I want to try writing some stories based on "hard science" but set historically and based on the scientific knowledge of the time. I'm thinking probably 1800s or early 1900s, but willing to go back further if it makes things interesting.

My question is where can I go to get information on what we used to believe about space? It's easy to google what we know now, but when for example was it discovered that space is vacuum and not ether etc. I can google individual topics but I'm after a 'history of space science' resource that covers what we discovered when and what we believed before.

I'm not asking for all this information in an answer but suggestions of online resources where I can access get this information.

  • $\begingroup$ There difference between what we call the vacuum of space and what used to the called the luminiferous aether consists in very subtle physical properties and is quite hard to explain to an unprepared person. For the purpose of a story there is no difference except they are called by different names. Here is a link to Camille Flammarion's Astronomy for Amateurs, 1903, at Archive.org. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is one of the best question asked here for months, but I'd still like to point out a misconception: The idea that people thought X, then there was a discovery and now people think Y is misleading. Kind of like newspaper headlines, humanity believed something stupid and then science proved them wrong. Think of science more as multiple endless discussions all over the world where different people meet, bring up arguments and pieces of evidence. The longer it continues, the more complete our picture is. What you are trying to do is very, very hard if you are not a scientist. Good luck to you $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ I want to add to my last comment so that it's better understood: There are no hard cuts. Even something radically different like quantum mechanics was - in a nutshell - just using well known equations for really small objects for the first time. People never were stupid, the phenomenological description of our surroundings has little variation, most of what you might be thinking of discoveries are mathematical formulations that are incredibly hard to understand. If I were you, I'd ask all my questions here. You will not find much joy in the literature $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Similar question: I proposed using an Aristotelian concept of space. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/102965/… $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 22:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Things we "used to know" often seem to be more about space travel tech rather than space itself -- for example the Heinleinian notion that as soon as we have solid-core nuclear thermal rockets we'll just be able to fly everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 6:20

4 Answers 4


All links go to freely available copies at Archive.org.

  • $\begingroup$ I actually own an astronomy book written about 1850 by astronomy professor and Union major general Ormsby M. Mitchel, which should be informative about the astronomy of the time. It might be this: books.google.com/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding: Added two books by the great American astronomer and remarkable general Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, he of the immortal Great Locomotive Chase. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ you might want to add any publications that cover the "city on the moon" discovered by Franz Paula von Gruithuisen in 1824. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_von_Gruithuisen $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding: Added Thomas Dicks's Celestial Scenery, 1838, which mentions Gruithuisen and his lunar cities in a section about about "Pretended discoveries on the Moon"; the author flatly declares that his opinion is that "all such announcements are premature and uncertain". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ I remember there was a famous French writer in the 17th and 18th centuries who lived to be 99 years and 11 months old, and wrote two popular books about astronomy and life on other planets 50 years apart. But I forget his name. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 18:50

It's hard to talk about hard science when there was no real space science yet.

You can look at literature dealing with "space travel" in the past. They usually contain hints of what was, back in the time it was written, the knowledge about space travel.

Starting from more recent works I can remember the following:

  • The first man in the moon, H.G. Wells 1901
  • From the Earth to the moon, Jules Verne 1865, and its sequel, Around the Moon
  • Off on a Comet, or, Hector Servadac, Jules Verne, 1877. "The story starts with a comet called Gallia, that touches the Earth in its flight and collects a few small chunks of it. The disaster occurs on January 1 of the year 188x in the area around Gibraltar. On the territory that is carried away by the comet there remain a total of thirty-six people of French, English, Spanish and Russian nationality. These people do not realize at first what has happened, and consider the collision an earthquake." (Wikipedia). It's a fantastic voyage through the Solar System, as imagined by a science-fiction author in the second half of the 19th century.
  • Orlando furioso, L. Ariosto, 1532
  • $\begingroup$ And Archive.org and Google Books and Project Gutenberg have heaps upon heaps of actual popularization books, intended to explain to the cultivated public the mysteries of the Cosmos... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it's a cheap way out that will lead (with 99.9% certainty) to much better results than the OP's plan. Don't bother with science, just be inspired by the writers/world builders of that time. That's what people can relate to. However, that's not really the question, is it? The OP specifically asks for hard science. $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, OP asked for outdated science, not for hard science $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ The OP asked literally for "hard science". I'm fine with this answer though, but if it was me, I'd include an explanation as to why you think that they get better results with fiction $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, I thought you were referring to the tags, sorry $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:53

Some Answers have suggested reading old science fiction interplanetary stories for information about popular ideas about astronomy.

I may note that many science fiction novels used ideas that had been abandoned by professional astronomers decades earlier. So many science fiction stories are not good examples of what professional astronomers believed when they were written.

Somnium Johannes Kepler 1634. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somnium_(novel)1 This is as much a description of the moon according to contemporary science as a novel.

The Man in the Moone Bishop Francis Goodwin, 1638 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_in_the_Moone2

The Great Moon Hoax 1835. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Moon_Hoax3

"Hans Phaal - a Tale" Edgar Allen Poe 1835. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?713844

"Mellonta Tauta" Edgar Allen Poe 1849: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?550385

Percy Gregg Across the Zodiac 1880.

John Jacob Astor IV A Journey in Other Worlds (1894)

The Lunar Trilogy of Jerzy Zulawski (1903, 1910,1911): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lunar_Trilogy6

Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars (1912)

Otis Adalbert Kline Maza of the Moon (1930)

E.E. Smith Spacehounds of IPC (1931, 1947)

And many others.

There is a website devoted to classic science fiction stories set on other planets in the solar system up to the beginning of the space age. It is about the old fictional solar system. https://www.solarsystemheritage.com/7

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia lists many examples in the articles "Planetary Romance": http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/planetary_romance8 and "Space Opera": http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/space_opera9 And no doubt the articles on the Moon, Mars, Venus, and other worlds mention many examples.


Once we all swallowed into the idea of a heliocentric solar system, we knew that space was really really big. But, we believed that there was an edge to the universe, that it was finite in size. We also believed that there was space and there was time, two unique things.

Once, after drinking the kool-aid of space-time in the early twentieth century, we conceive that the universe is infinite and that space and time are linked together in a hyper-manifold, or some such mathematical handwaving term.

We used to know that you could travel at any velocity you wanted if you could generate enough force. We now know that the universe has a speed limit.

As some one already pointed out, we used to know that space was composed of the sublumiferious ether, that light was waves in the ether like sound is waves in the air, and waves are waves in the water.

We used to know that the universe was analog. That anything we could measure or conceive of could be quantified by any real number between 0 and $\inf$. Mass, Distance, Charge, etc, ad naseum, could be as small or large as it needed to be.

We now know that much of things we see are quantized in tiny tiny bits or derived from algebraic combinations of these quantized values of length, mass, and energy. This means we know that things can only be so small, and we know that things can only so big — too much mass and you kind of fall through reality and become a singularity.

We used to know the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, with Einstein-Rosenberg Bridges, that idea might be considered in doubt.

We used to know that light traveled in straight lines. We know that isn’t true, mass bends the path of light through its assertion of gravity.

We used to know that time travel was possible. We know now that that would violate laws of conservation of energy and entropy.

We used to know that space and time were independent of how fast you travelled. We know now that is not true.

  • $\begingroup$ Neither length, nor mass, nor energy are quantized. Electric charge is quantized, action is quantized, but space, time and mass are not. And the last time when people thought there there was a link between force and speed was a long time ago; then Newton came, and this linkage disappeared. (And the opposite of quantized is continuous, not analog; there is no reason why an analog system cannot be quantized.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ The opposite of analog is discrete, and discrete systems are quantized. That is the context for my terms. $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Discrete systems are not necessarily quantized. Quantized systems can be analog. (And the way I learned it, the opposite of analog is numerical / digital... It's easy to find examples of discrete analog systems; for example, a pendulum clock: the hands can take only a finite set of positions, that is, their position is discrete; but it represents time by an angle proportional with the time, that is, it's analog.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ See plank units for clarifications on quantization of physical constants en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_units $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Planck units are not quanta. Let's not get into this. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:50

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