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“life On Mars Is Almost Certain!”
…And what’s more, the planet’s highly civilized inhabitants live together in perfect harmony. So argued an eminent astronomer named Percival Lowell, and for decades tens of thousands of Americans believed him.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
Buoyed by the success of this article, Ward sketched out a full-length book on Mars to include chapters on biology, including plant and animal life, psychology, ethnology, and sociology, the latter divided between politics and culture. It is regrettable that it was never completed.
The nature of Martian society and, by extension, that of the future Earth was not a matter of general agreement. For Lowell it was a hierarchy of intellect, where “from top to bottom each individual has his place and fills it.… All are given a chance to rise, but only the worthy do.” James Cowan, in his novel Daybreak (1896), described an advanced Martian civilization animated by the principles of Christianity—Christ having been incarnated and crucified there (earlier than on Earth), as well as on every inhabited planet. Others, to the horror of the conservative astronomer, thought that socialism reigned on Mars. In 1920, at the height of the Red Scare, the novelist and editor William Dean Howells wrote a brief piece about an encounter with two visitors from the red planet—outspoken socialists both. A public meeting has been arranged. The Martians are advised: “Better confine yourselves to your material conditions—your canals and inland seas and polar snow-caps. Don’t touch on moral or economical affairs.” The visitors, heedless of the advice, describe Mars as it is, and are promptly deported—to Russia.
All such disputes, of course, could have been settled by establishing some communication with the beings on Mars. In 1901 Nikola Tesla, the brilliant, eccentric physicist, informed the world that he had received radio signals in his Colorado laboratory that had come, in all probability, from Mars. “The feeling is constantly growing on me,” said Tesla, “that I [have] been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.” Should neighborly feeling necessitate a reply, there would be “no insurmountable obstacle in constructing a machine capable of conveying a message to Mars.”
The idea of communication was revived in 1909. W. H. Pickering, still skeptical of Lowell’s theory, suggested a way to lay the whole matter to rest. Signals should be sent to Mars, on the assumption that advanced inhabitants—if there were any—would find a way of replying. Pickering suggested a system of mirrors, to flash light across the vast distance, at a cost he estimated at ten million dollars. Camille Flammarion thought it an excellent idea. “Martians,” he said, “were probably trying to communicate with the earth millions of years ago before our mammoth and cave men period.” Another astronomer suggested that the signal consist of a huge strip of black cloth, to be stretched out and rolled up at various points in a desert. Still another suggested radio waves.
In 1909 Lowell declared that new canals had appeared since he had begun observing Mars. The builders were still alive and at work; the system “is undergoing construction or adaptation at the present moment.” Yet in the years after the opposition of 1907 Lowell gave more of his attention than before to other topics—the search for a new planet (discovered in 1930 and named Pluto in honor of Lowell, because the symbol for Pluto combined Lowell’s initials) and an ambitious work on “planetology,” The Evolution of Worlds .
When Lowell died in 1916, the Martian canal theory did not die with him. In 1921 Guglielmo Marconi, the genius of electrical communication, announced, as Tesla had done, that he had received radio signals from the inhabitants of Mars. In 1924, at a very favorable opposition, there was a strong movement to have radio transmissions blacked out briefly so that the signals undoubtedly being beamed from the red planet could be detected. Even W. H. Pickering, so long a doubter, had begun to accept the possibility of a Martian civilization. A reporter titled his 1928 interview with the Harvard astronomer “Life on Mars Is Almost Certain!” Said Pickering, “Some [canals] are so straight and regular that we can explain them only as the result of intelligent design.” Furthermore, he and other observers had seen geometrical patterns on the Martian surface, from a cross within a circle to a five-pointed star, to which the same reasoning applied.
Yet the peaceful nature of the Martian beings was no longer taken so much for granted. One man can be held largely responsible. In February of 1912 the readers of Frank Munsey’s garish All-Story magazine opened the new issue to the first installment of a serial, “Under the Moons of Mars.” The by-line Norman Bean meant nothing to them. It was, in fact, a pseudonym (and a misspelled one at that), but even the author’s real name would have passed unnoticed. It belonged to an unsuccessful, middleaged businessman, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The future creator of Tarzan was breaking into the world of writing with an adventure novel set on a Mars whose landscape showed an obvious debt to Lowell.