Demystifying Mystery Island

“Lastly, whatever may be the cause, our globe will become cold some day, but this cold will only operate gradually. What will happen, then? The temperate zones, at a more or less distant period, will not be more habitable than the polar regions now are. Then the population of men, as well as the animals, will flow towards the latitudes which are more directly under the solar influence. An immense emigration will take place.”(Verne1894,325)

I shall venture to say that, regardless of what our modern scientist and theorist have concluded about the end of the world, it is merely conjecture and propaganda. Any man, at this point, that goes against the prognostication of Jules Verne will eventually be shown incorrect. After all, how many great events and inventions did Verne dream up and place so systematically into his 58 novels? Many. Among his dragon_apollo11eagle01-lgprophetic ideas are the electric submarine, news cast, solar sails, lunar modules, skywriting, video conferencing, spaceship splashdowns, and the taser.(Nat Geo, 2011) Verne is regarded by many as the father of science fiction and has a nearly cult following of people who refer to themselves as Vernians. spaceship splashdownHis works have stood the test of time because of his smooth writing style, his ability to take readers on amazing adventures, and his use of expansive scientific research conveyed through his characters. Perhaps his greatest compilation of scientific knowledge occurs in his 1894 novel, Mysterious Island. I will attempt to briefly outline the plethora of scientific study that the book eloquently presents to its young readers, thereby allowing you to understand why it has had such an impact on science and innovation around the world.


Jules Verne

Jules Verne
Jules Verne

(1828-1905)Verne is considered by many, myself included, to be the greatest science fiction/adventure writer to grasp a pen.Verne was born to French bourgeois parents. Consequently, his father aspired that he should be trained as a lawyer in order to follow in his footsteps.(WikiVerne) Law school seemed to be going fine, but Verne was far more interested in writing. His Uncle, introduced him in several literary circles, giving way to his future connections and subsequent early success. Verne published his first minor sets of novels in 1851. In developing his unique style he began to spend many hours at Bibliotheque Nationale de France.(WikiVerne) It was there that he researched extensively the scientific theory and recent discoveries in geography that would fuel the amazing descriptions and background for his stories.(WikiVerne)

Original French Cover, Around the World in 80 Days
Original French Cover, Around the World in 80 Days

It wasn’t until 1863 that we see the first of the classic Vernian novels go into publication. Five Weeks in a Balloon is considered by most to be the first of around 20 masterpieces written by Verne. Verne’s works are characterized by amazing scientific and geographic detail. It is like you are reading straight out of a textbook. His levels of detail are second to none. Much of his scientific detail is so great that the reader can get caught up in the scientific jargon and explanations and lose track of the central theme of the book. Journey to the Center of the EarthMost of his books are now available in an abridged version, as to make them more enjoyable to children. Several of these works have been made into motion pictures over the last few decades. Great Vernian novels include, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Mysterious Island.

HG Wells

Verne is considered a contemporary of H.G. Wells and Samuel Clemens. 20,000 leaguesMuch like Wells, Verne drew on the cutting edge science of his day, in his writing. Simon Lake, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Edward Hubble, and Richard E. Byrd, among many others attribute the origin of their love for science as being the writings of Verne. Verne wrote consistently for beyond forty years before “gradually failed and the end was hastened by a stroke of paralysis” (Washington, 1905) in 1905. His only son, Michel continued to released his works for two years after his death.(WikiVerne)  Michel had been born of the third love to his life. Ironically and in great similarity to H.G. Wells, Verne’s first love was his cousin, which married another man as selected by her parents.


The Mysterious Island

mysterious_island coverThe story begins with 5 men and a dog being uncontrollably steered, as passengers of a balloon, by  a hurricane off the Eastern American coastline. The passengers had found themselves in the balloon as a form of escape from a Southern encampment during the Civil War. The intent was to ride the balloon across the line to the safety of the Northern side. The hurricane was more than they had bargained for and the escapees now found themselves far out to sea with no sense of bearing of where they might be in the vast ocean. After days aloft, their balloon begins to lose air. The men begin to purge the vessel of all excess weight in order to keep it afloat, in hopes that they might find land. After all of their possessions had been emptied into the ocean, including the basket to the balloon itself, the men spot a land mass in just the nick of time. The men essentially crash-land on the land oasis. Upon arriving they realize that there are only four of them that have survived. It isn’t until days later that they are reunited with the fifth man and his faithful companion “Top”.

Top, the faithful companion
Top, the faithful companion

Verne carefully chose the personality characteristics and occupation of each character as to be able to convey as much scientific knowledge to the reader as possible. Mr. Harding is an engineer and officer in the Northern army. He is extremely smart, logical, and resourceful. Herbert is a young man, of college age, that has studied a great deal into the natural sciences. He seems to remember every single detail about every animal he has seen or heard about. Pencroft is a lifelong sailor who excels in knots,  navigation, and cultures around the world. Spillet is a reporter. He has had several adventures already, is a gifted writer and possesses a great deal of dexterity. Neb is the negro servant of Mr. Harding. He is a skilled cook, very loyal friend, and possesses a high degree of character.

Screen shot of the 1961 movie rendition
Screen shot of the 1961 movie rendition

The book explains, in great detail, how these men “colonize” the island that they have been marooned on. As problems present themselves, the colonists use ingenuity and scientific knowledge to overcome each situation. The men first have to determine whether they are on a colony or an island. The follow-up question to this deals with whether the island is inhabited by other humans. The men scientifically discover that they are on an island, and appear to be its only human inhabitants. Granite bluffThe men accept this new life and quickly develop a very positive outlook on their new situation. They begin to realize that, with the Captain’s vast engineering knowledge, they can create all of the luxuries of home by their own hands. They soon have an extravagant living area that is climate controlled and supplied with fresh running water. The men begin to farm their island by planting crops and capturing wild animals in pens for use as a food and clothing source. Their life is made much easier because of a vast knowledge of metallurgy, chemistry, and animal husbandry.

Part 2 of the book chronicles the men’s experience after they have been locked out of their own dwelling. As it turns out, the perpetrator was an orangutan. Upon once again gaining control of the domicile, the men decide to let the orangutan live and presume that he may actually become an active and useful member of their community.

Buoyancy and hot air balloon mechanics

The first major science explained to the reader in Mysterious Island is that of the mechanics of hot air balloons. This theme was recurring among many of Verne’s works, specifically the central theme in Around the World in 80 Days and Five Weeks in a Balloon. Among his description, Verne writes,

“Are we rising again?” “No. On the contrary.” “Are we descending?” “Worse than that, captain! we are falling!” “For Heaven’s sake heave out the ballast!” “There! the last sack is empty!” “Does the balloon rise?” “No!” “I hear a noise like the dashing of waves. The sea is below the car! It cannot be more than 500 feet from us!” “Overboard with every weight! … everything!”(Verne1874,3)

This is the opening line of the novel! Verne was fixated with human flight via hot air balloons and gas balloons. Just 90 years earlier, “Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier, along with the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first humans to fly.”(Tretkoff, 2006) The Montgolfier brothers reasoned that if they could create a balloon and passenger carrying system with a total density less than that of the surrounding air, that the object would rise. Early designs of this contraption required riders to drop weight to decrease the density of the balloon as the air inside the balloon cooled or leaked out. It wasn’t until Ed Yost added an onboard heat source in the 1950’s when the significance of the ballast began to decrease.(Wiki, 2014). Verne’s greatest inspiration in studying balloon flight and including it as a part of most of his stories was a man named Felix Nadar. Nadar caused excitement in Verne after he first took photographs from high above the ground and later piloted the largest balloon ever flown, some 200,000 cubic feet.(Paul Lagasse, 2012) Verne writes of the passengers and their struggle to drop any items, inevitably decreasing the weight of the contraption. Their need to decrease the weight of the balloon becomes so drastic that the men actually cut the basket from beneath the balloon. Verne never refers to the concept of density by name, but essentially defines buoyancy and explains the adjustments that the captain makes to the ballast in order to keep the balloon afloat.

Geology and Plate Tectonics

tectonicsThe second major scientific concept that Verne examines in extreme detail is geology and plate tectonics. As the four marooned passengers survey their new surroundings for the first time, Verne notes,

“But on beholding the convulsed masses heaped up on the left, no geologist would have hesitated to give them a volcanic origin, for they were unquestionably the work of subterranean convulsions.”(Verne1874,43)

James Hutton
James Hutton

In subsequent conversation throughout the book, there is constant mention of different rock type and classifications, and the form in which each type comes about. Nearly a century earlier, James Hutton had released 25 years of work to the Royal Society.(Edmond A. Mathez, 2000) Modern geology regards Hutton as the “father of geology” for the findings of this study. Hutton suggested that a great amount of subterranean heat was the cause for rises in the Earth’s surface, rock formations, granite, basalt, and mineral veins. Hutton’s theory further went on to speculate the Earth was far older than the 5,000 years than many Biblical historians claimed.(Edmond A. Mathez, 2000) Though most of the geological knowledge of Verne’s day came from Hutton, it was not his greatest geological inspiration.

“Louis Figuier (1819-1894), a contemporary and compatriot of Verne, was a prolific writer on scientific and technological matters for the general public. His La Terre avant le déluge (1863: The World before the Deluge) sold an “unprecedented” 25,000 copies in four French editions in less than two years. Much of the scientific information in Verne’s novel was taken directly from this work.”(John Breyer, 2003)

Breyer goes on to state, “Exact numbers are duplicated and lengthy lists are reproduced in the same order. The borrowing is widespread and blatant.”(John Breyer, 2003) Breyer alludes to the fact that Verne more or less puts all of the information and statistics into “literary form”.(John Breyer, 2003)


Carl Linneaus
Carl Linnaeus
Chuck Darwin

Taxonomy, the systematic classification of living organisms, is the most widespread and prolific scientific concept found in the book. With each turn of the page, a new species is identified and at least a partial taxonomic classification is given. Carl Linnaeus(18th century) is considered the father of taxonomy. Linnaeus created a system of organizing creatures based on similarities, in an attempt to determine the closeness of relationship between any two given animals. This method of organization was extremely prevalent in Verne’s time, especially given that Darwin had recently published On the Origin of Species. Verne, with the exception of a few Social-Darwinism concepts that I will address later, tends to lead us down a path contrary to evolution in both parts I and II of the story. This is evidenced as the species that are observed throughout the first eleven months on the island are easily identifiable by Herbert, as they are an exact specimen of the animals and plants that he has studied for the previous few years. Citing an example,”in a marshy part of the forest, a bird with a long pointed beak, closely resembling the king-fisher, but its plumage was not fine, though of a metallic brilliancy. “That must be a jacamar,” said Herbert,”.(Verne1874,81) This contradicts Darwinian evolution as the island is 7,000 miles from the point in which they departed  and half way across the globe from the known population of some of the species. The island should definitely allow for speciation and mutation by natural selection because of the isolation of the animals and their limited population. Verne does take a shot at Darwinian evolution as he introduces an orangutan near the start of part II of the book. In time, this orangutan becomes a very close companion of Neb, the negro. It is heavily implied at that point, that the two become very close either because they are more closely related or they are similar in their mental ability. No where, prior to this point of the book, did Verne lend us a notion that the negro was of diminished mind or on any different mental level than the writer, sailor, or student. We must conclude that Verne is essentially making the orangutan a very small step below the humans, very capable of doing most of the same tasks as the average man.


“Now Cyrus Harding wanted iron, and he wished to obtain it as soon as possible. The ore which he had picked up was in itself very pure and rich. It was the oxydulous iron, which is found in confused masses of a deep gray color; it gives a black dust, crystallized in the form of the regular octahedron. Native lodestones consist of this ore, and iron of the first quality is made in Europe from that with which Sweden and Norway are so abundantly supplied. Not far from this vein was the vein of coal already made use of by the settlers.”(Verne1874,227)

Samurai Sword

Yet again, Verne has done his research.Through the intelligence of the captain, Verne is presenting the reader with the basics of metallurgy. Metallurgy is a domain of materials science and of materials engineering that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements and their mixtures, which are called alloys. (Science Daily, 2014) Proper use of the principles of metallurgy do, in essence allow the colonist to forge weapons, nails, and other extremely useful metal objects. This science was not new during Verne’s epoch, but instead has gradually evolved throughout the history of the world. It has not been a linear progression, but rather a series of ebbs and flows, an obvious consequence of trade secrets, skilled artisans, and war. Among the greatest cultures regarding their metallurgy skills include the ancient Japanese, Germans, and America through the industrial revolution. A societies livelihood often depended upon the skill of their greatest blacksmith. Sword fights would have often been decided by the quality of steel, as would gunfights be decided by the precision of the metal in their barrel. Our modern material scientist have added carbon fiber and nano-tubes to the traditional metals of metallurgy. As technology progresses, we gain a new understanding of the particular properties of each metal and alloy. It would be superfluous to say that our knowledge of the subject and thereby quality of our steel increases with each passing generation. This is primarily because, with the exception of depleted uranium alloys, our steel is not as high quality as that which has been used to make Samurai swords for thousands of years.


“When the heap of pyrites had been entirely reduced by fire, the result of the operation, consisting of sulphate of iron, sulphate of alumina, flint, remains of coal, and cinders was placed in a basinful of water. They stirred this mixture, let it settle, then decanted it, and obtained a clear liquid containing in solution sulphate of iron and sulphate of alumina, the other matters remaining solid, since they are insoluble. Lastly, this liquid being partly evaporated, crystals of sulphate of iron were deposited, and the not evaporated liquid, which contained the sulphate of alumina, was thrown away.”(Verne1894,263-264)

Svante Arrhenius

As the book progresses, we find that the Engineer’s knowledge really knows no limits. Verne explains so many concepts of basic reaction chemistry through the words and actions of Mr. Harding. Chemistry of this era was centered around reaction chemistry, the general nature of ionic salts, and production of the salts as a means to drive the industrial revolution in Europe. Verne’s contemporaries made this era of history a true gold mine for scientific innovation and discovery. Among these great ideas was Ion Theory, which was developed by Savante Arrhenius in 1883, modified by Van’t Hoff in 1885 and ratified again in a paper by Arrhenius in 1887. Arrhenius used, as a header in his 1887 paper, “MODERN THEORY OF SOLUTION”.(Svante Arrhenius, 1887) His theory has stood the test of time as it has given the following characteristics to all solutions:

  1. Heat of Neutralization in Dilute Solutions
  2. Specific Volume and Specific Gravity of Dilute Salt Solutions
  3. Specific Refractivity of Solutions
  4. Capillary Phenomena
  5. Conductivity
  6. Lowering the Freezing Point (Svante Arrhenius, 1887,59-66)

Verne was well versed in his study of Arrhenius and Van’t Hoff at the time of this writing and his knowledge of the subject is very evident throughout the book. It can be discerned that Verne felt that nearly all aspects of human life could be advanced through the study of and knowledge of chemistry.

 Modern Adaptations

Verne’s novels are amongst the most widely translated literature in history.  The modern era has seen several of his greatest works converted into movies. Mysterious Island is no exception. The most recent adaptation was produced in 2008 by New Line Cinema. The movie, starring Dwayne Johnson, is centered around a boy and his stepfather and their quest for the island of Vernian lore.  Once the family and two other passengers find the island, Dwayne Johnson reasons that the island is sinking into the sea. He makes this conclusion based on his previous work on soil liquefaction, the process where soil loses its strength and stability because of tectonic shifts. Based on this small scientific inclusion into the movie, the group hastily leaves the island aboard Nemo’s submarine. The movie is a great adventure, and wholesome family fun, but is completely void of the romanticism of science that is found in the original book.

Mysterious Island is the greatest piece of scientific romance ever produced. Verne has given us a book that is eloquent in its language, complex in its content, and effective in its conveyance of these topics. No other book, both leads a reader on an amazing adventure and educates them on some of the great scientific topics. Verne wrote for the pure romance he found in science, not for a political statement or a hidden agenda. The impact of his writings are seen over the last century through different innovations in science and in literature. With everyday that goes by, more Vernian ideas come to fruition. Make sure you’ve got a good coat, Vernian winter is coming…

For more reading on current Vernian society in our part of theworld, please visit:

For a full list of Jules Vernes published materials, please visit:

A free digital copy of this book is available for your convenience:


Works Cited

2013. Jules Verne.

Jules Verne. 1874. The Mysterious Island. Goodbooks Classics.

Paul Lagasse. 2012. The Man Who Inspired Jules Verne.

Ernie Tretkoff. 2006. November 1783: Intrepid physicist is first to fly. American Physical Society.

Edmond A. Mathez. 2000. James Hutton: The Father of Modern Geology.

John Breyer & William Butcher. 2003. Nothing New Under The Earth: The geology of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Earth Sciences History 22: 36-54.

2014. Hot air balloon.

1905. Jules Verne is Dead. Washington, D.C.: Washington Post.

2014. Metallurgy. Science Daily.

Svante Arrhenius. 1887. On the Dissociation of Substances Dissolved in Water. 47-55.

National Geographic. 2011. 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True (Pictures).

2 thoughts on “Demystifying Mystery Island”

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