A Martian Sensation: Maps, delusion, and the Mars Canals

Learn how the alleged observation of “canals” in Mars helped set the scenes for an enduring fascination with the red planet.

Mars as the abode of lifeAdler Planetarium

In the nineteenth century astronomers started to map Mars in earnest. Some observers became convinced that they were surveying not just the surface of another planet, but also the works of an alien civilization.

Smith's Illustrated astronomy: designed for the use of the public or common schools in the United States; ill. With numerous original diagramsAdler Planetarium

A World Out There to be Mapped

The planet Mars is named after the Roman god of war, as highlighted in this illustration from a nineteenth century astronomy schoolbook. The eight drawings of the planet show several features reportedly observed through telescopes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Until the 1830s, the permanence, and even the reality, of such features was a matter of debate. Once astronomers ascertained that at least some of the features were stable formations, mapping Mars became a legitimate endeavor.

Der Wunderbau des Wetalls, oder Populare Astronomie: Nebst einem Atlas…/ von J.H MadlerAdler Planetarium

The First Map of Mars

In 1840 the German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Mädler produced the first map of Mars, shown here in Mädler’s "Popular Astronomy" (1861). Beer and Mädler used a grid of coordinates for Martian latitudes and longitudes, and labeled the features represented on the map with letters. The foundations for the mapping of Mars (known as "areography" - derived from Ares, the Greek equivalent of the god Mars) were thus established.

Other worlds than oursAdler Planetarium

All Eyes on Mars During Opposition

Roughly every 26 months, Mars is in opposition, which is when the planet is closest to Earth. Oppositions of Mars were keenly anticipated by astronomers because they provided a great opportunity for observation. These drawings were made by the Rev. William Rutter Dawes during the opposition of 1864. Despite his severe myopia (nearsightedness), Dawes excelled with the telescope and set a new benchmark for the study of Mars.   

QB51_P983_1871_C2_001Adler Planetarium

Who Gets Their Name on Mars?

In the late 1860s Richard Proctor produced new maps of Mars based on Dawes’s observations. Proctor named surface features after prominent observers of the red planet. Not everyone was pleased with the high proportion of English names in Proctor’s maps, or with the same name being given to different formations. Today's naming system includes names of scientists and writers, as well as terms from classical and mythological geography that were first introduced in areography by another nineteenth century astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli.

La planete Mars et ses conditions d'habitabiliteAdler Planetarium

Enter the Mars Canals

Beginning in 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli carried out extensive observations of Mars during opposition, and produced several maps of the red planet. He used the term “canali” to refer to features that, to him, looked like geographical straits, which can be clearly seen in this map from 1888. "Canali" was translated to English as "canals", suggesting artificial waterways instead of naturally occurring features. In addition to this mistranslation, renditions and maps of Mars and its "canals" were pivotal in sparking speculation and debate about a hypothetical Martian civilization.

Mars and its canalsAdler Planetarium

On Top of Mars Hill

Mars, its alleged canals, and the search for intelligent life on other planets exerted a particular fascination on the North-American businessman and orientalist Percival Lowell. In 1894 he established an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to investigate the solar system, and particularly Mars. To this day, the main site of Lowell Observatory has been known as Mars Hill. Pluto was discovered there, and it remains an active research site.

Annals of Lowell ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

Martians Find Their Champion on Earth

Percival Lowell became a committed investigator and advocate of the Mars canals (shown here), adding more than a hundred to the “canali” previously identified by Schiaparelli. Lowell believed that a Martian civilization had built a network of canals to fight aridification through the redistribution of water from the polar ice caps. These ideas were discredited by several astronomers, but they ignited the public imagination as they made their way into newspapers and popular magazines.  

Annals of Lowell ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

More than Big Telescopes

Lowell equipped his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona with the 24-inch aperture telescope pictured here. However, large instruments did not necessarily suffice to unveil the secrets of Mars. Astronomers realized that the stability of the Earth’s air during observation was decisive, and that larger instruments could actually amplify the effects of atmospheric turbulence, making observation more difficult.

Mars as the abode of lifeAdler Planetarium

Martian Expeditions… on Earth

Astronomers traveled far and wide to observe Mars in opposition.They sought places with good visibility and where the planet reached higher altitudes in the sky. Percival Lowell was particularly active in searching for observing sites abroad. He established an outstation in Mexico (shown here), and financed an expedition to Chile. These endeavors resonated with the adventurous geographical expeditions of the turn of the twentieth century, reinforcing the image of Mars observers as intrepid explorers of an alien world.

Annals of Lowell ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

Connecting the Dots

No one claimed to see a well-defined pattern of canals on Mars directly through a telescope, not even Lowell. But as he and other observers tried to make sense of what they saw, the canals took shape in their sketches and drawings, which were then used to assemble comprehensive maps. The drawings shown here were made by Lowell during the opposition of 1897, which he observed from Mexico.   

Annals of Lowell ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

A Map of an Alien, Engineered World

In an age when the Earth’s empires were mapped with ever greater detail, maps of Mars, with their own coordinate grids and nomenclature systems, conveyed a similar sense of accuracy and authority to those of Earth. Such is the case of this map of Mars by Percival Lowell, originally assembled in 1897, which suggests a planet cleverly engineered by intelligent Martians (note the intricate network of canals), and mapped from afar with great acumen by an expert earthling.

Mars and its mysteryAdler Planetarium

Public Works on Mars

In "Mars and its Mystery (1906)", the zoologist and orientalist Edward S. Morse presents depictions of the Mars canals side-by-side with schematic renditions of Earth's naturally occurring cracks and fissures, as well as man-made networks of streets, railroads, and canals. Thus Morse, a friend and supporter of Lowell, sought to emphasize the artificial nature of the alleged canals on Mars.

La planete Mars: betude basee sur les resultats obtenus avec le grande lunette de l'observatoire de Meudon et expose analytique de l'ensemble des travaux executes sur cet astre depuis 1659. E.M. Antoniadi. Ouvrage ilustre de 150 figures dans le textAdler Planetarium

Debunking the Mars Canals

Eugène Antoniadi, a supporter of Lowell for years, observed Mars during the opposition of 1909-1910 with a 33-inch instrument at the Meudon Observatory in France, by then the largest telescope in Europe. In moments of good visibility Antoniadi could see the supposed “canals” were in fact myriads of discrete features, as illustrated here. It became clear that the canals were nothing more than an optical illusion.

An Ideal Landscape on Mars According to Prof. LowellAdler Planetarium

The Persisting Allure of Mars

At the turn of the twentieth century, astronomers and journalists sustained a lively circulation of news about Mars, turning the planet into a public sensation. Its alleged canals, shown here in an artistic rendition based on Lowell’s ideas, were eventually dismissed, but the fascination with the red planet endured. To this day, it has inspired writers, artists, scientists, astronauts, and space entrepreneurs alike. And though we may not think of canal builders today when we discuss the possible existence of life on Mars, the topic has lost none of its appeal.  

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