The exceptional pace of new scientific discoveries and ever-faster internet* connections have begun to create confusion in people’s heads. As on 21st August 1835, when a certain New York newspaper reported the following…
On 10th January 1835, at precisely 9.30am, Sir John Herschel aimed his gigantic telescope towards the Moon. For months, the astronomer had been conducting research from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He had travelled there to complete a great scientific project begun by his father. William Herschel, an astronomer and builder of telescopes who had observed and described the skies visible from the Northern Hemisphere. He had broadened the boundaries of the solar system by discovering the planet Uranus. His son John continued his work, observing the heavens from the Southern Hemisphere.
On that memorable day, the scientist’s eye, armed with the lenses of his telescope, came to rest on something that looked like a beautiful basalt cliff, recalling those on the Scottish island of Staffa. The astonished scientist must have blinked; the telescope shifted a bit, and it turned out that right next to it a field of dark red flowers was growing! A field of poppies!
So there was life on the Moon! The question was: just plants, or also animal life? Herschel and his colleagues didn’t have to wait long for the answer. They spied a herd of four-legged animals that resembled bison; a single-horned goat in a bluish, leaden shade; strange round creatures, which raced at great speed over the stony beaches; birds hunting for fish. The researchers counted dozens of species of trees, almost 100 other plants and nine species of mammals. Such precise observations were possible thanks to their new technology: a telescope with a diameter of about 7.5 metres. The source of its unusual power was primarily its combination with a ‘hydrogen-oxygen microscope’. This device magnified and illuminated the image, and also acted as a projector. It was a technology so precise that it allowed research into insect life on the Moon (if only there were insects there).
But let’s not deny that as humans, we’re more interested in creatures that are as intelligent as we are than in spiders or moths. The scientists’ hearts must have started to pound when through their telescope they noticed two-legged beavers cradling their young in their arms, and walking around against a background of huts with a more refined construction than those built by tribes in Africa and South America. What’s more, there was smoke rising over the houses – the best evidence that these clever creatures had tamed the power of fire!
But that wasn’t the end of the moving experiences and astonishment. The British scientists also saw creatures that Herschel christened Vespertilio homo: bat people. Their whole bodies, other than their faces, were covered by shining copper-coloured hairs, and from their shoulders grew wings made from thin membrane. Further observations revealed that the Moon-dwelling Vespertilio homo had created an advanced civilization – capable of constructing shrines of a striking beauty – and a society living in idyllic peace and heavenly harmony. But the scientists’ attention was drawn to the fact that some of the bat people’s amusements didn’t fit with Earthling ideas of decency. They had sex completely freely, out in the open!
These breakthrough discoveries were announced to New Yorkers in the last week of August 1835 by the popular newspaper The Sun, reprinting (so it said), thanks to the Edinburgh Journal of Science, a report authored by Dr Adam Grant, who worked alongside Herschel on the Cape of Good Hope. First, on Friday 21st August, a small mention was carried on page two of the newspaper. On Tuesday 25th August, further instalments began to appear; there would be six in total. The publisher also put out a pamphlet collecting all of the material, and a series of lithographs showing what Herschel had seen and what Grant had written up.
“It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe,” read the first part of the text about the great astronomical discovery. And many people will certainly feel something close to horror on finding out that most readers, including scientific authorities, believed The Sun’s sensational reports.
New Yorkers were ecstatic. The Sun’s revelations were reprinted by almost all of the city’s newspapers, followed by other publications in the US and finally in Europe. “Great astronomical discovery!” “Winged people on the Moon,” the ragged little newspaper boys must have shouted on the streets of Manhattan (in fact, this form of distribution was first used in the US barely two years earlier by Benjamin Day, founder and publisher of The Sun). On 28th August, a sunny day and the fourth day of the lunar cycle, the paper boys took as many papers to sell as they could carry, and the pockets of their trousers were soon filled with coins.
The Sun’s headquarters were surrounded from dawn to dusk by crowds of people who wanted to sell the newspaper, according to a description by Matthew Goodman in his book The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Duelling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. In the crowd, he writes, were people who swore that they had personally read the reports of the Moon in the Edinburgh Journal of Science. A certain gentleman had even seen Herschel’s telescope with his own eyes while the giant instrument was being loaded onto the ship that carried it from London to the Cape of Good Hope.
On Saturday morning, a brochure came out containing all of the material about the lunar discovery, and lithographs presenting the lunar world. The New Yorker reported that they sold faster than the Bible. P.T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur and impresario who is recognized as a forerunner of today’s entertainment and advertising industries, estimated that in total, the materials about the “great discovery on the Moon” brought The Sun $50,000. Barely a few months earlier, Day had agonized over whether it was worth paying his partner $5,000 for his half of the shares. The paper had a circulation of 20,000; the competition, less than 10,000.
“A great talk concerning some discoveries in the moon by Sir John Herschell [sic]; not only trees and animals but even men have been discovered there,” New Yorker Michael Floy noted in his diary on 30th August. Edgar Allan Poe, who had recently written a story about a trip to the Moon by balloon, and accused The Sun (inaccurately) of plagiarism, estimated that at most one in 10 people had doubts about the press reports. In addition, the most frequent doubters were those who didn’t know why they doubted; simple, uneducated people, to whom this story just simply seemed too strange. Poe cited an acquaintance, a professor of mathematics, who gave assurances that he believed in every detail of Dr Grant’s report.
Meanwhile, Yale professors who appeared in The Sun’s offices were certain that it was a cosmic fairy-tale. But they couldn’t confirm their suspicions; the publishers managed to outsmart them. The scientists left without talking with anybody responsible for the content of the article.
At the same time, as Goodman reports, Sir Francis Beaufort – a Royal Navy hydrographer whose name is called to sailors’ minds today during every storm – wrote to his friend Herschel, who was still working in South Africa, to ask him whether he knew that all of America was obsessed by his lunar discoveries. The British astronomer took up the game: he reported in reply that a certain cleric had already announced his readiness to provide Bibles to the pagan Selenites, residents of the silvery orb.
The universe restored and inhabited
“It appears to be as natural for the human mind to be craving after the wonderful, the mysterious, the marvelous, and the new discoveries, as it is for the physical appetite to desire food, drink, and sleep,” the introduction to the ‘lunar pamphlet’ of 1859 read. Richard Adams Locke, the star of New York journalism and editor of The Sun (i.e. the true author of the lunar series) must have been perfectly well aware of this.
Science and letters were his real passion (alongside literature and politics – in 1834 he even wrote The History of the Polish Revolution, a book about the November Uprising), and astronomy took the central place in the constellation of his interests. Already at age 17, he wrote the poem “The Universe Restored” – six songs, each of them around 1,000 lines! – an exposition of his own theory on the constant death and renewal of the universe.
Locke must have wanted to write a fascinating story and draw the attention of as many New Yorkers as possible. But it can’t be ruled out – bearing in mind his fondness for science – that he also intended to mock the cosmically preposterous theories that were emerging at the time, and in particular to poke fun at uncritical faith in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. For example, at that time the Reverend Thomas Dick enjoyed popularity in the US. With enviable precision, he calculated that the solar system was inhabited by 21,891,974,404,480 beings, and the moon itself by 4,200,000,000.
A telescope was first used to demonstrate the existence of life on the Moon in the middle of the 19th century by Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, a doctor lecturing in medicine, anthropology, chemistry and physics, and later a professor of astronomy, at the university in Munich. “If we can only manage to maintain faith in the existence of the Selenites, our feelings for the beautiful Moon will not fade, and dry reports from observations will more easily draw our attention,” he is quoted as writing by the book Księżyc w nauce I kulturze Zachodu [The Moon in the Science and Culture of the West] by Professor Jarosław Włodarczyk. And he did in fact interpret what he observed in the sky, giving free rein to his imagination. On the surface of the Moon, he clearly saw fields, forests and a system of roads; structures that testified to the existence of underground cities and temples.
To be honest, we must add that Gruithuisen, despite taking up the position of professor, didn’t enjoy particular respect from his colleagues, but his faith in the existence of the Selenites was also shared by scientists with decidedly greater authority. William Herschel – John’s father, discoverer of Uranus and its two moons, 2,500 nebulae and infrared radiation – also found time to point his telescope at the silvery orb. Before he achieved fame and experience, he wrote in his diary that conditions on the Moon were as good for supporting life as conditions on Earth (or better), making it almost certain that the satellite was inhabited. He further asserted that such life could possibly be observed, and that evidence of it would be discovered at some point.
In his lunar monograph, Włodarczyk writes that “these solutions were the effect of observation of the lunar Mare Humorum”. Near the Gassendi crater, Herschel noticed a forest with trees many times higher than those on Earth.
A piece of old cheese under a microscope
Locke’s idea to make a joke of pseudonymous theories wasn’t new (though starting the text with poppy fields, suggesting that everything which followed was an opium dream, definitely was). Already in the 2nd century AD, Lucian of Samosata wrote his satirical A True Story, a parody of the unlikely tales that appeared in the works of various authors, including Homer. His hero travels to the Moon, where he witnesses a great but completely unheroic war conducted by strange beings. Lucian’s work was an inspiration for Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe.
But Locke didn’t just have his head in the clouds (and wasn’t just taking flights of fancy). The reason so many people believed in his story wasn’t just that it took weeks for a letter to reach America from Europe (making it difficult to find out that the Edinburgh Journal of Science hadn’t been published for two years). And it wasn’t just that New Yorkers loved to be astonished (two weeks before the publication of the lunar series stimulated the reward mechanisms in their brains, they were standing in long lines to see Joice Heth, a black slave who supposedly was more than 160 years old and had been George Washington’s wet nurse). Locke did a lot to make his text credible. John Herschel, to whom he attributed the discovery, was one of the best known scientists of the day. Two years earlier, he had published his outstanding popular text A Treatise on Astronomy. Herschel really did have an outstanding telescope, and really did conduct observations of the southern sky near Cape Town. About the Moon, he wrote that with a magnification of 480 times, it looked like a piece of old cheese under a microscope.
Scientific life at that time was in a state of ferment. While New Yorkers were reading about the bat people on the Moon, the twentysomething Brit Charles Darwin was circumnavigating the globe on board the HMS Beagle. That journey changed not only contemporary biology, but first and foremost the way humans perceive our place in the world of animals, and indirectly also in the universe. Many people were waiting with interest for the appearance of Halley’s Comet in November. The exceptional pace of new scientific discoveries and ever faster printing presses started to create confusion in people’s brains. It was harder to verify the information that was coming in; increasingly often it was taken on faith, not in light of rational knowledge, which was developing too fast to keep up with. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase commonly attributed to Barnum, a combination of Walt Disney and Donald Trump. A man who knew how much we’re capable of believing, and how much we’re willing to pay for it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this quote is misattributed to Barnum, the king of humbug.
P.S. Richard Adams Locke earned the astronomical sum of $500 for the lunar series, and soon left The Sun to found his own newspaper, New Era.
The text about the great discovery was translated into many languages, including German, French and Welsh. Locke never officially acknowledged its authorship.
Even though it was revealed that the reports of the discovery of life on the Moon were false, neither The Sun nor its publisher were condemned. On the contrary, the newspaper enjoyed popularity and authority, maintaining its high sales.
John Herschel was recognized after his death as the greatest scientist of the century. His body rests alongside Darwin’s in Westminster Abbey. But it can’t be ruled out that the spirits of both of them are wandering on the Moon. They have craters named after them, as does Herschel’s father William.
* Of course, not the internet, but printing presses. But other than that everything is correct.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino