Monday, March 10, 2014

The Worlds' First Martians - and First Martian Invasion

How Nineteenth-Century Advances in Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and the Discovery of Mars’ Moons Inspired the First Martians and the First Martian Invasion

"Mr. Hand"
"Doc Brown"
Who is your favorite Martian?  Ridgemont High’s Mr. Hand or Back to the Future’s Doc Brown?  Or do you lean more towards Mars Attacks!, or Pia Zadora’s Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, or Marvin the Martian?  Whatever your tastes, you would not have a favorite Martian without the work of the visionary scientists and writers who created not only the word, Martian, but also the concept of Martians.  As odd as it may seem, Martians did not exist in scientific or fictional literature until the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

Pia Zadora (on the right)
In 1907, the word Martian was new enough, or esoteric enough, to not appear in Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged (1907)). The dictionary did, however, list the words Marcian (citing Chaucer) as an adjective meaning “under the influence of Mars; courageous; bold,” and Martial, as an adjective meaning “pertaining to, or suited for, war” or “pertaining to, or resembling, the god [(Mars, the Roman god of war)] or the planet,” which is why Marvin dresses like a Roman soldier.

Webster’s, however, was a little bit behind the times.  Edmund Spencer had used the word Martian, with a ‘t’, in his Faerie Queen in the late 1500s:

The judges, which thereto selected were,
Into the Martian field adowne descended,
To deeme this doubtfull case, for which they all contended.

The Faerie Queene, Canto V.  The phrase, “Martian field,” used there is apparently an allusion to Rome’s Campus Martius, latin for field of Mars, where roman soldiers once trained.  That spelling had apparently fallen out of favor, however, and was not used in relation to Mars until the 1870s.  Merriam Webster’s online etymology dates the first known use of Martian as an adjective or a noun (“relating to the planet Mars or its hypothetical inhabitants”) to 1880.  The earliest use of Martian, as a noun describing a being from Mars, has generally been dated to 1883 and attributed to Wladyslaw Lach Szyrma’s early science fiction novel, Aleriel or A Voyage to Other Worlds.  

Those dates of first use can now be pushed back.  I have unearthed (or would it be unmarsed?) earlier uses of Martian as a noun, describing beings from Mars, from as early as 1877, and as an adjective, from as early as 1873.  I have also found what may be the first fictional account of a Martian invasion of Earth from 1881.  Cornhill Magazine, an influential British literary magazine, used Martian as an adjective in 1873, a reversal from its use of Martial just two years earlier.  Both Cornhill Magazine and the American periodical, Scribner’s Monthly, used Martian as a noun on the heels of the discovery of the moons of Mars in August 1877.  The first fictional account of a Martian invasion of Earth first appeared in the London Truth in late 1881.  But more on those articles later; first let us survey how and why Martians became such a fixture in pop-culture.

Laying the Groundwork for Martians

In 1828, Friedrich Woehler’s synthesis of the organic compound, urea, laid the foundations of organic and bio-chemistry, after which life could be studied as a physical process subject to the same physical and chemical laws that governed the behavior of inanimate matter, and without resort to a presumed, unseen animating life force.  In 1859, Professors Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) and Kirchoff (of electrical circuit fame) pioneered spectroscopic analysis, which confirmed, for the first time, that the sun and the stars, as well as the atmospheres of some planets, comprised elements that were also common on earth; the study of physical processes on Earth could then be extended and applied to Mars.  Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, first published in 1859, introduced the idea of natural processes governing the evolution of life-forms, inviting speculation that the conditions on Mars might be conducive to the development of advanced life-forms.  Improved telescope technology and the favorable oppositions of Mars in 1864 and 1877 led to the first maps of Mars, showing presumed landmasses and bodies of water, as well as the polar ice caps.  Mars could be viewed as possibly earthlike, a place where elements common to earth and subject to the same natural processes as those on Earth might spawn and support the evolution of life similar to, if different from, life on earth. The time was ripe to imagine Martians as we know them today.

Martians in Pop-Culture

The science fiction writer H. G. Wells’ is probably deserves the most credit for kick-starting the concept of Martians in pop-culture.  The success of his 1897 book, The War of the Worlds, cemented Martians and Martian invasions into the public consciousness.  Its many later adaptations, including Orson Welles’ radio broadcast on the night before Halloween 1938, and its many imitators have given space invaders generally and Martians in particular a permanent spot in the pop-cultural landscape.  Wells was not the only person writing about Mars and Martians in the 1890s.  In fact, the inspiration for his story was apparently inspired by recent observations by astronomers and actual events.

In War of the Worlds, the Martian invaders are said to have left Mars in August of 1894:
During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disc, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers.  English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2.  I am inclined to think that the appearance may have been the casting of the huge gun, the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired at us.

The August 2, 1894 issue of Nature reported that astronomers had seen lights on or near Mars.  Many astronomers around the world were busy observing Mars at that time because Mar was then in a “favorable opposition” with Earth.  An opposition occurs about once a year when Mars and Earth pass at their closest point.  A “favorable” opposition occurs, roughly, once every fifteen years, when the closest approach is particularly close.  The distance of each opposition varies anywhere from about thirty-five million miles during a “favorable opposition” to more than sixty million miles during the least favorable oppositions.  The distance varies because of the eccentricity of Earth’s and Mars’ elliptical orbits.  Since the only way to observe Mars at the time was optical telescopes located on Earth, each favorable opposition initiated a new flurry of activity among Mars observers, with technological improvements in telescopes and observational techniques promising new information and new discoveries during each cycle. 

Schiaparelli's 1888 map of Mars
The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had created a sensation after the favorable opposition of 1877.  His reports of apparent channels (in Italian, “canali”) on Mars were generally mistranslated (or at best, misleadingly translated) into English as canals.  The word “canal” conveyed the sense that they had been engineered by human – or non-human, hands.  Reports of canals on Mars sparked the imagination, generating speculation, both popular and scientific, about the possibility of life on Mars. 

Lowell's Map of Martian Canals
The American astronomer Percival Lowell, building on the work of Schiaparelli, built a telescope at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the express purpose of observing Mars during the favorable opposition of 1894.  Lowell would make a long career of publishing sensational speculations about the nature of life on Mars.  His book, Mars, published in 1895, detailed both his serious astronomical observations and his more sensational theories about life on Mars – beings three times as tall as humans (due to lower gravity) who had excavated a huge network of canals, thousands of miles long, across the mostly featureless face of Mars to irrigate otherwise barren swathes of land – those fertile areas along the canals being visible from Earth. 

As strange as those speculations sound, Lowell was no crackpot.  He was a well-known and highly respected diplomat, businessman and scientist whose brother was the President of Harvard.  One of his major contributions to astronomy was building his observatory at altitude, the first observatory intentionally built at high altitude in to minimize atmospheric distortion.  His theories therefore were not dismissed out of hand.  

The "Pyramids of Mars"
The "Face" on Mars
If you are inclined to judge our nineteenth century predecessors harshly, do not forget how recently speculation about giant faces and pyramids on Mars captivated some people's imaginations.

Lowell’s speculations, while not widely accepted as true by most serious astronomers, were fodder for the public imagination.  George du Maurier (the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of the book on which Hitchcock’s The Birds was based) would complete his third novel, Martian, in 1895, as reported in The Courier (Lincoln, Nebraska), November 2, 1895.  Martian was published in serial form in Harpers in 1896 and in book form in 1897.  H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was published in serial form in Cosmopolitan in 1897 (somewhere between the perfume ads and the sex quiz, I suppose) and in book form in 1898.  Clearly, Martians were on peoples’ minds.

Martians were on people’s minds even before the opposition of 1894.  Reports of flashes on Mars had been reported in 1892, leading to speculation about life on Mars and the possibility of communicating with the Martians: 

One further fact was established in the astronomical world a few years ago, when a series of light flashes were observed coming from Mars.  At one time three such lights appeared simultaneously, forming a regular triangle.  It was at once surmised that the Martians were attempting to signal to us.

Bennington Semi-Weekly Banner (Vermont), May 24, 1895;

SPEAKING WITH MARS: If the surmises of astronomers about the flashing of lights on Mars be correct, the inhabitants of that planet are making a systematic attempt to signal to our earth.  An English writer suggests that some organized response from our own plante should be attempted.  His idea is to use London, which every night presents an area of about twelve square miles brilliantly illuminated.

Las Vegas Free Press (East Las Vegas, New Mexico), October 22, 1892;

FLASH LIGHTS FOR MARS: Probably the most intelligent suggestion yet thrown out for exchanging signals with the inhabitants of the planet of Mars, if any such there be, is made by Mr. E. Ellsworth Carey.  It is that a perfectly level area, say at least five miles in diameter, not in the vicinity of hills or mountains, be covered with a uniformly black coating of earthy sand or coal dust.  This area is to be covered with gas jets or electric arcs, placing the illuminating points about three feet apart.  That would require some 6,000,000 points of intense brilliancy, visible to the inhabitants of Mars with a magnifying power of 300 diameters when the earth was sufficiently far away from conjunction to be seen while the sun was below the belt of twilight.

The Morning Call (San Francisco, California), August 1, 1892.

While Martians may have enjoyed a renaissance in 1890s, they had been on peoples’ minds off-and-on for years in a regular cycle mimicking the favorable opposition cycle.  Before Lowell in 1894 and Schiaparelli in 1877 there had been the favorable opposition of 1864.  In 1866, the American amateur astronomer and physician, Henry Draper, gave a lecture in New York City entitled, “Are there Other Worlds Inhabited?”  After dismissing the possibility of life on Mercury and Venus, he said about Mars:

There was visible upon it a large expanse of water of a greenish hue, the remaining parts were land of a reddish tinge, and at the North and South were accumulations of snow, presenting appearances strictly analogous to those of the Arctic and Antarctic regions of our globe. . . .  He maintained that it was clearly established that on many of the bodies of the solar system many of the elements of the earth were found; that the same laws which ruled the solar system rule the universe; and that we might be sure that nature, operating upon like substances by similar laws, must ever produce the same results.  It seemed in accordance with reason to believe that there may be many other globes containing intelligent beings formed on the plan as we were, but different; some perhaps, better, and other worse.

Daily Union and American (Nashville, Tennessee), February 2, 1866. 

In 1867, the American astronomer Richard A. Proctor produced the first maps of the surface of Mars,  based on the observations by the English astronomer, William Dawes, during the favorable opposition of 1864.  Although Proctor’s maps did not show the network of “canals” that Schiaparelli would make famous ten years later, Proctor also speculated about the possibility of life on Mars.

Proctor's Chart of Mars

In his book, Other Worlds Than Ours (1870), Proctor notes that spectroscopic analysis had proven, for the first time, that elements found on the sun were the same elements found on Earth and that Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn had been shown to have atmospheres that included elements also found on Earth.  He believed that it was likely that there would be life, of some kind, somewhere in the universe.  In our solar system, he determined that Mars was the most likely candidate.  But he did not use the word Martian as an adjective or noun.  When referring to things related to Mars, he used the word Martial.  He referred to beings from Mars with the awkward term, “Martialists.”

Martial or Martian

The transition from Martial as an adjective for describing things related to Mars played out in the pages of the influential British literary magazine, Cornhill Magazine, between 1871 through 1877.  The 1871 article, Life in Mars, used the same terminology used by Proctor, namely martial (adjective) and martialist (noun). Volume 23, May 1871.  An 1873 article, The Planet Mars: an Essay by a Whewellite (v. 28, July 1873) uses both Martian and Martial as adjectives, while referring to possible life on Mars as beings or creatures.  An article from 1877, The Planet of War (v. 36, July 1877) uses Martian as an adjective exclusively, yet also refers to “Martian beings” as “Martialists.”  It would be only one small step (“one giant leap” seems more appropriate for the moon) to transition from “Martian beings” to “Martians.”

The First Martians

On August 18, 1877, during the favorable opposition of 1877, a team of astronomers at the United States’ Naval Observatory, led by Professor Asaph Hall III, discovered Phobos and Deiomos, the moons of Mars.  Cornhill Magazine marked the occasion with an extensive article about Mars and its moons:

Taking advantage of the near approach of the Planet of War, and the exceptionally favourable conditions under with it could be observed in their latitude, the observers who have under their especial charge the great telescope of the Washington Observatory have scrutinised with special care the neighbourhood of the planet which till lately was called “moonless Mars;” and their skill and watchfulness have been rewarded by the discovery of two moons attending on that planet.

The Moons of Mars (Cornhill Magazine, v. 36, October 1877, page 412).  The article goes on to describe the size of the moons and how those moons might look in the Martian sky to an observer standing on Mars:

Thus the light given by the farther of his two moons varies from one two-hundredth to one three-hundredth part of our moon’s.  This part, then, of the Martian moonlight is but small in amount, and certainly cannot go far to compensate the Martians (as compared with us Terrestrials) for their greater distance from the sun.

Cornhill Magazine, v. 36, October 1877, pages 421-422; and with respect to the second moon:

. . . the light she reflects to Martians, or would reflect to them if there were any such beings, varies from one-eighth to one-twelfth of that which we receive from the full moon.

Cornhill Magazine, v. 36, October 1877, page 424. The word Martians is also used several more times throughout the article.

The noun, Martian, was put to similar use in Scribner’s Monthly at nearly the same time.  Lieutenant E. W. Sturdy, USN, a colleague of Professor Hall’s at the Naval Observatory, wrote the article, Mars and His Moons, using the same device as the Cornhill article.  He described how Mars’ moons would appear to Martians on Mars:

We might at first conclude that the inhabitants of Mars, if such there be, would witness the extraordinary sight of two brilliant moons passing each other in the heavens above them, but a little further reflection will show that to all intents and purposes Mars has but one practical moon, and that as far as light reflecting is concerned the outer one is a most useless attendant.  . . .
Let us see now how his moonlight nights would compare with ours.  Supposing his moon and ours to rise at six o’clock in the evening.  At six o’clock the next morning he would have had nearly twelve hours with our moon above the horizon, while the Martians would have had light from theirs but 6h. 25m. – that is, counting from six o’clock in the evening to six o’clock the next morning.  But on the other hand, the Martians have their moon every night, which is a boast we on earth cannot make.

Scribner’s Monthly, v. 15, November 1877, page 266 (also reprinted in Vancouver Independent (Vancouver, Washington), December 27, 1877).

These two articles may represent the first uses of Martian, as a noun, in print.  The use of a parenthetical explanation in the Cornhill article (Martians (as compared with us Terrestrials)) suggests that the author thought of the word as novel or unfamiliar to the reader.  Such parenthetical explanations were never used in the earlier Cornihill references to “Martialists”. [*(See UPDATE Below for news of the discovery of earlier use of "Martian" (1869), as a noun.)] 

As to who was first, it is not clear when the October issue of Cornhill and the November issue of Scribner’s were written or published.  We know that Lt. Sturdy was familiar with earlier articles on Mars from Cornhill Magazine; his Scribner’s article specifically references theories of Mars that had, “been treated at length at different times in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’” (Scribner’s, v. 15, November 1877, page 263), but it is not clear whether he would have had access to the October Cornhill.  The anonymous author of the Cornhill article also had contact with, or at least access to reports from, the Naval Observatory; the article quotes from the original telegraphic report of the discovery of the moons and from a circular issued by the Secretary of the Navy shortly after the discovery of the moons.

In any case, trans-Atlantic telegraphs and the increasing speed of trans-Atlantic crossings would have ensured that news could have been shared readily and quickly, if not nearly simultaneously, between and among astronomers and scientists with an interest in Mars.  For whatever reason, someone or some people abandoned the awkward Martialist for the more-pithy Martian and everyone since has followed suit.  The first invasion from Mars would not far behind.

The noun, Martian, did not achieve universal acceptance immediately.  Percy Greg's early science fiction novel, Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record (1880), about a human being's visit to Mars, used the word Martial as an adjective and Martialist instead of Martian, as a noun.  Wladyslaw Lach Szyrma’s, Aleriel, from 1883, is an early example of the use of Martian as a noun in fiction; but even it was preceded by a couple years by a futuristic magazine article from 1881.

The First Martian Invasion - 1881

The first-known account of a Martian invasion was published in the London Truth and reprinted in several American newspapers in late 1881, just few years after Schiaparelli’s canals and Hall’s moons first made the news.  The invasion appears in a fancifullook forward into the year 2081, an article inspired by the first International Exposition of Electricity in Paris.  Exhibitors at the Exposition included Bell, Edison, Siemens, and Hertz, all of whom are still household names today.

In 1881, wireless communications were still at least a decade in the future, but phonographs, the telephone and electric lights had just recently been invented.  The electrical future promised great technological advancements. The  author extrapolated from the state-of-the art technology on display in Paris to imagine a future with now-familiar electricity in every home, electronic home security systems, answering machines, speaker phones, fax, electronic banking, video chat, e-mail, electric milking machines, microwave ovens, recycling, air-conditioning, heating and climate control, and high-speed international air travel.

In addition to its uncannily accurate predictions, the piece also wonders whether technology would lead to the end of warfare.  With tongue in cheek, however, the author reassures the generals and jingoistic warmongers that peace on earth would not eliminate the need for their profession:

By the time Nations have begun to enjoy universal peace some method will have been discovered of putting this globe in communication with our nearest neighbor, the planet Mars, and it is easy to imagine what will follow then.  After a brief period passed in the exchange of polite messages it will be unanimously admitted that our globular honor demands that we should declare against Mars.  Possibly it will be found that our Martian foes are more advanced in science than we, and that the variations in our climate result from some unjustifiable liberties which they have been taking with the sun by focusing all its rays for themselves.  We cannot expect that our descendants will stand this; so they will unite all their energies for the fabrication of mammoth engines which will discharge oceans of water, metal and fire right into the face of Mars.  In return, the Martians will pelt them with aeroliths weighing three thousand tons, which will chip whole mountains off the Himalayas and make a big hole where Mont Blanc now exists.  It may not be forbidden us to hope for a blessed time in the future, when all the planets will be in communion and plunged in continual wars, to end, of course, in universal peace.  Then, doubtless, man will have mastered all that he is to know, and will be ripe for other destinies which we cannot even guess at.  Giants will once more inhabit the earth – giants of culture, no more dressed in skins and wielding clubs – and we, their pigmy forefathers, with our small heads and hearts and our puny doings, will not be so much as remembered among them.

The London Truth

The article was reprinted in the Dodge City Times ((Dodge City, Kansas), November 3, 1881) about one week after the shootout at the OK Corral in Arizona, so Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday would have missed the article.  But perhaps Marshall Dillon discussed the future and the invasion from Mars with Chester, Festus, Doc and Miss Kitty – one can only hope. 

Martians had finally invaded Earth.  

                     They still haven’t left.

*Update: October 19, 2015.  On October 17, 2015, Fred Shapiro cited this article in a post to the e-mail Listserv of the American Dialect Society, antedating the date of first use listed in the OED (1883) with the Cornhill reference (October, 1877) that I had identified.  Within a few hours, word sleuth Garson O'Toole identified an even earlier reference, from the Watertown (New York) Times, January 27, 1870, page 2, column 5.  

Laurence Horn soon identified the apparent source of the Watertown Times article; it was from yet another opportunity for the Brits to ridicule the French:

A French idealist, evidently suffering from telegraphy on the brain, proposes to the Academy of Sciences to establish communications with the peoples of the planets, if any such there be.  His notion is to mount a great miror upon the earth, and give flashing signals to Mars and Jupiter.  He thinks that if these are repeated regularly, in batches of a certain number, the Martians or Jovians, as the cases may be, will come to discern that they mean something, and will return them; and that thus a code will be eventually agreed upon, so that we may talk across the solar system just as we do across a field.  This silly man calls attention to the bright spots which have occasionally been seen on some of the planets, and suggests that those were probably signals from the habitants thereof to us.  This idea of planetary signalling is an old one; it has been mooted before, and doubtless has occurred to thousands who have not had the effrontery to give their thoughts a tongue.  My object in alluding to its present revival, is to give an instance of the absurdities tolerated by the Paris Academy of Sciences.

Once a Week (London), New Series, Number 87, August 28, 1869, Page 87.

The Cornhill article and Lieutenant Sturdy's subsequent article in Scribners, about the discovery of Mars' moons, were apparently not the first articles to use of "Mars" as a noun, to denote alien beings from Mars.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the reference. I just purchased Once a Week Volume IV (July 1869-February 1870) containing the first use of "Martian."