Close your eyes and imagine you step into the basket of a hot-air balloon. You grab the sides of the basket tight as the flame ignites, adding gas to the gigantic red balloon above you. The basket lifts off the ground and suddenly you’re floating in the air, moving higher and higher into the sky. You look down below at the field and trees which have become very small. Soon, you are rushing across the countryside and passing villages and farmland and then crossing over a wide river and then a city. You pass over an ancient castle and then the ocean, traveling further and further from home, then across countries, around and around the world. This is what it might have felt like to be Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne’s famous novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Listen closely as we learn about the life of this visionary author who took his readers around the world, below the oceans, and into the earth with his fantastic and educational tales that defined the genre which became known as “science fiction.”
Jules Verne was born on February 8th, 1828 in Nantes, France. The home they lived in was built on an island in the middle of the river! From their home, Jules loved watching ships arrive from all over the world with passengers and goods to trade in France. He imagined what it would be like to be on the ships, climb up their tall masts, and be sailing around the world on adventures.
When Jules and his brother, Paul, were old enough they attended a boarding school. A boarding school is a place where kids go to school and live. There he learned to write and write and do math. While they weren’t at school, Jules and Paul loved to play in the field and dream about adventures they might one day go on together. One of Jule’s favorite books was called Robinson Crusoe about a man who is shipwrecked and has to survive on an island by himself for many years. It was an adventure story and Jules thought about the kind of adventures he might write about someday, too.
Later more siblings joined their family, 3 sisters, and their family moved to a larger home. They attended school and while Jules struggled with many of the subjects he did like writing. Also, his father wanted him to become a lawyer like he was, but Jules wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted to do with his life. But as he grew older, Jules followed his father’s advice and went to school to become a lawyer. He moved to Paris with a friend and loved living in a big city with all of the sights, sounds, and commotion. He spent his free time writing poems, plays, and songs. His father wanted him to focus on school, but Jules loved writing too much to take his advice. In Paris, Jules met famous writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas who had written books like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At the time, Paris was the perfect place to live for someone who wanted to become a writer and learn from other great authors.
Living in Paris, Jules wrote his first play which became a live performance, and his first story was published in a local newspaper. The story was about a hot air balloon adventure. Airplanes weren’t invented yet, but hot air balloons were a popular form of travel and entertainment. Like ships, they filled Jules with wonder at the places they might take him someday and the adventures they might take people in his stories.
But, sadly, his father wasn’t happy with the success of his stories and plays. He told Jules he would stop sending him money and he had to come home and take over his business as a lawyer. By this time, Jules had made up his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. He told his father he would stay in Paris and do whatever he could to make a living as a writer. It was a risk he’d have to take, no longer receiving his father’s money, but writing was his passion so he stayed in Paris to fulfill that dream.
There, he took any job he could to make a living and spent most of his time continuing to write. Eventually, he met a woman named Honorine and they married and had two daughters. Jules was happy with his new family and writing in his free time.
In 1859, Jules got his first chance to travel beyond France. He and a friend took a ship to England and Scotland. There, he saw many of the places he’d only read about as a child in books: castles, ruins, and huge mountain ranges. As they explored these wondrous places, his travels began to fill him with fresh ideas about how they might be used in the adventure stories he’d dreamed about writing since he was a child.
Sure enough, Jules’ travels inspired him to write his first novel in 1863 about a hot-air balloon adventure over Africa called Five Weeks in a Balloon. At first, it didn’t sell, but not long after a giant balloon was launched in France and people became excited about the idea of hot-air balloons and bought Jule’s book. Jules’ stories were different because they combined adventure with science and the many other advances in engineering that were taking place at this time. He lived in a time of many new inventions and scientific discoveries which included steam power and flight. Many new places like Africa were also being discovered around the world. It was an exciting time to live and Jules wanted to capture that sense of wonder and excitement in his novels. Little did he know, he was helping create a new category of writing called “science fiction.”
Jules’ publisher saw with how the world was changing, people would love these “science fiction” stories – even though they didn’t call them that at the time. He agreed to continue to publish each chapter of Jules’ stories in his magazine. Once the book was finished, it would be bound into a single copy for people to buy and read.
Jules began working on what became one of his most famous novels of all time. In the story, a professor and his nephew discover a volcano and Iceland and believe that if they can climb down into it they will find a path to the center of the earth! They travel far below the earth’s surface through caves and an underground river where they discover a huge cavern, fossils, and an underground sea. There they see fish, reptiles, and other mammals from the age of the dinosaurs. It became a chance to introduce readers to prehistoric life on earth as they imagined these now-extinct creatures living and battling in these caverns at the center of the earth. Of course, this story was fiction or made up, but it included many truths about living things and actual places like Iceland and volcanoes. If you’ve ever read science fiction, it’s made up but there are interesting things it can teach you about the world around you and science.
When Jules’ book was released in 1864, Journey to the Center of the Earth, was a huge success. People loved going on adventures through his characters and learning about new places and subjects like geography, geology, and the history of life on earth.
His following novels continued to mix exploration, science, and adventure. One was called From the Earth to the Moon about a group of soldiers who decided to use a huge cannon to launch one of them in a missile to the moon! Even though the book was written in the 1800s, it was thinking ahead about the big ideas like space travel and a real moon mission which wouldn’t happen until around 100 years later.
Although he was writing fiction, Jules Verne continued to be interested in science and innovation. He read papers about new scientific discoveries and met with scientists and great thinkers who lived in France and Europe. Every year he also spent time traveling to new places to be inspired by the world around him. In 1867 he traveled to the United States in a massive steamship and visited famous sites. He took notes about the places he visited, things he saw, and people he met. His travels and research gave him new ideas about what to write in his fantastic stories.
And he would need all the inspiration he could get because Jules had started on his most famous novel yet. Going back to his childhood, it included his dreams about ships and the vastness of the sea. This story would be about a massive submarine called the Nautilus. The Nautilus wasn’t like an ordinary submarine at the time, small and cramped. Instead, the inside was large and spacious, and richly designed. It was the home of its pilot, an adventurer named Captain Nemo. There, Nemo had a full library, an organ, a big bedroom, and an office. And on the Nautilus, Nemo and his crew traveled around the world visiting places like the North Pole and coral reefs. They even battle a giant squid! The book was later called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and became an instant success. In it, Jules Verne took readers deep below the sea where they not only learned about the oceans of the world and exotic sea life, but also the mechanics of a fantastic submarine, which was powered by electricity – still a very new idea and invention at the time! 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea eventually became Jules most popular book and in 1916 was made into a movie then later in 1954 by Walt Disney, along with later film adaptations.
Jules’ next book was also a big success. It was called Around the World in Eighty Days about an Englishman named Phileas Fogg who accepts a bet that in a hot air balloon he can circle the world in … you guessed it … 80 days! During the book, they visit new places across the globe, another chance for Jules to teach his readers about all of the amazing places he’s visited and see the wonder of the wider world through his eyes. It was also turned into a play and later a movie in 1956 and even won an Academy Award for best picture.
With the great success of his books, Jules became very wealthy. He built his family a large home in Amiens and a yacht he used to sail to exotic places across the world. He was treated as a celebrity wherever he visited. At home, he threw large parties for friends, family, and the people of Amiens. He joined the town council and used his money to take care of people around him who were poor. Also, later in life he and his father became close again, and he accepted the fact that he decided to become an author rather than a lawyer. His father was proud of what his son had accomplished.
Jules Verne spent the rest of his life with his family in his home in Amiens where he consistently wrote around 2 novels a year later into his life. On March 24, 1905, Jules passed away at his home. His son went on to publish some of his other stories and add to them himself. Many of his books have been translated into at least 140 different languages and inspired many famous science fiction writers. Being one of the earliest authors to combine science, adventure, and technology, he has often been called “the father of science fiction” as one of the founders of the genre. Many great explorers and engineers also said reading Jules Verne’s books when they were young inspired them to dream big and accomplish great things in their life. These include Werner Von Braun, the rocket scientist and the astronomer Edward Hubble.
Take a moment to think about something you are curious about. What are you interested in? Like you, Jules Verne had many things he was curious about as a child. He loved big ships and the ocean. Now, what can you do next to learn more about the things you are curious about? You might go to the library or find a good book about that topic another way. There are lots of educational videos online, too. Like Jules Verne, you can take something you are curious about and learn more. Maybe you can even write a story about it like Jules did! Remember, all big things have small beginnings!