It takes a great stride of perception to imagine what it must have been like, before the first man stepped on the moon.
That day, when Neil Armstrong took his first giant step for mankind, he drew us through the looking-glass. For millennia we had been gazing at this great beauty, and now one of our kind was standing on her, and she became an acquaintance.
Since that time we have become accustomed to a privilege accorded to a tiny proportion of all the peoples of all the times of the earth: we know what it looks like. close-up.
There are no Selenites, as HG Wells speculated there could be. There is no man in the moon, leering maniacally out from some flickering monochrome circle. There’s dust, and rocks, and dead ghost seas.
But imagine, if someone had shown you a great picture of her surface, as tall as a man, detailed as a map, before magnification claimed her? In the days when the telescope was still an expensive luxury, what if a man had the vision to create a huge representation of her surface of such detail it leaves one breathless?
Galileo, it was, who first made a telescope sophisticated enough to see the hills and valleys of the moon. And inventors took the idea and ran with it, creating glasses which would see ever further into the heavens, until a music teacher from Bath thought bigger than all of them.
That was in 1774. William Herschel made big telescopes. Here’s his 40-foot one:
This was his Magnum Opus. Herschel used it to watch the sky for 20 years, and on the very first night he used it, he discovered Saturn’s sixth known moon, Enceladus.
William was great friends with a rather decent portrait painter.
His name was John Russell. Born in Guildford high street in 1745, he was a bit of a religious fanatic. He kept a diary in an obscure shorthand , beginning the day he converted to Methodism at just 19 years old. The clear lines of this particular faith must have suited him admirably.
Still, though he could be a bit of a bore, he still garnered friends in very high places. He was very good at pastels, and George III soon enlisted him to create pastel portraits of his nearest and dearest; and with that, all Court was clamouring for his work.
But his great love was the moon. He loved its surface it an knew it as intimately as any at that time, and drawing it was his obsession.
In 1784 he was introduced to Herschel And lo! The moon mapmaker had access to hitherto unthinkable magnifications of the moon’s surface.
And to his eternal credit, he shared his findings. It took him 20 years, but he drew the moon in all its intricacy so that we could all imagine we were hovering in space, close to its surface. We could all see what only Herschel’s great monsterscope could see.
Russell democratised the moon.
And if you go to old Elias Ashmole’s cabinet of curiosities, the site of the old Ashmolean Museum and the present home of the Museum of the History of Science, and walk half way up the stairs towards the first floor, you will see a great round picture of the moon. And it is as stunning today, to me, as the day it was completed by its meticulous creator.
He didn’t have to stand on the moon. He created a vision which would help mankind understand for more than 150 years what the moon looked like, close up.
It’s a unique perspective.