110 Years Ago 'The New York Times' Thought We Found Aliens on Mars

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Time machines may not be real, but thanks to a special section of the New York Times archives, you can view actual papers published decades ago. On this day in 1906, the paper published an article claiming that aliens inhabited the red planet.

Sounds absurd, right? Thanks to the fleet of orbiters and rovers currently inhabiting the red planet, we know the chances of finding little green men running around on the Martian surface are slim to none. But interest in the red planet and its potential inhabitants has been around for centuries.

After observing what he thought were canals on the Martian surface, famed astronomer Percival Lowell claimed there was life on the red planet. He believed that the canals were built by a civilization living on the red planet. Despite his certainty, we still have yet to definitively prove there is life on Mars — extant or otherwise.

A clipping of the Times article claiming there was life on Mars. 

New York Times

Astronomers first discovered unusual grooves on our galactic neighbor in the 1700’s, which resembled the canals we have on Earth. Mars fever officially took hold in the late 1800s thanks to Giovanni Schiaparelli — around the time another astronomer, Asaph Hall, confirmed the existence of Mars’ two moons.

Luckily for Schiaparelli, Mars was in opposition in 1877, which provided the prime opportunity for observing. The Italian astronomer was able to detect grooves or “canali” on the Martian surface, which are literal grooves or chasms on the planet’s surface. Not quite as exciting (but let’s be honest, still super cool) as they were made out to be.

Lowell followed Schiaparelli’s work and wanted to take it to the next level. He built his own observatory — which would ultimately be more famous for its discovery of Pluto — specifically to study the supposed Martian canals. He is largely responsible for the spread of Martian fever.

“A thing made predicates a maker,” he explained in the New York Times. “The legions of canals on Mars, forming a colossal and a wisely planned system designed to irrigate the oases of the vast deserts which make up the surface of this planet, are an unanswerable argument for the existence of conscious, intelligent life.”

Map of the Martian canali as seen by Schiaparelli. 

Wikimedia Commons

The existence of these canals and the possibility that a group of alien beings constructed them went viral. In fact, the map Schiaparelli drew of the grooves bared an uncanny resemblance to the canals of Venice, further fueling speculation that some sort of alien civilization created the canals.

However, there was a mistake in the translation of Schiaparelli’s findings, and the word “canali” was misinterpreted as actual canals, which were suggestive of water and ultimately life.

While NASA has subsequently found evidence for water on Mars, scientists are still searching for definitive signs of life.

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