University of Chichester: Study History and Politics.

The Martian Century

Roger Hennessy tells of a hundred years of investigation, imagination and speculation about life on Mars.

Historical map of Mars from Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)Popular interest in Mars is long-established, but has enjoyed two dramatic flowerings, one in the 1890s and the other a century later. Two developments have quickened current media attention: the revelation by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in August 1996 that it possessed a small meteorite which might have come to Earth from Mars and might contain fossils of primitive life forms; and the dispatch to Mars, by NASA, of spacecraft designed to scrutinise the planet, and to land on it. The Mars Pathfinder touched down on July 4th, 1997. Soon the public could see for itself the marvel of a small vehicle moving about the rust-red sands of Mars, controlled from Earth some 119 million miles away.

Less well known is Russia’s failed attempt to play a part in Martian exploration; its Mars 96 spacecraft failed shortly after take-off in November 1996. Packed into its cargo (and now possibly at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean) was a CD-ROM entitled Visions of Mars, bearing over seventy novels, articles and broadcasts in seventeen languages and ten alphabets, chronicling humanity’s long fascination with
the Red Planet from tenth-century Arabic poetry to contemporary science fiction and documentaries.

Any speculation about life on Mars, then or now, is part of a long discourse on ‘the plurality of worlds’ which had its origins in classical Greece. This debate went quiet in the Middle Ages but from the Renaissance onwards astronomical pluralism re-established itself. It was a near-orthodoxy by the late eighteenth century, supported by Diderot, Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant and Tom Paine, inter alia.

Pluralism’s onward march started to falter in the 1850s: William Whewell, an eminent Cambridge scientist and divine, criticised its methodological weaknesses; Darwinism raised doubts about the replication of intelligent life-forms elsewhere in the universe. But aid and comfort for the pluralists was close at hand. The new science of astrophysics suggested that the myriads of stars in the firmament were similar to the sun in their composition – perhaps they too were circled by planetary systems. Nearer to home Mars, our neighbour in the solar system, seemed to offer the evidence the pluralists had hitherto lacked.

The characteristics of Mars’ orbit are such that its distance from Earth varies considerably – from 34.5 to 234.5 million miles. From an astronomer’s standpoint it was particularly well-placed for observation in 1877, 1892 and 1909. Observations in each of these years intensified discussion about possible life on Mars.

If life, intelligent or otherwise, were to be found on Mars then life on Earth would not be unique. The scientific, theological and cultural outcomes of such a discovery could be stupendous. It is fitting, therefore, that the late-Victorian saga of life on Mars had one of its origins in the Vatican observatory. In 1859, Fr Angelo Secchi, director of the observatory and a confirmed pluralist, observed markings on the surface of Mars which he described as canali,  channels. The fateful word had been launched on its career, although there was little immediate development from Secchi’s work.

In 1877 another Italian, Giovanni Schiaparelli, one of Europe’s most distinguished astronomers, also observed the canali, but he added the refinement that they appeared to be constituents of a system. Other astronomers observed features that might be continents or seas; Schiaparelli confirmed these findings and ascribed to them finely sonorous classical names such as Hellas, Mare Erythraeum, Promethei Sinus.

Although Schiaparelli was cautious in his public statements, recent research suggests that he was possibly a closet pluralist. Certainly his choice of familiar topographical terminology for the planet, and his publicising of the canali network, encouraged pluralist speculation. Inevitably, canali was soon being translated into English as ‘canals’ rather than ‘channels’. In 1882 Schiaparelli further fuelled speculation by discovering twin canals, a configuration which he named ‘gemination’; he described no fewer than sixty canals and twenty geminations.

Some of Schiaparelli’s findings were confirmed by the astronomers Perrotin and Thollon at Nice Observatory in 1886. In 1888, however, Perrotin confused matters by announcing that the Martian continent of ‘Libya’ observed by Schiaparelli in 1886 ‘no longer exists today’. The confusion grew; two prestigious observatories in the US found in one case no canals, in another a few of them but no geminations, and no changes to Libya. These conflicting findings were early examples of a problem which still affects our investigations of Mars a century later – science operating at the very cutting edge of the available technology. A century ago the creative imaginations of some observers took their conclusions beyond generally acceptable limits. Disputes among historians about the nature and interpretation of evidence appear quite modest when set against what was to follow.

While the observers exchanged reports and papers, the popularisers got to work. They were generally restrained at first. The British commentator Richard Proctor thought that the canals might be rivers; he was among the first to suggest that a Martian canal would have to be ‘fifteen or twenty miles broad’ to be seen from Earth. The leading French pluralist, Camille Flammarion published his definitive La Planète Mars in 1892: ‘the canals may be due... to the rectification of old rivers by the inhabitants for the purpose of the general distribution of water...’ Other commentators supposed the ‘canals’ might be an optical illusion, a line first advanced by the English artist Nathaniel Green, teacher of painting to Queen Victoria and an amateur astronomer.

The canals debate might have levelled off at this point had it not been for the incursion of its most prominent controversialist – and convinced pluralist – Percival Lowell. Lowell, an eminent Bostonian, entered the astronomical fray after a career in business and diplomacy, mainly in the Orient. He was a formidable mathematician, a master of the detached, ironic prose popular at the time and immensely wealthy. He financed his own observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona and commenced work in 1894. He may not have brought an entirely objective mind to the task. Even before he started observing he had announced that the canals were probably ‘the work of some sort of intelligent beings.’

Lowell was indefatigable. In addition to writing numerous papers and lecturing on Mars and its canals he wrote three highly readable best-sellers: Mars (1895); Mars and its Canals (1906); and Mars as an Abode of Life (1908).

The newly-arrived popular press was very willing to report Lowell’s findings and views; canal mania grew apace. By 1910 Lowell had reported over 400 canals with an average length of 1,500 miles. He wrote plausibly about the Martian atmosphere and the means by which the canals distributed water from Mars’ polar caps to irrigate the planet before evaporation returned moisture to the poles. This hydraulic cycle appealed to popular evolutionism which perceived Mars an an old, dying world trying to avert its fate by rational and cyclopean engineering – this was, after all, an age of of great canals: Panama, Dortmund-Ems, Manchester, Corinth.

For all his enthusiasm and ingenuity, Lowell remained in a minority. Most astronomers were sceptical or decidedly hostile to the canal theory; moreover, Lowell was never an astronomers’ astronomer. Psycho-history has analysed Lowell in recent years, although his motives remain a mystery. To some he is the Brahmin disillusioned with war, nationalism and excitable democracy, a person who liked to imagine sensible Martians organising their planet rationally. C.K. Hofling (1964) thought Lowell was influenced by ‘voyeuristic impulses... unresolved oedipal conflicts.’

Lowell helped to launch one of the twentieth century’s most popular cultural icons, fictional Mars, with its wide range of imaginative possibilities. Although novelists had described an inhabited Mars before Lowell, his popularisation of the canals proved crucial. The most famous product of Lowellian Mars is probably H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, first published in 1897. One of the best-known opening passages in English literature tells the reader that ‘in the last years of the nineteenth century... human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.’ The Martians lived on a dying planet and ‘regarded this earth with envious eyes.’ Wells had sub-texts: ruthless evolutionism and imperialism blessed with superior military technology. Lowell’s Mars supplied him with a perfect setting.

Imaginary Mars had remarkable affinity with terrestrial fashions and ideologies. Edgar Rice Burroughs, later to invent Tarzan, used the planet as a setting for traditional folk-fantasy, Mars inhabited not only by monsters, but also by egg-laying princesses of great beauty. In a more austere vein, the Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov wrote The Red Planet (1909) in which ‘the democratic state was forced to involve itself with the (canal) project in order to absorb the growing surplus of the proletariat and aid the remnants of the dying peasantry.’

Children’s literature has also drawn on Martian themes, for example Fenton Ash’s A Trip to Mars (1909) in which two archetypical young Edwardians ‘stalwart, well-grown, clean limbed British youths’ visit the planet. By 1914 there were some half-dozen films using Mars as a setting, including a pioneer New Zealand production A Message from Mars, (1909), and a British film of the same title (1913) in which a Martian comes to Earth to reform a fallen soul.

Lowell died in 1916. By then the fury of professional controversy was largely over and the canals were dismissed as an optical illusion. Nevertheless they, and an inhabited Mars, survived remarkably fit and well through the inter-war period in popular fiction. There was a flurry of professional interest in 1924 when attempts were made to detect radio messages from the Red Planet – the US Navy even obliged by closing down its own radio traffic to assist. Some of the more open-minded astronomers like Sir Harold Spencer Jones (Astronomer Royal 1933-55) were willing to concede that there might be life on Mars, but most probably low-grade organisms like mosses or lichens.

With the advent of the Space Age, serious speculation returned. Mars has been targeted by twenty-hree space missions since 1962. The pluralist question has been explicit or implicit in all of them, particularly in the NASA Viking expeditions of 1976 which were specifically designed to search for traces of life on Mars. Viking 1 took numerous pictures of Mars, including the objects which latter-day Lowellites have interpreted as artefacts – and others have dismissed as natural formations. Viking 2  landed on Mars and took soil samples the analysis of which has produced ambiguous and controversial conclusions that have fuelled scientific debate ever since.

The similarities between the Martian discourse of the 1890s and that of today are clear; the differences are revealing. Both eras have drawn on time-hallowed human speculation about the possibility, even the hope, of life on other worlds. The US then and now has held the pre-eminent position in the discussions. A hundred years ago American astronomers, both pro- and anti-pluralist, had at their disposal the equipment and publicity-engine of a newly emergent world economic power; in the 1990s their economic and technical support is unrivalled. The Russian initiative, once so promising, has begun to falter, the victim of post-Soviet problems and complexities.

The wilder speculations of the 1890s have been replaced by more sober and better-informed commentary a century later. Even so, interested parties have played the contemporary media with skill, rather as Lowell did in his day. NASA was suitably prudent about possible traces of life on a ‘Martian meteorite’ in 1996 but it is a publicly-funded agency and far from naive. The popular media were predictably quick off the mark: ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Armada to Mars’ were among the headlines which followed the announcement. While public excitement was heightened, President Clinton, limbering up for his re-election campaign, seized on the news and pledged generous support to the search for life on Mars.

Karl S. Guthke thought that the extra-terrestrial life debate was ‘the myth of modern times’. As has been the case from the time of Epicurus to the present, the idea of extra-terrestrial life in general and on Mars in particular has much more to tell us about ourselves than about life ‘out there’.

Roger Hennessey writes and lectures on the history of humanity’s speculations about life on other worlds.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email