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Around the world in 80 days is a novel be Jules Verne about an Englishman who makes a bet with some fellow club members that he can travel around the world in 80 days.

Nowadays with modern flight, going round the world in 80 days wouldn't only be possible, but could be done 40 times over.

But at the time the book was published in 1873, there was no flight, just steamships, railways and hot air balloons.

So at this time, would going round the world (visiting every time zone, and at least staying out of the polar circles) in 80 days be possible, or would this feat be quite a big thing which is why the book became so popular and famous?

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    Are you asking about the physical possibility/ease of the feat, or whether the relative possibility/ease of the feat influenced the serial's contemporary reception? The former seems more like a History question. – BESW Feb 24 '17 at 8:08
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    This question does not seem relevant to literature expertise. – doppelgreener Feb 24 '17 at 9:37
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    For interests sake, Michael Palin did it in a BBC documentary in 1989 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Pat Dobson Feb 24 '17 at 9:55
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    @BeastlyGerbil See how my answer is more than half about history, and hardly at all about Around the World? You can improve your question by asking more specifically about World and less about the general nature of Victorian intercontinental travel. What prompted the question? Maybe you're really wondering why World was so popular and the travel thing is your guess; that'd be a classic XY problem. – BESW Feb 24 '17 at 11:03
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    @doppelgreener questions about the historical circumstances surrounding a work's writing are very much the domain of literature experts. The question as written is on point. – verbose Feb 24 '17 at 19:16
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Circumnavigation was nothing new. Speedy circumnavigation was new, but not unheard-of and Around the World wasn't positing anything outlandish or even vaguely sci-fi. It's a story celebrating what the British Empire had already accomplished, not postulating what might be possible in the future. Verne himself claims to have been inspired by an early 1860s newspaper item which said that a man could in fact go around the world in 80 days and someone had done so already (Verne's claim is probably not precisely true, but whether it's an error of his memory or of the newspaper item we can't know--see verbose's answer for speculation on what article he might have read.

People have been circumnavigating the globe for centuries--the first known successful attempt was in the early 1500s and the feat was repeated several times in the following three hundred years. Circumnavigations became both more common and faster in the 1800s. Thomas Cook ran a leisurely circumnavigation group tour in 1872, a few months before Around the World was published. Around the World opens with a discussion of just how trivial circumnavigation had become for a man with sufficient resources, and Verne isn't exaggerating (see above).

Recent global infrastructure improvements also meant the world was ripe for speedy circumnavigation: In 1870 George Train made the journey in 80 days (minus two months spent in France; his 80-day record is just counting the travel time). It was ridiculously expensive to go around the world quickly, but given sufficient money the big obstacle was unrest in the areas one traveled rather than the speed of one's mode of travel (again, reflected relatively accurately --albeit sensationally-- in the novel).

16 years after Around the World was published, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland competed on behalf of the Cosmopolitan and the New York World to see who could do the circumnavigation faster. There was no question that they could do it. Both met with hardship on the way, but each beat the semi-fictional 80-day record: Bly did it in 72 days, Bisland in 76; the difference was largely a matter of which newspaper was willing to spend more money on the stunt. (For more information on both women, I recommend the excellent Rejected Princesses.) A few months later George Train did it again and hit 67 days, then beat his own record a third time with 60 days in 1892.

The popularity of Around the World, then, was more about the reputation and skill of the author and his depiction of the dangers encountered on the journey, than about the feasibility of the feat itself. The deadline lent extra urgency to the dangers the characters encountered.

It's also worth noting that Around the World celebrates the technological marvels and political influence of the world-spanning British Empire. It flatters the British pride, and that certainly didn't hurt its popularity.

  • I had already gotten halfway through composing my answer before you posted yours, so I decided to complete it and post it anyway :-) Sorry about the overlap. – verbose Feb 24 '17 at 9:06
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    +1 for "It's a story celebrating what the British Empire had already accomplished" and "Around the World celebrates the technological marvels and political influence of the world-spanning British Empire." – user111 Feb 24 '17 at 15:15
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    If he had been writing to celebrate the British Empire and flatter British pride then he probably wouldn't have written it in French – Tom Page Feb 24 '17 at 16:26
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    @TomPage Happily, I make no claims as to Mr. Verne's intent but simply comment on the text itself and its interaction with the reading community. – BESW Mar 10 '17 at 2:14
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    @BESW Good point well made. When a work is as successful as this it takes on a life of it's own. – Tom Page Mar 15 '17 at 13:57
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It was possible, but not easy. The difficulty of the task accounts for the substantial amount of the bet: £20,000 in 1873 is worth about £2,000,000 or more than US $2.5 million today.

William Butcher's 1995 translation of Verne's book includes an appendix that provides details of contemporary sources that had information regarding quick circumnavigations, both theoretical and actual. A periodical called Le Tour du Monde carried an article on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when I was but a wee lad. The article said that it was now possible to complete the circumnavigation in 80 days, with the following itinerary:

Paris to Port Said, railway and steamer............6  days
Port Said to Bombay, steamer ......................14 days    
Bombay to Calcutta, railway .......................3  days  
Calcutta to Hong Kong, steamer ....................12 days   
Hong Kong to Edo, steamer .........................6  days   
Edo to Sandwich Islands, steamer ..................14 days   
Sandwich Islands to San Francisco, steamer.........7  days   
San Francisco to New York, railway.................7  days   
New York to Paris, steamer.........................11 days    
Total ............................................ 80 days

(Port Said is the head of the Suez Canal; the Sandwich Islands are Hawaii. ) This theoretical journey is pretty much the exact itinerary proposed by Fogg, so Verne must have seen this article and found it an inspiration for his novel.

Another inspiration was the American entrepreneur George Francis Train. In 1870, he traveled around the world in 80 days. Well, the actual travel took 80 days, but he broke his journey and hung around in France for a while. From the Wikipedia article linked above:

in 1870 Train decided to make a trip around the globe, which was covered by many newspapers. The actual traveling took 80 days, though he stayed two months in France, supporting the Paris Commune for which he spent two weeks in jail (the US government and Alexandre Dumas intervened to get him released). His exploits possibly inspired Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days. His protagonist Phileas Fogg is believed to have been partially modeled on Train.

One remarkable person to complete a circumnavigation in less than Verne's stated time was the investigative journalist Nellie Bly. Following the publication of Verne's novel, she decided to try to see whether the journey could actually be completed in 80 days. In 1889, she went around the world in 72 days.

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