Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 under the title Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. The fantastical narrative was initially presented as a factual account written by ‘Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships’. Early editions of the book even included a fabricated portrait of Gulliver in his role as author.

Pirated maps

The maps included in this edition of Gulliver’s Travels blur fact and fiction even further. They superimpose the novel’s invented lands onto authentic geographical charts, which were pirated from the famous cartographer Herman Moll. These lands are depicted at the fringes of the world as Europeans understood it: for example, Houyhnhnms Land is shown just off the southern coast of what is now known as Australia.

Fact, fiction and a satire on scientific discovery

Gulliver’s repeated claims to authenticity in his first person narrative create distance between the text and its true author. This distance allowed Swift to craft a detailed satire of 18th-century English culture, social behaviours and human nature more broadly.

One of the many targets of Swift’s satire is the Royal Society and its obsession with achieving scientific progress through empirical experimentation (as championed by Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton). In Part 3 (‘A Voyage to Laputa’) Gulliver visits ‘the grand Academy of Lagado’ where he meets scientists, or ‘projectors’, and learns about their far-fetched schemes, which include: ‘a project for extracting Sun-Beams out of cucumbers’ (p. 63); construction of a machine capable of spelling out ‘a complete Body of all Arts and Sciences’ (pp. 71–74) a contraption not dissimilar to early prototypes of the computer; and a project to ‘shorten discourse’, with the aim of ‘entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’ to create a ‘Universal language’ (pp. 75–79).[1]

[1] All quotations from Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, edited with an introduction by Claude Rawson and notes by Ian Higgins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).