the Earth to the Moon.
Includes reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Around the World in 80 Days: A Unit Study
Our own unit featuring a favorite Jules Verne book.
7 Gebra Lesson Plans
One of which is literary analysis of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
France: A Unit Study
Rabbit trail for those interested.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Map for locating France.
Map for notebook.
Jules Verne Notebooking Pages
Our free simple pages for copywork, dictation, narrations, or just wrapping up.