Reaching for Mars
Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s “A Signal From Mars March and Two-Step,” 1901 imagines two inhabitants of Mars using a signal lamp to communicate with Earth. THF129403
The concept of "life on Mars" and "Martian Fever" was not incited in the pages of the tabloid magazine Weekly World News—but actually reaches much further back to 1877—with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. The astronomer himself was not to blame: a single word in his report—canali, which is Italian for “channels”—was misinterpreted to mean "canal" once translated into English. In Schiaparelli’s time, telescopes became more advanced and powerful, allowing him to make detailed maps of the planet’s surface. At the time of this mapping, Mars was in “opposition,” bringing the planet into close alignment with Earth for easier observation. While creating his maps, however, Schiaparelli fell victim to an optical illusion. He perceived straight lines crisscrossing the surface of the planet, which he included in his records, assigning them the names of rivers on Earth. These were the canali—and the source of a misunderstanding which morphed into a self-perpetuating legend about intelligent, ancient, canal-building Martian lifeforms.
Giovanni Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
Much to Schiaparelli’s annoyance, the American astronomer Percival Lowell continued to pursue this "life on Mars" theory. Beginning in 1895, Lowell published a trilogy of books about the “unnatural features” he saw through his telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He created his own maps of the planet, much of which Schiaparelli believed to be pure fantasy. In reality, the imagery Lowell was seeing was likely caused by diffraction illusion in his equipment. Lowell was not alone in popularizing the concept of an intelligent Red Planet. The astronomer, psychical researcher, and early science fiction writer Camille Flammarion published The Planet Mars in 1892, which collected his archival research and historic literature exploring the idea of an inhabited planet. In 1899, Nikola Tesla claimed to have tapped into intelligent radio signals from Mars; in 1901 the director of Harvard’s Observatory Edward Charles Pickering claimed to have received a telegram from Mars.
In 1901—the year that Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s "A Signal from Mars" sheet music was published—"Mars Fever" had officially taken hold, as scientists and enthusiasts alike actively explored the potential for two-way communication with Mars. This piece of music, made in tribute to the planet, is a prime example of the exoticism of science, space travel, and speculation about the limits of technology (along with a few missteps) colliding with future-forward, popular, and artistic culture.
Amazing Stories, September 1950. THF344586
Speculative thinking about Mars did not end in 1901—it has continued to provide a source of inspiration and exploration for both popular and scientific cultures. The Red Planet and its hypothetical inhabitants often appeared in early pulp and science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The first issue of Amazing Stories was published in April 1926 by inventor Hugo Gernsback, and was the first magazine to be fully dedicated to the genre of science fiction. Gernsback himself is credited as the “father” of science fiction publishing—or, as he called it, “scientification.” The magazine introduced readers to far-reaching fantasies with journeys to internal worlds like Jules Verne’s “Trip to the Center of the Earth,” and explorations of other dimensions and galaxies, time travel, and the mysterious powers of the human mind. Throughout its publication of over 80 years, Amazing Stories included many fictional accounts of Mars, including H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” Cecil B. White’s “Retreat to Mars,” pictured here, E.K. Jarvis’s “You Can’t Escape from Mars!”
Standing left to right are H.G. Wells and Henry Ford at Cotswold Cottage, Greenfield Village, 1931. This photograph was taken 7 years before the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of Wells’s War of the Worlds. This radio-play used media as an all-too-effective storytelling device, inciting a public panic about an alien invasion in the process. THF108523
In 1924, with Mars once again in opposition to Earth, a new round of astronomical experiments and observations emerged. In order to test theories of advanced cultures inhabiting the planet, the inventor Charles Francis Jenkins and astronomer David Peck Todd were commissioned by the US military to conduct a study to “listen to Mars.” For the purposes of this experiment, Jenkins created an apparatus called the “radio photo message continuous transmission machine,” capable of creating visual records of radio phenomena on a long strip of photographic paper. Jenkins’s device was connected to an ordinary SE-950 NESCO radio receiver, serving as the “listening ear” in this experiment. Any incoming signal would trigger a flash of light on the paper, creating black waveform-like lines and thus revealing any chatter of alien radio waves.
The Army and Navy proceeded to silence radio activity for short periods over the three days of Mars’s closest course, believing that anyone who was bold enough to defy military-ordered radio silence would surely be extraterrestrial in origin. The Chief of US Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, sent this telegram on August 22nd:
7021 ALNAVSTA EIGHT NAVY DESIRES COOPERATE ASTRONOMERS WHO BELIEVE POSSIBLE THAT MARS MAY ATTEMPT COMMUNICATION BY RADIO WAVES WITH THIS PLANET WHILE THEY ARE NEAR TOGETHER THIS END ALL SHORE RADIO STATIONS WILL ESPECIALLY NOTE AND REPORT ANY ELECTRICAL PHENOMENON UNUSUAL CHARACTER AND WILL COVER AS WIDE BAND FREQUENCIES AS POSSIBLE FROM 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FIRST TO 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FOURTH WITHOUT INTERFERRING [sic.] WITH TRAFFIC 1800
Radio Receiver, Type SE-950, Used by Charles Francis Jenkins in Experiment Detecting Radio Signals from Mars. THF156814
When the paper was developed, the researchers were surprised to find that it contained images. These graphics were interpreted by the public to be “messages” composed of dots and dashes and “a crudely drawn face” repeating down the thirty-foot length of film. Jenkins, however, feared that his machine would be perpetrated as a hoax, so when the films were released he did so with this caveat: “Quite likely the sounds recorded are the result of heterodyning, or interference of radio signals.” While the popular press used these images as confirmation of life on Mars (in fact, this 1924 experiment has appeared as “evidence” in the tabloid, Weekly World News), the scientific community provided logical explanations: static discharge from a passing trolley car, malfunctioning radio equipment, or the natural symphonic radio waves produced by Jupiter. The SE-950 radio used by Jenkins in this experiment is now part of The Henry Ford’s collection: a simple rectangular wood box with knobs and dials that easily hides its deeper history as part of an experiment to communicate with Mars.
From Schiaperelli to Lowell; from the adventure tales of H.G. Wells to the first science fiction magazines of Hugo Gernsback; from a curious piece of turn-of-the-century sheet music to an even stranger experimental radio—Mars has acted as an inspirational and problematic site for creative and scientific pursuits alike. In July of 1964, the fly-by images gathered by the spacecraft Mariner 4 put an end to the most far-flung theories about the planet. As Mariner 4 transmitted images back to Earth, there were no signs of canals, channels—or a populated planet. And finally, in recent years, technological innovation has allowed our knowledge of Mars to grow at a rapid pace, with NASA’s on-planet rover missions and SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon vehicle programs. Martians or not, despite the fact that the Red Planet lingers an average of 140 million miles away from Earth, it continues to broadcast an inspirational signal of astounding strength, which reaches straight into the human imagination.
Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology, The Henry Ford.
( Telegram from the Secretary of the Navy to All Naval Stations Regarding Mars, August 22, 1924, Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 1784-2000, ARC Identifier 596070, National Archives and Records Administration.)
20th century, 19th century, technology, space, radio, popular culture, communication, by Kristen Gallerneaux