A View Of The Moon From The Sun: 1835

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The New York Sun for August si, 1835, carried a modest but intriguing item on its second page. It read: CELESTIAL DISCOVERIES —The Edinburgh Courant says—“We have just learnt from an eminent publisher in this city that Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

Four days later the Sun printed the first of a series of daily articles reporting the presence of life—vegetable and animal—on the moon.

The Sun , nearly two years old, was the brain child of Benjamin H. Day, a bold young printer who had been casting about for a profitable sideline. With the help of a young printer-writer, George W. Wisner, Day’s Sun was a successful penny sheet in a city of six-penny mercantile newspapers.

Day encouraged Wisner in turning out readable copy at all costs; by supplying an abundance of short, breezy items, sensational and irreverent in tone, the Sun claimed, by mid-1835, a then-remarkable daily circulation of 15,000. When Wisner left him that summer, Day hired Richard Adams Locke, a crack reporter, away from Day’s archenemy, James Watson Webb, editor and proprietor of the Courier and Enquirer .

Soon Locke was laying before Day a scheme that was sure to boost circulation still further. Locke was entirely frank as he revealed the mechanics of his plan and explained its great likelihood for success. Britishborn and Cambridge-educated, Locke was familiar with recent satiric speculations in British learned journals about the possibility that the moon was inhabited. Locke was also well informed about the mission of Sir John Herschel, the astronomer son of an astronomer father; he had indeed set up house and observatory near Cape Town in January of 1834. Finally, Locke was adept in the spieling of scientific-sounding malarkey.

On Tuesday, August 25, 1835, having given the foundation story a long weekend to settle, Locke came forward with his first installment (allegedly from a “Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science ” as “very politely furnished us by a medical gentleman immediately from Scotland, in consequence of a paragraph which appeared on Friday last from the Edinburgh Courant ”). The Sun ’s heading for its front-page story of the twenty-fifth was:

GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, LL.D., F.R.S., &C. AT THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE

And after much solemnizing about the unlocking of the secrets of the universe, the anonymous Locke got down to cases.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once that by means of a telescope, of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the southern hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of one hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what orders of beings. …

Installment One also carried details of the casting of the great lens for the “new principle” telescope. The lens was, so stated the Sun , twenty-four feet in diameter, weighed nearly 15,000 pounds after polishing, and had an estimated magnifying power of 4.2,000 times.

The Sun ’s second chapter appeared the next day, August 26. This time the author ventured into far greater detail, “quoting” Herschel and his aides on their observations. They recorded the presence of lunar vegetation, a clear demonstration that “the moon has an atmosphere constituted similarly to our own, and capable of sustaining organized and, therefore, most probably, animal life.” The reader soon found himself in a wonderful moon valley where the astronomers reported seeing “continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison” but far smaller, and then a beautiful antelopelike creature of “a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn .” The moon had its wildfowl, too: On examining the center of this delightful valley we found a large, branching river, abounding with lovely islands and water-birds of numerous kinds. A species of gray pelican was the most numerous, but black and white cranes, with unreasonably long legs and bill, were also quite common. …

The Sun ’s story of the twenty-sixth ended with the promise of an even greater treat the next day—and what could that be but that the moon was inhabited by humanoid creatures? Readers awaited the next issue impatiently, and competing publishers fumed in impotence. How could they possibly match Sir John Herschel’s “Valley of the Unicorn”?