February 26, 2011
Most histories of space travel credit the first use of the rocket countdown to a work of fiction: Fritz Lang’s 1929 science fiction film, “Frau im Mond” (Woman in the Moon).
Maybe not, though. British science fiction writer George Griffith used the same dramatic device in his 1897 story “The Great Crellin Comet,” about an attempt to stave off a comet collision with Earth by firing a cannon load of explosives at the intruder. Here’s an excerpt from the story:
The chronometers ticked off the seconds, each one seeming more like eternity than the one before it. The comet grew bigger and bigger, and its flaming nucleus blazed out brighter and brighter. A vague, low, wailing sound seemed to be running round the circle of the hills. It was the first utterance of the unendurable agony of the multitudes.
At last Lennox looked up from his chronometer at Auriole, and said in a quiet, dry voice—…
Then he began to count: “Nine—eight—seven—six—five—four—three—two—NOW!”
Note that the final word is NOW, not “Liftoff,” or “Blastoff!”, just as it was in Lang’s film (at the 8:45 mark in the above clip).
Griffith is not as well known today as H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, but he was cut from the same cloth. He was a character in his own right, and in 1894 recreated the round-the-world trip of Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Space writer and publisher Robert Godwin will be talking about Griffith’s life and works on tomorrow’s edition of The Space Show.
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