Poking Fun at Britain’s Moon Men: The British Interplanetary Society

By the 1930s, spaceflight’s visionaries, such as Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth, had worked out how rockets could be made to ascend above the atmosphere, enter orbit, and even someday land on the Moon.

Younger enthusiasts became disciples of these visionaries, striving to spread the word to everyone that the Age of Space was about to arrive.

In Britain, this took the form of the British Interplanetary Society. Founded in 1933 in Liverpool, eventually its most active members were near London, so its center shifted there. They held meetings. They published a journal. They publicized their cause by writing letters to newspapers and by inviting prominent Britons to join. They corresponded with rocket advocates in other nations. They learned that under an Explosives Act, rocket experimentation was illegal, so their experiments focused on building the instruments a spacecraft would require.

Arthur C. Clarke of Taunton, in Somerset, joined the BIS at age seventeen. By nineteen, in 1936, he, too, had moved to London, to work at a government job. He wrote, “I made contact with the London members of the BIS, as well as the local s.f. fans. There was a 90% overlap between the two groups, and until the outbreak of war, rocketry and science fiction dominated my life, with H.M. Civil Service a very poor third.”

Upon arriving in London, Clarke lived alone in a ridiculously tiny room. Eventually he teamed up with another fan, William F. Temple, and in summer 1938 they moved into a much larger flat at 88 Gray’s Inn Road. So hospitable was “The Flat” that it was often swarming with fans, rocket enthusiasts, or both.

“For my money, the heroic period of the space age lay between 1935 and 1955; what’s happened since has had a slight air of anticlimax,” wrote Clarke in an oft-reprinted 1963 article, “Memoirs of an Armchair Astronaut (Retired).”

“Picture us then, in the mid-thirties, when only a few aircraft had flown at the staggering speed of three hundred miles an hour, trying to convince a skeptical world that men would one day travel to the Moon. There were about ten of us in the hard core of the society, and we met at least once a week in London cafes, pubs or one another’s modest apartments. We were almost all in our twenties, and our occupations ranged from aeronautical engineer to civil servant, from university student to stock exchange clerk. Few of us had technical or scientific educations, but what we lacked in knowledge we made up in imagination and enthusiasm.”

I recently encountered another account of the same era, written from a somewhat different perspective. I’m not sure whether historians of spaceflight are aware of it, as it’s tucked away in a place they might not think to look.

Fanac.org hosts a collection of fanzines compiled by science fiction fans who are determined to preserve fandom’s history. One such zine is Slant#7, published by Walt Willis in 1952.

Even then, fans were interested in the history of fandom. Willis published a number of articles about fans of the 1930s (sometimes adding cartoons by Bob Shaw). In our own era, Judy Bemis, in her turn, has scanned and transcribed Slant for the Web.

Clarke’s flatmate, William F. Temple, portrayed the fans of 1930s London in a series of fanzine articles. Most memorably, his flatmate appeared in these sketches as an astronomy-obsessed fan referred to as “Ego.” Slant#7 featured a fine example.

In “Benefit Performance, or The Way to the Stars,” Ego browbeats Temple into attending a meeting of a “British Rocket Society.” Readers familiar with the BIS cannot have been in any doubt regarding which organization Temple was satirizing. Temple writes:

Now here was Ego pushing me into a Technical Meeting, to mix with people who shot expressions like “adiabatic expansion” and “stoichiometric amount” at each other and, moreover, appeared to know what they meant.

I shrank inwardly. “Is it really necessary for me to come tonight!” I said. “After all my duty lies here by the hearth…I ought to lay some lino in the kitchen.”

“Your duty to Man always comes first,” said Ego ponderously. “You have the honour to be numbered among the pioneers of Space Travel, who are planning a journey of even greater significance than the voyage of Columbus—Man’s first faltering steps from his mother planet. The exploration of the Universe lies at hand—and you talk of laying linoleum in a back kitchen.”

Ego goes off in that vein at any mention of the keywords “Moon” or “rocket.” Now he went off about the outer planets and lost himself in interstellar space.

The two friends arrive, and the meeting gets underway:

Things really began to get going when the Technical Director arrived. He had quick, lively eyes, and talked as much with his hands as with his tongue, and he was no mute. […]

The Director had just finished constructing the altimeter. He explained how he’d done it. This was quite a performance, needing both hands and plenty of room. He had his own system of semaphore in shorthand. A swift circular sweep in the air meant ‘a wheel.’ A sort of corkscrew wiggle (borrowed, I suspected, from the Hawaiian Love Dance) meant ‘A spiral spring.’ A Roman salute meant ‘about so high.’ Once he tried to describe a camshaft and a crankshaft simultaneously, and drew music from the air. ‘A long lever’ carried a vase of chrysanthemums off the mantel-shelf. For the benefit of the short-sighted he also ran a machinegun vocal commentary. He was somewhat handicapped in clarity, though not in speed, by a heavy cold. (“…two spriggs attadged to thad chaid…”)

Temple’s wry sketch will be recognizable to anyone who has endured a spirited gathering of technically-inclined chaps. I think you will enjoy reading it.

In this article, for comic purposes, Temple underplays his own role in space advocacy; he served as editor for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

The earnest deliberations of the Technical Committee would culminate in the collaborative BIS Moonship design of 1939, a significant milestone along the road to real lunar spacecraft.

As rocketry matured—despite the laughter, the earnest young Ego was right, and the Space Age really was just around the corner—the BIS became home to Britain’s professional space scientists and engineers—but it continues to welcome nonprofessionals as well as boffins.

Temple would go on to become a novelist, writing SF and crime novels. His pal Ego was destined to become one of science fiction’s giants.

So, a toast: Here’s to Bill Temple, for giving us an amusing view of the armchair astronauts. Here’s to Walt Willis for printing a gem of fanwriting about fans from long before. Here’s to Fanac, and to the other sites curating the pages of fandom’s history. Here’s to Judy Bemis for bringing Temple’s story to the Web. And here’s to fans of the future, who will, we may hope, continue to preserve fanwriting and fan art, for whatever comes after the World Wide Web.

Bill Higgins writes and speaks about science, technology, and history. He is a radiation safety physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.


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