We’ve come a long way: one hundred years ago, on August 27 1911, the New York Times reported the confirmation of intelligent life on Mars:
According to a telegram dated Aug. 17, from Flagstaff Observatory, Arizona, Dr. Percival Lowell announces the rediscovery of two new canals of Mars, which were seen for the first time at the last opposition in 1909. The canals are now very conspicuous, and attracting world-wide attention because of their startling significance.
…That the new canals were not a mere illusion or vagary of the imagination is proven by the fact that they are again visible, but they are as great a problem now as they were when first seen in 1909. Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension… We can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.
I should note though that by 1911 the ‘Life on Mars’ story was getting quite old. Percival Lowell had been pushing this barrow for quite some time – he first publicized his theory back in 1895 with a series of papers and a book titled, simply, Mars. But he also was building on earlier observations by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli and other speculation about the Red Planet during the 19th century.
It has to be remembered that, on the back of the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th and 17th century, the ‘plurality of worlds‘ (ie. extraterrestrial life) was an exciting and quite mainstream assumption right up into the early 20th century – especially in the immediate wake of Camille Flammarion’s book on the subject and the likes of H.G. Wells popularising the idea and implications of a hostile civilization on Mars (Wells himself no doubt influenced by Lowell in part in the first place, creating a self-feeding meme of sorts). So, while such stories might seem a little silly to us today, we should be able to grasp that – in an era well before humans drove remote-controlled robots on Martian soil, and orbiting probes photographed the planet’s surface in minute detail – this sort of story would be perfect fodder for the newspapers of the day.
Then again, perhaps we haven’t come so far at all…