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A Mistranslated Word Led To Some Of The Best Fake News Of The 20th Century

While the hard realities of Mars — it’ll mess with our bodies, our minds and our spaceships — matter a whole lot when we consider traveling to the red planet, it’s also worth thinking about why humans would want to go there in the first place. Yes, we could probably figure out the resources thing, yes, it would be hella cool, and yes, I too think a few years without access to Matt Damon would give us all a much-needed break from the Bourne franchise. But what makes people want to go to Mars?

Part of it, I contend, is that more than a century of stories have helped people build a relationship with the planet and, to an extent, the hypothetical Martians that inhabit it. And if you want to understand stories about Martians, you first have to look at the ridiculous period in American science when prominent astronomers vociferously argued that they had scientific proof Martians existed because we could take pictures of the canals they dug.

Take that in.

Left: Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. Right: Historical map of the surface of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s.

Getty Images


This article is the first of two exploring how Mars is represented in popular culture in the West. And before our world exploded with Martian science fiction, the red planet invaded our journalism. I’m focusing here on Mars coverage in The New York Times because the national paper of record has a long history covering the red planet, and it’s not all staid reports on NASA missions. Indeed, even The Gray Lady went head over heels for Martian fan fiction.1

A translation error is pretty much responsible for a generation of science fiction (which was initially published directly in the mainstream press as science fact).

Giovanni Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer who, upon observing Mars in 1877, claimed to see channels running over the planet’s surface. In time, this would be recognized as an illusion, but “in time” was several decades. His word choice to describe the channels — “canali” — was mistranslated in English as canals. So when Percival Lowell (founder of the Lowell Observatory) read that there were canals on Mars, he ran with it, considering them actual irrigation systems after his initial observations of the planet in 1894.

Lowell claimed that the canals were incontrovertibly real and that their presence proved the existence of Martians, and his scientific approach was met with a hearty “I don’t see why the hell not” from the popular scientific press of his day. In 1895 he was writing speculatively for the Atlantic Monthly about the intricacies of Martian society and the planetary characteristics that could facilitate such robust canal projects.

The New York Times archives regarding Martian canals are an incredible series of fictions running through the early 1920s. In July 1904, an article cited the canal hypothesis as the bedrock for then-popular stories, the piece specifically alluding to the work of “War of the Worlds” author H.G. Wells, saying, “It suggested certain interesting romances based upon the idea that at some time and in some circumstances possible in the future the enterprising Martians would invade the earth and have all kinds of fun with our people.” Next time a New York Times reporter gives an upstart publication guff about clickbait, refer them to the masterpiece of fan fiction published in 1906 under the headline “THERE IS LIFE ON THE PLANET MARS.”2 The coverage could get breathless, with a 1911 article regarding Lowell’s latest research titled “MARTIANS BUILD TWO IMMENSE CANALS IN TWO YEARS,” like it was some sort of infrastructure project in New Jersey.


1906 clipping from The New York Times.

The New York Times


Even Lowell’s 1916 obituary — presumably written by the legit wing of the Times rather than the “tell me more about the Martians, Percy” wing — includes the claim “He detected 550 canals” and considers the contribution as if it’s a largely accepted (if still debated) fact.

The great controversy among astronomers, in which he played a leading part, began in 1907 after his announcement that the observations made by his astronomical station, the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Ariz., proved that Mars was inhabited. Professor Lowell had put the theory forward tentatively as early as 1895. Many eminent astronomers in this country and Europe accepted his conclusions of 1907 as unassailable. Others were skeptical.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Surely this was a small portion of the coverage about Mars at the time, believed only by quacks and people who would print anything.” You would be super wrong. Yes, lots of people — particularly the English astronomy community — thought the Martian theory was bunk, but so many people did not. In a 1916 exchange on the letters to the editor page between one Waldemar Kaempffert and one Robert Peele, the pair argued intensely over the construction capabilities of the Martian laborers. Kaempffert brought up the certainty of the scientific community regarding Martian capabilities. Peele thought the idea was idiotic.3

Canal enthusiast Kaempffert became the Times’ science editor in 1927, a post he held for 26 years, with a brief break to run the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

But even in this early, ostensibly journalistic coverage, the reflection of the contemporary geopolitical affairs of Earth onto the wannabe Martians was an essential element. In 1905, Mary Proctor speculated that vast armies and fleets could be warring on the planet just as they were in the contemporary Russo-Japanese war and in the Crimean War.4

And while we never did attempt to dig canals in the Sahara to communicate with the Martians in their own tongue, as was seriously pitched, nor find the hulking, super-strong Martians themselves, all this early coverage made an indelible mark on the fiction of the era, to the point that the works spurred on by it would become their very own genre.


Left: 1916 clipping from The New York Times. Right: Waldemar Kaempffert, former science editor of the Times.

The New York Times; Public Domain


Just as it is today — scientific discoveries lead to new science fiction concepts, and vice versa — even at the genre’s birth we saw this scientific speculation directly lead to new ways of telling stories about Mars. Yes, the scientific debate of the “canals of Mars” was probably at least a little informed by the real canals of the day in Suez and Panama. But when Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing the seminal work on Martians, the Barsoom series, it should not come as a surprise that his Mars had canals and Martians complying with the proportions laid out by Lowell and his acolytes and a hero, John Carter, who benefited from the gravitational advantages laid out by those kooks.

So even if it is a tad ridiculous to take seriously the idea of a Martian civilization devoted entirely to repeated investment in hydrological capital projects, it’s the kind of ridiculous that can permanently change the way Western civilization tells stories about the planetary frontier. And it’s a crucial reminder that science isn’t static, and what’s accepted fact today isn’t guaranteed to tell the whole story tomorrow.


  1. We were unable to factor out Mars candy and the like because The New York Times discontinued the Chronicle service since we collected this data. We followed up with the Times but didn’t hear back.

  2. One of my favorite articles from this survey came a year later, when Professor Robert Prentiss had a lecture hall freak the hell out when a fly landed on the image of Mars on his projector during a lecture about how the planet was totally occupied.

  3. Here’s the play-by-play, because this exchange is perfect. Kaempffert offered choice lines like, “How can we explain away the photographs of the canals made by Professor Lowell? Anyone who has seen them must be convinced of the reality of the canals. Why is the notion of the canals so abhorrent?” Peele, dripping with sarcasm, noted that “the reader of his bulletin is asked to believe that these huge excavations could be made in the short space of forty-two days, assuming that the Martians do not rest on the seventh day,” which is a sick burn as far as Downton Abbey-era burns go. Kaempffert fired back with an argument saying the Martians were, because of low gravity and presumed advanced technology, far more able than men to dig a planet-spanning canal.

  4. “Armies may be desolating the fairest regions of Mars at the very time when they are under the telescopic survey of the terrestrial observer. Warlike fleets may be urging their way across those seas and straits which our astronomers have marked down on their charts of the planet. Yet no one would suspect such warfare in yonder peaceful-looking world. Nevertheless our own earth, amid the fiercest tumults and the most desolating wars, presents to the other worlds that people space the same peaceful scene. Thus, distance lends so much, at least, of enchantment to the view. In the earlier part of the Crimean war the planet which has for its symbol the spear and shield of the old Assyrian warmen shone in our midnight skies; so now amid wars in the Far East Mars will again shine in our midnight skies, coming to its nearest point early in May,” Proctor wrote, only a little bit on the nose.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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