Communicating with Martians: Early 20th century musings on our interplanetary neighbours

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed through his telescope long straight lines running across the equatorial regions of the Red Planet. He called these canali and they appeared to be confirmed later by Irish astronomer Charles. E. Burton who made some of the first drawings of these “canals”. Schiaparelli’s discovery caused a sensation. If there were canals carved into the Martian landscape, who were the engineers?

Unfortunately, Schiaparelli’s bubble soon burst as later observations indicated these canals to be mere optical illusions. But, optical illusions aside, the Mars canals had opened the floodgates to speculation on our interplanetary neighbours.

Mars faceExploring the lands of Mars in a cigar-shaped vessel

On 10 March 1902 A Martian Society appeared in Adelaide’s The Advertiser announcing that a Mr Will Redman had founded The Martian Scientific, Literary, and Debating Society. In his inaugural address Mr Redman expressed his belief that we would soon be communicating with our interplanetary neighbours.

“This society is to have as an object … furthering the idea of interplanetary communication with Mars … Does not the success of science make it probable that, in the near future, interplanetary communication with other worlds than ours, will be an accomplished fact; that some cigar-shaped vessel, launched by the explosive power of cordite… will voyage to the other world to explore the lands of Mars?”

A “cigar-shaped vessel”…in 1902? He continued:

“Some of the dreams of [Jules] Vern have been accomplished. The tourist now circles the world in less than 50 days … But presently a more wondrous dream will come true, the dream of interplanetary passage. The messenger of earth, the wonderful ship of space, will speed across the wilderness of Ether, which lies between Terra and her brother world Mars, to come again and bring us the teaching of another sphere.”

There was further speculation in the same newspaper in October 1909 in Martian Communications with a Professor Pickering suggesting that communicating with Mars was merely “a question of elementary mathematics” and that it could be worked out “by any astronomer in less than a quarter of an hour”. He then went on to work it out:

“When Mars is a hundred millions of miles from the earth a signal made by a beam of light half a mile square would appear to the Martians as a star of the fifth magnitude.”

Exploring suitable methods of communication was one thing, but thoughts soon turned to matters of a monetary nature …naturally. The race was on to be the first nation to secure trade with the Martians. Germany was at the forefront, “commercial circles are immersed in speculations as to what articles of Teutonic origin are likely to prove most acceptable to the inhabitants of Mars”.

Probably not the German cuisine.

“Krupp is counting on a practical monopoly of the Martian trade of the future. And it has been calculated that the 14-inch 70-foot gun hermetically sealed in an aluminium cylinder and neatly packed can be dispatched with comparative ease.”

Perhaps even more outlandish than this idea of transporting goods between two worlds by firing a gigantic gun into space was the idea of contacting the Martians as proposed by one writer who suggested that: “At regular intervals and for considerable periods of time the dark side of the earth is turned to Mars. So, if a hole were pierced through the earth a beam of sunlight might be allowed to pass, and if intelligently interrupted would form a code of signals.”

The writer did acknowledge in his letter, however, that there were some practical issues in relation to drilling a hole through the earth that would first have to be addressed.

Wireless messages and psychic communications

By 1928, despite the canals having been generally accepted to be an optical illusion, musings on our Martian neighbours continued unabated. In Hobart’s Mercury on 24 October 1928 it was reported in Those Martian Neighbours that a Mr Robinson of London intended to send a wireless message from Britain’s most powerful wireless station to the Martians when the planet was at its closest proximity to Earth.

A fine idea, but how could he be assured that the Martians would correctly interpret his messages. Mr Robinson’s answer was quite simple. He had had “psychic communication with Martians, and they will understand his signals”.

If Mr Robinson had indeed had “psychic communication” with the Martians then one wonders why he would then need to go to the trouble of sending wireless messages.

A Sydney man was thinking a little more practically. He saw no need for cigar-shaped vessels, gigantic guns, holes drilled through the earth for sunlight to pass through or sending wireless transmissions. No, he simply took a “psychic visit” to Mars and was able to enlighten The Mercury’s readers with the following description of our interplanetary neighbours:

“I can see them now tall, well-proportioned men and women, all dressed In vivid blue robes, and served by a most wonderful machine, unlike any machine I have seen on earth. Their language consists of a series of ululations [high-pitched sounds], similar to whistling. Their ears are enormous, and unevenly crinkled, but I differ from others in declaring that all Martians have well-developed trunks, which they use for conveying food to the mouth, and talking.”

Apparently, the Martians were also blessed with outstanding physical prowess.

He could kick a football a quarter of a mile…

What the Martian is Like appeared in Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner on 17 January 1908 offering the following speculation on the physical attributes of the Martian:

“He could run 100 yards in three or four seconds; he could leap with playful ease over a moderately high tree; he could kick a football a quarter of a mile. Because of the lesser attraction of gravitation, he must be at least three times as large as the average human being, and his muscles 27 times more efficient than ours.

“…His canal-excavating possibilities, on a planet where bodies weigh only one third as much as on the earth, become truly awesome. A Martian labourer could perform as much work in a given time as 50 or 60 terrestrial ditch-diggers, and keep pace with a powerful Panama dredger.”

…and hit a cricket ball three times further

Even earlier, in November 1899, the West Gippsland Gazette reported that any inhabitants of Mars would “probably have much larger eyes than the terrestrial”. This article also addressed the superior sporting and labouring abilities of the typical Martian:

“Martians, if the physical strength be the same as ours, must feel very much lighter and freer in their movements, for a terrestrial man 15 stone in weight, if suddenly carried to Mars, would find his weight only 5 stone, and he could lift weights three times heavier, and could hit a cricket ball three times further than any champion Australian. He could climb the highest mountains with little effort, and could do as much hard manual labour in two hours as our strongest man can do in eight. Hence the possibility of accomplishing engineering works on Mars on a scale vastly larger than we could undertake on this world of ours.”

Perhaps this extraordinary physical prowess helps explain the Martians’ apparent monumental engineering achievements in Cydonia.

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One thought on “Communicating with Martians: Early 20th century musings on our interplanetary neighbours

  1. Pingback: Is it the Northern Star or A Martian Spaceship? | Breise! Breise! Extra! Extra!

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