Cinema Literature and Energy

Energy in the Works of Jules Verne: from The Child of the Cavern to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Des Indes noires au Nautilus : Jules Verne et l’énergie
© Flammarion

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The works of Jules Verne (1828-1905) form an extraordinarily rich collection, with some of his novels, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, renowned the world over. The Mysterious Island sparked the imaginations of generations, as did From the Earth to the Moon and Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar. Hetzel’s edition of the Voyages extraordinaires, with its famous red binding, gilded edges and many illustrations, is now an undisputed part of the literary canon in France and even the world. Jules Verne is considered an author of adventure, science fiction and fantasy, and his writing continues to influence writers and filmmakers to this day. He based his novels on the scientific and technical knowledge of his time, always taking it one step further. This inevitably led him to consider what energy sources could powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... the astonishing machines that his characters used to venture into the underbelly of the earth, the depths of the sea and the far-flung corners of outer space.

Coal in the British Isles, the “Black Indies”

Published in 1877, The Child of the Cavern blends elements from the adventure and fantasy genres. Its original French title, Les Indes noires (literally, “The Black Indies”), is an allusion to the abundant coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... reserves in England, Wales and Scotland. The resource played such a major role in the United Kingdom’s economy that it earned the nickname of “King Coal”, and the benefits that it procured were considered on par with the wealth generated by the pearl of the British Empire, India, of which Queen Victoria was crowned Empress in 1877. The expression “Black Indies” came to refer to the bountiful coal reserves of Her Majesty’s subjects. Set in a mining community inland of the Firth of Forth, Scotland, a country steeped in legend, The Child of the Cavern tells the story of the Dochart pit, which is thought to have been mined out and has been closed for several years. Through his prose, Jules Verne expresses the fears of the time: “Coal will fail one day, that is certain. A forced stoppage will be imposed on the machinery of the whole world, if some new combustible is not found to replace coal [...] a hundred centuries will not pass before the monster with millions of manufacturing throats will have devoured the last lump of coal in the globe.” One of the protagonists, engineer James Starr, elaborates further: “‘I know well [...] that neither hydraulics nor electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... have yet shown all they can do, and that some day these two forces will be more completely utilized. But no matter! Coal is of a very practical use, and lends itself easily to the various wants of industry. Unfortunately man cannot produce it at will.’” The engineer, who had previously closed the mine, receives a letter from the Ford family – miners through the generations – asking him to come quickly to the Dochart pit because a new, particularly plentiful vein has been discovered. This means that mining can resume, and an underground village, dubbed Coal Town, soon springs up near the new depositAn accumulation of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, metal ore or another commodity... . And there is something rather special about Coal Town: “[...] it had abundance of light. This was shed from numbers of electric discs; some suspended from the vaulted roofs, others hanging on the natural pillars – all, whether suns or stars in size, were fed by continuous currents produced from electro-magnetic machines. When the hour of rest arrived, an artificial night was easily produced all over the mine by disconnecting the wires.” Before the invention of the incandescent bulb in 1879, electric lights took the form of arc lamps, which were powerful enough to illuminate large spaces. Even as the coal from the pit generates new prosperity for the community, mysterious phenomena in the depths of the mine seem to indicate a force protecting the newly excavated areas, with the unexpected appearance of an old man, a young girl and a rare bird. It is only in the final pages of the novel that the mystery hovering over Coal Town is revealed.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: How Does the Nautilus Work?

The better known Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the fifth most translated book in the world (behind the Bible and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince). Written in 1869-1870, it tells the tale of the legendary Captain Nemo (whose name literally means “no one”) and his adventures in the depths of the ocean on board his extraordinary submarine, the Nautilus. Submarines were nothing new when Verne was writing, but the Nautilus has some quite remarkable capabilities: it can descend very deep into the water, moves at extremely high speeds, and is highly comfortable for the people on board. These features pique the curiosity of one of the men held prisoner on the submarine, engineer Aronnax, who asks the captain how all this is possible. The answer can be found in the title of chapter XII, “Everything by Electricity”, with further explanation from Captain Nemo himself:

“‘There is a powerful, obedient, rapid, and easy agent which lends itself to all uses, and reigns supreme here. We do everything by its means. It is the light, warmth and soul of my mechanical apparatus. This agent is electricity.’

“‘There is a powerful, obedient, rapid, and easy agent which lends itself to all uses, and reigns supreme here. We do everything by its means. It is the light, warmth and soul of my mechanical apparatus. This agent is electricity.’

‘Professor,’ answered Captain Nemo, ‘my electricity is not everybody’s, and you will permit me to withhold any further information.’”

Aronnax does not give up, though, and manages to glean more information from Nemo about this technological miracle. At the time of the novel’s writing, batteries were made using zinc – but the Nautilus is different. Captain Nemo explains that, “‘there exists, at the bottom of the sea, mines of zinc, iron, silver, and gold, the working of which would most certainly be practicable; but I am not indebted to any of these terrestrial metals. I was determined to seek from the sea alone the means of producing my electricity. [...] It would have been possible, by establishing a circuit between wires plunged to different depths, to obtain electricity by the diversity of temperature to which they would have been exposed; but I preferred to employ a more practicable system.’” The ingenious captain actually uses sodium, an element naturally found in seawater (the chemical composition of salt is sodium chloride): “‘Mixed with mercury it takes the place of zinc for the voltaic pile. The mercury is never exhausted: only the sodium is consumed, and the sea itself gives me that.’” These sodium batteries are even baptized “sea coal” by their inventor. “‘Only remember I get everything from the ocean. It produces electricity, and electricity supplies the Nautilus with light – in a word, with life.’”

As he explores the Nautilus, Aronnax discovers more astonishing electrical inventions, from pumps that store air to clocks indicating the vessel’s speed and every comfort for daily life on board, particularly for cooking: “The wires under the stoves communicated with platinum sponges, and gave out a heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... which was regularly kept up and distributed. They also heated a distilling apparatus, which, by evaporation, furnished excellent drinking water. A bath-room, comfortably furnished with hot and cold water taps, opened out of this kitchen.” The 20 meter long engine room “was divided into two parts; the first contained the materials for producing electricity, and the second the machinery that moved the screw.” In the following chapter, Nemo explains more about how the vessel works, providing detailed technical specifications. Toward the end of the novel, electricity is even used to protect the Nautilus via an impenetrable electrical network.


Des Indes noires au Nautilus : Jules Verne et l'énergie

The Mysterious Island

Published in 1875, The Mysterious Island is set during the 1861-1865 American Civil War. It tells the story of five Americans stranded on a desert island who, drawing on their knowledge, are able to build some semblance of civilization. In living side by side, the five men gradually begin to empathize with each other and start looking to the future. The fears alluded to in The Child of the Cavern are a theme here, too:

“‘But now, my dear Cyrus, all this industrial and commercial movement to which you predict a continual advance, does it not run the danger of being sooner or later completely stopped?’

‘Stopped! And by what?’

‘By the want of coal, which may justly be called the most precious of all minerals.’

[...] ‘Oh! the veins of coal are still considerable, and the hundred thousand miners who annually extract from them a hundred millions of hundredweights have not nearly exhausted them. [...] after the European mines, which will be soon worked more thoroughly with new machines, the American and Australian mines will for a long time yet provide for the consumption in trade.’

‘For how long a time?’ asked the reporter.

‘For at least two hundred and fifty or three hundred years.’

‘That is reassuring for us, but a bad look-out for our great-grandchildren!’ observed Pencroft.”

Faced with this inevitable prospectA potential hydrocarbon deposit. Explorationists seek to locate prospects, determine their configuration and size... , the Americans stranded on Lincoln Island (as they have named it) ponder on the future of industry:

"“‘And what will they burn instead of coal?’

‘Water,’ replied Harding.

‘Water!’ cried Pencroft, ‘water as fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... for steamers and engines! water to heat water!’

‘Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements,’ replied Cyrus Harding, ‘and decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable laws, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. As long as the earth is inhabited it will supply the wants of its inhabitants, and there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.’”

The energy industry today has high hopes for hydrogen as a fuel for the future. Jules Verne was already hinting at it a century and a half ago. And there are still some surprises in store for the heroes of The Mysterious Island. Later in the story, they discover a submarine named the Nautilus and its aged, lonely captain, who goes by the name of Nemo...

Of course, from a technical and scientific point of view, Jules Verne’s theories are not always spot on; but he remains one of the greatest writers of what would later come to be known as science fiction, and his work continues to inspire. For example, the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole under the ice cap in 1958 was an American nuclear-powered vessel named the USS Nautilus in homage to the French writer. The author’s influence can also be felt in the Little Nemo comic strips, as well as the animated film Finding Nemo. Through his fiction, Jules Verne identified the major energy challenges that future generations would face, from the depletionIn the oil industry, depletion corresponds to the gradual decline in production from an oil or gas well... of fossil fuels and the development of electricity (still in its infancy in the 1870s) to the boundless possibilities of research.

Find out More:

  • -The three novels cited: The Mysterious Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Child of the Cavern (which is probably the least well known).
  • -The many screen adaptations, of which the best known is probably the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason, as well as the first film version of The Mysterious Island in 1929 and a French television adaptation of The Child of the Cavern, entitled Les Indes noires, which closely follows the plot of the novel.
  • -François Angelier, Dictionnaire Jules Verne, Pygmalion, 2006 (a reference work) or Jean-Paul Dekiss’ impressively illustrated Jules Verne : le rêve du progrès, Découvertes Gallimard, 1991.
  • -A number of literature reviews in various languages focusing on the works of Jules Verne, as well as biographies, studies of each novel, and more.



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