WILKINS, John. The Discovery of a New World or a Discourse tending to prove… there may be another habitable world on the moone. With a Discourse concerning the possibility of a Passage thither. [with] A Discourse concerning a New Planet Tending to prove, That tis probable our Earth is one of the Planets.

London, John Norton for John Maynard [with] R.H. for John Maynard, 1640


Two works in one, FIRST EDITION of the second. 8vo. Pp. (x) 244 (iv); (xii) 246 (ii). Roman letter, text within double printed line borders, marginal notes in italic, separate title to each. General engraved frontispiece by William Marshall depicting Copernicus and Galileo beneath a chart of the solar system with the sun at its centre (Johnson 79), woodcut and printed astronomical diagrams throughout. Slight age yellowing, light browning, mostly marginal, to a few leaves. A good clean copy with generous margins in contemporary sheep, rebacked, wear at edges.

These innovative works demonstrate a remarkable early interest in space exploration and alien life forms. The Anglican clergyman, natural philosopher and author John Wilkins (1614-1672) here presents a compelling argument for the alleged habitability of the moon, a possible way to travel through space to get there, and a second book discussing the discovery of a new planet. This is the best early edition, comprising the third edition of the first work ‘corrected and enlarged’, first printed at Oxford in 1638, and the first edition of the second. Bishop Wilkins was the first secretary and effective founder of the Royal Society, sometime Warden of Wadham, Master of Trinity and Bishop of Chester and everywhere a patron of learning and encourager of experimentation, whose protegés included Wren, Ward and Boyle. The second work is the first printed in England unequivocally to espouse the Copernican system of the universe in place of the Ptolemaic – which was still then the ‘official view’ – and more than any other it was responsible for the acceptance in England of the new astronomical learning.

In the first work Wilkins attempts to ‘prove’ i. a. that the moon is a solid, compact, opaque body, generating no light of its own, with mountains, valleys, plains, lakes and seas (accounting for the lighter and darker areas as seen from Earth), that it has an atmosphere and that the Earth is its moon. In turn, he discusses, at some length, the possibility of there being some form of life there, an, printed for the first time in this impression, the possibility “for some of our posterity to finde out a conveyance to this other world…to have a commerce with them”. This ed. Appears to be the first work in English where the mechanics of space are travel are considered; “And how happy shall they be that are first successful in this attempt?”, a charming rumination only answerable following the 1969 NASA moon landing. Both works are of interest also for their breadth of references to contemporary literature, more than thirty in each, of which nearly a dozen are new in the second work.

“(Wilkins) two books Discovery and Discourse were written for the common reader to make known and to defend the new astronomy of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo”, Kenney 208. “In the 1640 edition of the Discovery, Wilkins added the sensational idea that it might be possible to contrive a way of flying to the moon”. DSB XIV 364.

ESTC S119973; Lowndes VII 2922; Wellcome I 6742; Houzeau and Lancaster give C18 and 19th reprints only.