Mars: A Century of Intrigue (1858-1950)

The following entries (not the images!) are drawn from preliminary research on the place of the planet Mars in Euro-American cultural imagination before and after the turn of the 19th century. This rough-and-ready timeline is part of a larger project on spiritual mediumship, glossalalia, fake languages, and embodiment. I find the Mars intrigue captivating, and thought it might be of interest to EMP’s fair readers.

1858 Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), a Jesuit monk and director of the Roman College Observatory, draws a map of Mars calling Syrtis Major the “Atlantic Canal.” Secchi, despite his closeness to the Vatican, believed in the plurality of worlds. Earlier, in 1856 he wrote in Descrizione del nuovo osservatorio del collegio romano: “it is with a sweet sentiment that man thinks of these worlds without number, where each star is a sun which, as minister of the divine bounty, distributes life and goodness to the other innumerable beings, blessed by the hand of the Omnipotent.” He conceded that these worlds may not be accessible to his observatory telescopes.  But by analogy to the Earth and the solar system he was persuaded that the universe is a wonderful organism filled with life.

1873 The red color of Mars is (wrongly) attributed to vegetation (Pop. Sci. Mo., vol. IV p.190). In this article, Nicolas Camille Flammarion suggests “May we attribute to the color of the herbage and plants which no doubt clothe the plains of Mars, the characteristic hue of that planet…”

1885 “Vegetation on Mars may be red…”—Langley (Century, Mar. p.705). This article reiterates what Flammarion said about the color of Martian vegetation in 1873. Flammarion later writes in his book La Planète Mars: “Why, we may ask, is not the Martian vegetation green? Why should it be — is the reply?”

1892 Camille Flammarion publishes Volume 1 (a hefty 608 pages) of his encyclopædia of La Planète Mars et ses Conditions d’Habitabilité (Paris: Gauthier-Villars et Fils).

Camille Flammarion

1892 Camille Flammarion suggests that there has been communication with Martians. Flammarion was familiar with experiments Thomas Edison had done with long telephone lines. Edison picked up sounds he felt were caused by “terrestrial magnetism” years before Guglielmo  Marconi established the viability of radio communication, sending his first radio signal in Italy in 1895 (later, in 1899, sending a wireless signal across the English Channel, and in 1902 executing the first transatlantic readiotelegraph message from England to Newfoundland). Flammarion suggests the natural magnetism of the Earth might be harnessed to propagate sounds across space. (NB: 1894: “Wireless” telegraphy is demonstrated by Sir Oliver Lodge – one year before Marconi and one year after Nikola Tesla [Никола Тесла] did the same thing in St. Louis, MO.)

1894-96 Hélène Smith, a Swiss medium (née Catherine Elise Müller) from Geneva, has visions of Mars while under hypnosis induced by the eminent psychologist Theodore Flournoy.  Smith imagines herself standing on Mars, where she meets Martians. She can even speak Martian, which remarkably is rather similar to French. Flournoy later describes his subject in 1900, Des Indes à la planète Mars. Étude sur un cas de somnambulisme avec glossolalie (From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnabulism with Glossolalia, Harper and Bros, 1901).

Martian landscape as described by Hélène Smith

1895 Mrs. Smead (a.k.a., Mrs. Willis M. Cleaveland), an American medium, communicates with her dead daughter and brother-in-law, both of whom are said to be residing on Mars. Smead describes canals on the planet and Martian people as very similar to humans. Smead was examined by psychologist Prof. James H. Hyslop, who concluded that Mrs. Smead had a multiple personality disorder (see J.H. Hyslop, Psychical Research and the Resurrection Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1908; and “Communicating with Mars,” editorial in The Independent (periodical), p.1042-43, 1909.)

1897 The masterwork of Herbert G. Wells (1866-1946), The War of the Worlds, is serialized in Britain’s Pearson’s Magazine (April-December 1897). It is also printed in the US in The Cosmopolitan.

1898 The War of the Worlds is published in hardback (London: Heinemann).

1898 Garrett Putman Serviss publishes the sci-fi novel, Edison’s Conquest of Mars. This was the unofficial sequel to Fighters from Mars, which was a substantially altered rehash of Wells’s War of the Worlds, making Edison’s Conquest of Mars an unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds.  In it, Serviss has Americans retro-engineer Martian flying machines, travel to Mars, and battle Martians.  Among the scientist-warriors who accompanied the Americans were Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Professor Roentgen, Dr. Moissan (“the man who first made artificial diamonds”), and – wait for it – popular sci-fi writer, Mr. Garrett Serviss.

1899-1900 Carl G. Jung’s 15-year old patient, “Miss S.W.,” goes to Mars in trances, and sees canals and Martians in flying machines.  Jung deduces that Miss S.W. suffers from a dissociated personality. (Jung, C., Zur Psychologie und Pathologie sogennter Occulter Phanomene, Muntze, 1902; see also Collected Papers on Analytical Psychology, New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1916).

At the fin de XIXe siècle, the 1900s usher in a gradual end to the old superstitions about Mars (and outer space), spirit mediums, and the simultaneous dawning of the space age.

1909 Camille Flammarion publishes the second volume of his encyclopædia on Mars, La Planète Mars et ses Conditions d’Habitabilité (Paris: Gauthier-Villars et Fils). Vol 2 (595 pages, 426 drawings, and 16 maps collected and composed from the period 1860 to 1901).

1938 October 30: A dramatized version of “The War of the Worlds” is broadcast by Orson Welles on American radio, which has Martians landing at Grovers Mill, New Jersey. It is estimated that six million people tuned in to the show. And despite repeated announcements that it was a fictional play, at least one million people thought it was real.

1950 The sci-fi short story, The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury is published. In it, Bradbury chronicles the colonization of Mars by human beings who are fleeing a decimated Earth and the conflict that ensues between the colonizers and colonized.  Some of the stories contained within the book had been published as early as 1946 for magazine serials.

1 thought on “Mars: A Century of Intrigue (1858-1950)

  1. andykorki

    I had to do a little research about the “canals” of mars which you mention a couple of times in the article because I recalled reading about them in numerous SF stories. It was interesting to read about Smead and Jung’s patient claiming to have visited/seen the canals. Not surprising, the canals (or what they thought were canals) were first observed in 1877 by Giovanni Schiaparelli, almost 20 years before the Smead and Jung stories. At about the same time Charles Burton (also an astronomer) observed the canals. Unlike Schiaparelli, who attributed the canals to natural phenomena, Burton thought they were the source of power for a martian race of sorcerers.

    Flash forward to today…just months ago NASA published findings that almost certainly confirm water flow. Dark streaks appearing/disappearing on slopes with the changing of martian seasons. No one is suggesting these rivers are canals made by intelligent life, but did the likes of Burton and Schiaparelli see something scientist missed until recently? Doubtful, very doubtful, but I wouldn’t be surprised to start reading about the discovery of canals in the National Enquirer and another resurgence in the SF world of stories about mars and martian life!


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