It was a favourite even in the early days of telescopes, for
the 17th century astronomers. Fontana made the first sketch
of the red planet. Huyghens in 1666 determined the length of the
Martian day, followed in the same year by Cassini’s description of the
Fontana sketches and Cassini's Mars
Oddly red in colour, astronomers could train their telescopes upon it
and make out actual surface features, and more than that, they could observe
changes, marking the progress of seasons. They could
discern the white polar caps and watch them swell and retreat over the
Martian year good evidence there for ice of some sort, almost certainly
water ice. They could occasionally spot clouds, and see when
dust storms obscured the entire surface of the planet, clear evidence of
a reasonable atmosphere.
They could make out light and dark features that seemed remarkably consistent,
and yet, changed slightly over time and with seasons. The equatorial
region seemed the source of a dark thick, dark erratic band. The
upper hemisphere was somewhat light, the southern hemisphere somewhat dark.
It was speculated at first that the upper hemisphere was a continent, the
darker areas were seas.
Later, around 1890 evidence of water waned, perspectives changed and
the notion arose that the light areas were desert, and the dark areas the
marshy remnants of dried seas. The conception of the Martian
atmosphere changed, due to the infrequency of clouds and dust storms, the
air was thought to be relatively thin.
Notwithstanding this interpretation, it is remarkable how the maps made
were quite close to telescope photographs, and even of the maps drawn from
the space probes. Genuine features, including Syrtis, Hellas,
Argyre and the poles were accurately described. Over centuries,
astronomers proved themselves by giving us reasonably accurate broad descriptions
of the planet. (Some degree of caution must be used with maps of
this era, since due to astronomical convention, they were done upside down,
with north and south reversed) Where they fell off, was with fine
details, like the canals....
The earliest sketches or drawings of Mars which appear to show canals
actually date back to 1840, and appear again independently in 1864, though
they were not called canals then.
Schiaparelli was the first astronomer to identify the illusory features
as Canals, in 1877. Producing the first accurate (for its time)
detailed map of mars. This was also the year that Mars
two moons, Phobos and Deimos were discovered. So there was
a kind of ‘plausibility by association.’ If one new feature
(the moons) were accepted, why not the other (the canals).
Schiaparelli repeated and elaborated on his observations two years later
in another close approach in 1879, eventually identifying some sixty distinct
canal like structures. He called them ‘Canali’ or channels, which
did not necessarily mean they were products of intelligent life.
But on the other hand, he refused to rule out intelligence and failed
to propose any other explanation. He felt that they might be
a system for distributing water from melting polar snows to other parts
of the planet, a theory which naturally inspires thoughts of intelligent
origin. In other words, Schiaparelli was being coy, describing
structures which were highly suspicious and suggestive of life and intelligence,
but at the same time, reluctant to speculate as to their origins, refusing
to rule intelligence out, or to embrace it.
for the next several years, no one else saw canals on Mars.
The next observations were nine years later, by a pair of Astronomers.
But indeed, they were observed only infrequently after that.
Lowell writes in 1895 that the number of people who had seen and described
the canals could be counted on one hand. The astronomy community
capable of making those observations was small, but not that small.
This was also an age of canals on Earth. The Suez Canal had been
built in 1860, and the French had begun an effort at central American canal
to unite the Pacific and the Atlantic. Canals, even fairly
large ones had been built in the United States and Canada, France and England,
so they were well known, but the new giant Panama and Suez canals were
literally an order of magnitude greater, transforming continents.
The notion that there were similar works on Mars came naturally.
Nevertheless, the fact that they were being spotted independently by
a handful of observers, the fact that they preceded their official discoverer
by a generation, and the fact that they were quite consistent among those
who observed them, suggested that there was actually something real there,
so the scientific and the popular communities generally accepted their
existence. Even the failure of these canals to appear in most
photographs was not damning, particularly as at least a few photographs
under perfect conditions, seemed to show some of them.
Part of this acceptance lay in the fact that observation conditions
were often imperfect, due to inclination, Mars was best observed from the
southern hemisphere. The power of telescopes, and the weather
conditions and local conditions of observatories varied widely.
So no one took it all that seriously if features so subtle were not universally
Another part of this was that Mars orbits and Earth’s orbits were quite
different. Close approaches varied from fifty million miles
to an optimum of about thirty five million. Only about every several
years were the planet’s lined up at closest approaches. Following
Schiaparelli, the best oppositions occurred in 1892 and 1894, 1907 and
1909 and 1924 and 1926.
The first two sets of dates are particularly critical.
1892 and 1894 were the crucial times during which Percival Lowell made
his critical observations and wrote his popular book
on Mars, a book that Edgar Rice Burroughs undoubtedly read and was
influenced by. It was also likely this book and these same
series of observations
that brought Mars into prominence and inspired both Arnold’s and Wells
respective books about Martians. Meanwhile, 1907 and 1909 would have
put Mars prominently in the news once again, only a few years before Burroughs
wrote A Princess of
The astronomer, Pickering, in 1892, came up with the suggestion that
canals were not truly watercourses. They were too thick for that,
the smallest were estimated to be ten to twenty miles in width, the largest
were 150, rather. He thought instead they were bands of vegetation,
perhaps fed by watercourses. But the actual canals or Martian rivers
were too small to see, we were observing the vegetation that grew up around
them. This neatly explained why some different numbers of canals
were seen... Some simply would not be in season at some times.
Several other noteable astronomers wrote of Mars canals, including Kayser,
Proctor, Green, Dreyer and Flammarion.
Meanwhile, there was a picture being built up of Mars. There
was a growing consensus in the 1892-1894 period that its small size and
lack of reflections indicated that there were no major areas of deep water
on the planet. The lighter area of the north, and in the south,
were taken as evidence of continental structure, perhaps worn smooth and
reduced to desert. The dark central band which waxed and waned with
the seasons was assumed to be a dry sea bed. Vegetation living
off residual moisture in the sea bed was considered a likely explanation
for the seasonal changes.
Mars, astronomers decided, was a dry planet having lost most of its
waters to space or absorbed by the planet’s chemical processes.
The lack of clouds and the difficulty in observing signs of atmosphere
lead to the belief in a very thin and perhaps slowly vanishing atmosphere,
perhaps comparable to the mountain regions of Earth. It was
believed to be a very old world.
In short, this was hardly different from the Barsoom that Burroughs
described. He was building his world based on the state of
the scientific art of his time, and indeed, that persisted for decades
after. And for that matter, this was the science picture
of Mars that anchored both Wells' War
of the Worlds and Arnold’s Gulliver
Jones of Mars. So with respect to the Arnold/Burroughs
thing, at least one source of similarity was that they were both drawing
on the same picture of Mars present and past.
These theories made Mars a world unlike any other in the solar system.
It was a world with a past. The moon had always been a rock, we couldn’t
tell what was under Venus clouds, and the other planets seemed stolid and
timeless. But Mars had a past, a past that included continents
and oceans and thick air and possibly life. It had been a young world
like Earth. And now it was an old world, the seas dried up, the continents
worn away, endless encroaching deserts and life clinging on in drying sea
beds. It was a vision both romantic and evocative, disturbing
in its hints of our own fate, tragic or disquieting to contemplate life
and intelligence trapped on that dying world. Mars, shared
with Earth a uniquely metaphysical distinction of being world with history
written upon it.
Canals really came into their own with Percival Lowell, who built on
Schiaparelli’s work. Through painstaking observations, Lowell built
up a detailed
map, identifying over 180 canals (subsequent astronomers
eventually charted over 500) including most of those seen by Schiaparelli.
His observations, while more extensive, were in general agreement with
his predecessors. Lowell formed a theory of a dying world,
its seas dried up, its continents worn away. The canals, he
concluded, were artificial structures created by the inhabitants of Mars
in order to draw moisture from the poles, or from the remnants of the Martian
The canals, as described by Lowell, Schiaparelli and others, were peculiar
features indeed. For the most part they were absolutely straight,
adjusting only for curvature of the planet. Their lengths varied
from 250 miles to 4000 miles. They often joined one another, like
spokes in the hub of a wheel, though angles varied. Their thickness
was uniform along their length, varying from 20 mile thick small canals,
to giants 140 miles thick. There were double canals, structures
running parallel to each other. There seemed to be triangular structures
joining canals, similar to river deltas. Their ‘oasis’ or joining
points defied explanation.
In short, Lowell’s theory that they were the work of intelligent beings
was regarded as wild by other astronomers, not because it flew in the face
of data. In fact, the work of intelligence was quite a good
explanation for what Lowell and others were recording. But the conservative
minds of the scientific community simply argued that there might be other
explanations for these structures.... Like vegetation.
Their problem with Lowell was that they merely considered him premature.
Nevertheless, Lowell’s speculative book was read widely, and almost
certainly by Burroughs himself. Lowell’s romantic depiction
of a dying civilization, struggling desperately to survive by building
a network of canals, finds its way into Burroughs. A
link to the book, now available on the net can be found at the Bibliomania
Indeed, at the conclusion of his discussions, Lowell dwells at length
on the nature of the Martians. The passages are worth quoting
here, for the echoes of John Carter’s own experiences:
“We may, perhaps, in conclusion, consider
for a moment how different in its details existence on Mars must be from
existence on the Earth. If we were transported to Mars, we should be pleasingly
surprised to find all our manual labor suddenly lightened threefold. But,
indirectly, there might result a yet greater gain to our capabilities;
for if Nature chose she could afford there to build her inhabitants on
three times the scale she does on Earth without their ever finding it out
except by interplanetary comparison. Let us see how. As we all know, a
large man is more unwieldy than a small one. An elephant refuses to hop
like a flea; not because he considers the act undignified, but simply because
he cannot bring it about. If we could, we should all jump straight across
the street, instead of painfully paddling through the mud. Our inability
to do so depends upon the size of the Earth, not upon what it at first
seems to depend, on the size of the street.
And there we have it folks. John Carter’s astonishing leaps.
The detailed portrait of an ancient world with an ancient civilization
technically more advanced than our own. And of course, the
glimmers of the Green Men appear in speculations of Martian giants three
times our size, of nonhuman nature. The outlines of Barsoom
can be found in Lowell.
As the reader must also note, the deduction refers
to the possibility, not to the probability, of such giants; the calculation
being introduced simply to show how different from us any Martians may
be, not how different they are.
Mars being thus old himself, we know that evolution
on his surface must be similarly advanced. This only informs us of its
condition relative to the planet's capabilities. Of its actual state our
data are not definite enough to furnish much deduction. But from the fact
that our own development has been comparatively a recent thing, and that
a long time would be needed to bring even Mars to his present geological
condition, we may judge any life he may support to be not only relatively,
but really older than our own.
Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed
of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones
and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration
in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simple childhood
of the race. Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who
are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.
To talk of Martian beings is not to mean Martian
men. Just as the probabilities point to the one, so do they point away
from the other. Even on this Earth man is of the nature of an accident.
He is the survival of by no means the highest physical organism. He is
not even a high form of mammal. Mind has been his making. For aught we
can see, some lizard or batrachian might just as well have popped into
his place early in the race, and been now the dominant creature of this
Earth. Under different physical conditions, he would have been certain
to do so. Amid the surroundings that exist on Mars, surroundings so different
from our own, we may be practically sure other organisms have been evolved
of which we have no cognizance. What manner of beings they may be we lack
the data even to conceive.”
The canals on Mars were a done deal. I have a book on astronomy,
originally published in 1922, reprinted in 1939, which, despite noting
that the canals were still controversial and that some astronomers disputed
their very existence, states that “the canals, as far as they are
considered to be line like markings, have been completely verified.”