As you read Robur the Conqueror, it is necessary to remember that air travel was in its infancy when Jules Verne wrote this work. Balloons had been invented in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but they were at the mercy of the wind. Many years elapsed before the invention of controllable dirigibles and the airplane.
In the first chapter of Robur the Conqueror, the world is perplexed by sounds and lights that appear high in the sky. Many people guess at the cause of these phenomena, but only one single Chinaman gets it right. He correctly assumes that it is a flying machine.
The plot then focuses on the Weldon Institute, which is meeting in Philadelphia. It is a cantankerous group that cannot agree on anything. They cannot even decide who should be president of the society. In an election, two candidates receive an equal number of votes: Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans. In an ingenious narrative studded with satire, Verne shows how the matter is settled in favor of Uncle Prudent. Phil Evans becomes the secretary of the society and a bitter enemy of Uncle Prudent.
Verne then reveals how the Weldon Institute uses current technology in its efforts to invent a controllable balloon. In this account, Verne, a Frenchman, satirizes American attitudes. For example, he tells how money leaps from American pockets in support of projects of practical utility.
The Weldon Institute makes a huge balloon which they call the Go-Ahead. They still face a few problems before it will be ready for a controllable flight. At present, they are heatedly arguing about how to propel it. In the midst of the debate, Robur arrives on the scene. He belittles their efforts and speaks in favor of a heavier-than-air flying machine. He even claims that he himself has conquered the air.
In response, one of the members calls him Robur the Conqueror. Though made in mockery, Robur accepts the epithet. He claims that he deserves it.
Things get out of hand. The angry members attack their visitor. Robur holds them at bay with two revolvers. Then he mysteriously disappears.
Later that night, Robur kidnaps Phil Evans, Uncle Prudent, and Frycollin, the valet of Uncle Prudent. He gives them a ride on a flying machine called the Albatross. It is a sturdy craft manned by a crew of eight.
Verne describes the flying machine in some detail. Most significantly, it runs on electricity. Moreover, in addition to forward motion, it can also hover and rise straight up. Curiously, the craft contains a deck, and people can walk on it if the craft is not flying too swiftly.
Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans decide to forget their personal animosity and unite against Robur, their common enemy. They plan to escape whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Robur takes his captives up to Canada. After flying above Quebec, Montreal, and Ottawa, they return to the United States, flying over Niagara Falls. Robur hopes that they will express admiration for his accomplishments. Instead, they express indignation at the treatment that they have received.
They fly over Chicago and cross the Mississippi River. They pass Omaha and traverse the Great Plains. When they reach the Rocky Mountains, the Albatross has to climb to an extremely high altitude, so its passengers begin to shiver from the cold.
The plane does not fly straight westward, perhaps because Robur wants to treat his guests to some interesting scenery. The thankless passengers even enjoy an aerial view of Yellowstone National Park.
The Albatross flies close to the ground when a moving train comes into view. It performs a few antics, while the train’s passengers cheer. The crew displays Robur’s flag: a black flag studded with stars, with a golden sun at the center. In response, the train displays the stars and stripes.
Eventually the Albatross reaches the Pacific. As their journey continues, they spot the peninsula of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Then they cross the Kamchatka Peninsula. After passing over Tokyo, they head for Peking.
While the Chinese astronomers probably understand that the strange flying vehicle is the object causing the controversial sights and sounds that astronomers have been witnessing, most Chinese think that it is a monster and try to scare it away.
The Albatross flies over Tibet and crosses the Himalayas. Robur deliberately chooses this route because he wants to impress his guests with the capabilities of his flying machine.
They pass the Punjab and the valley of Kashmir. Then they head westward. When they reach the Caspian Sea, the crew decides to catch some fish. Remember that the flying machine can remain stationary, hovering a short distance above the water.
In an hour, they succeed in catching plenty of fish, including at least one sturgeon. A storm threatens them, but Robur’s timely action saves the day.
The Albatross flies over Europe, passing Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sweden, and Norway. Then it heads south to France. While over Europe, it usually flies at full speed and makes very few stops.
By this time, Uncle Prudent thinks it unlikely that they will be able to escape, so they put a note in a snuffbox describing their plight. While hovering over Paris, they drop the snuffbox. They hope that the note will reach the Weldon Institute.
Their ploy proves to be successful. A sweeper finds the snuffbox the next morning and gives it to the police. The world now knows that the strange sights and sounds witnessed by astronomers are caused by the flying machine of Robur.
Meanwhile, the Albatross crosses the Mediterranean and enters Africa. While crossing the Sahara Desert, they catch sight of Timbuktu. Here Uncle Prudent loses his temper. He challenges Robur to a duel. Robur makes it clear that he does not want to kill his guests. Then Uncle Prudent tells him about the informative note that they dropped at Paris. Because of this, Robur becomes angry. He is tempted to throw Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans overboard, but he restrains himself.
When they reach Dahomey, the people below are about to immolate a huge number of people in honor of their new king. Robur fires on the crowd so that the victims can escape.
The Albatross leaves Africa and flies over the Atlantic to the southern tip of South America. After flying over Tierra del Fuego, they continue southward and eventually turn west. When they are fifty miles from the Chonos Archipelago of Chile, they spot the survivors of a shipwreck floating in a boat. Robur gives them food and water, and the Albatross tows them to safety.
Verne now creates some very unusual weather. A tropical storm – a typhoon – occurs in the frigid southern region during the winter. The Albatross is caught in the typhoon. It is gradually forced closer and closer to the South Pole. It passes over a volcano named Erebus during an eruption but suffers no harm, since the storm keeps the hot lava from shooting high enough in the air to reach the vehicle.
Eventually the storm blows them back north, so that Robur, his crew, and his guests can see the light of day once more. Since the storm has damaged the propellers, Robur decides to hover over an island and make repairs. To keep the craft from drifting, he throws down an anchor, which gets caught on a rock.
Robur does not know where he is until he determines his latitude and longitude. He finds that he is at Pitt Island in the Pacific Ocean. He figures that he is forty-six degrees south of his destination: X Island in the Pacific. This mysterious island is Robur’s home base. Here he has founded a small colony.
By this time, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans have decided to destroy the Albatross and everyone on board, including themselves. Blind hatred motivates them. They are not even moved by the fact that Frycollin would undoubtedly object if he knew about their plans.
Uncle Prudent steals some dynamite from Robur’s magazine. The two conspirators stay in their cabin till midnight. Since Robur has been planning to leave in the evening, they think that the Albatross is high in the air. They light a slow fuse and put the dynamite into a sliding box under the berths. Then they leave their cabin.
To their surprise, the Albatross is still anchored to the island. Since the repairs have not yet been completed, Robur has delayed the departure till the next day.
They decide to escape. They vainly try to find Frycollin. When they slide down the cable and reach the island, they find that Frycollin is already there.
The escape is discovered. To recapture the fugitives, the crew begins to lower the Albatross to the island by pulling on the cable. Robur fires a shot and grazes the shoulder of Phil Evans. Uncle Prudent retaliates by cutting the cable, so that the wind carries the Albatross to sea, where it explodes.
As the Albatross plunges downward toward the sea, Robur slows its descent by manipulating a propeller that is still functioning. He and his crew float on the wreckage till a passing ship rescues them. They eventually return to X Island and make a new Albatross.
In the meantime, Uncle Prudent, Phil Evans, and Frycollin encounter the natives of the island. They think that the visitors are gods, so they treat them with respect. Considerable time elapses before a ship visits the island, but the three men eventually return home.
Under the leadership of its president and secretary, the Weldon Institute finishes the Go-Ahead in seven month. An aeronaut named Harry W. Tinder is about to take it on its maiden flight. Its only two passengers are Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans.
As the crowd watches, the Go-Ahead rises and begins to move. Suddenly Robur approaches in his new Albatross. It seems to be a menacing vulture about to pounce on the hapless Go-Ahead. Vainly attempting to escape, the Go-Ahead rises to an extremely high altitude, but the Albatross keeps pace with it. Finally the dirigible rises so high that it bursts. As the balloon plunges toward the earth, Robur and his crew rescue its passengers. This time he permits them to go free.
An English translation of this tale may be read online, thanks to Project Gutenberg. I myself consulted this version, since I do not have access to the original French.