Student Features

The 'Canali' and the First Martians
Schiaparelli Drawing
Schiaparelli Drawing

In the 1800s, observatories with larger and larger telescopes were built around the world. In 1877, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, began mapping and naming areas on Mars. He named the Martian "seas" and "continents" (dark and light areas) with names from historic and mythological sources. He saw channels on Mars and called them "canali." Canali means channels, but it was mistranslated into "canals" implying intelligent life on Mars. Because of the then recent completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 (the engineering wonder of the era), the misinterpretation was taken to mean that large-scale artificial structures had been discovered on Mars. The importance of canals for worldwide commerce at that time without a doubt influenced the popular interest in "canals" on Mars.

In 1894, Percival Lowel, a wealthy astronomer from Boston, made his first observations of Mars from a private observatory that he built in Flagstaff, Arizona (Lowell Observatory). He decided that the canals were real and ultimately mapped hundreds of them. Lowell believed that the straight lines were artificial canals created by intelligent Martians and were built to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions. In 1895, he published his first book on Mars with many illustrations and, over the next two decades, published two more popular books advancing his ideas.

Lowell Observatory Image Lowell Observatory Image
Lowell Observatory Images

Lowell Drawing Lowell Drawing
Lowell Drawings

From a good ground-based telescope like the one that Percival Lowell built, Mars looks more like this animation!

The War of the Worlds cover
The War of the Worlds cover
Lowell's theories influenced the young English writer H.G. Wells, who in 1898 published The War of the Worlds. In this novel, Wells created an invasion of Earth by deadly aliens from Mars and launched a whole new genre of alien science fiction.

In 1911, "A Princess of Mars", the first of eleven science fiction novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was published. Burroughs used Schiaparelli's names for regions on the planet and gave his Martians green skin.

On Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast a radio version of The War of the Worlds. The story, presented as a series of "live" news bulletins, panicked thousands of listeners who believed that America was being attacked by hostile Martians.

Most experienced astronomers never saw the Martian "canals" and for a good reason. We now know that they never existed! The network of crisscrossing lines covering the surface of Mars was only a product of the human tendency to see patterns, even when patterns do not exist. When looking at a faint group of dark smudges, the eye tends to connect them with straight lines. This has been demonstrated by many laboratory and field experiments.

Questions to think about:

  • How are the images from ground-based observatories different from those made with small telescopes?
  • What new information and speculations can you make about what Mars might be like from these images?

SOURCE: Aerospace Scholars - An Educational Outreach Program Between NASA's Johnson Space Center & The State of Texas