Science Fiction History: 1835 the New York Sun sees Life on the Moon

About the New York Sun tabloid who in 1835 published a series of articles by Richard Locke detailing life on the moon.

--1835. In August the New York Sun, then a stripling journal of 4 sheets, began an exclusive series of 4 articles headlined: GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL AT THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. This series, written by Richard Adams Locke, excited New York and America for 2 months. It disclosed that Sir John Herschel, the renowned British astronomer, had invented a 7-ton telescope, with a lens 24' in diameter, capable of magnifying an object 42,000 times, so greatly that flora and fauna on the moon seemed to be only 5 mi. from the earth. Sir John, assisted by Sir David Brewster, secretly had transported the telescope to Africa, and 8 months earlier had seen lunar life as no human had seen it before.

The pair minutely observed 14 species of animal life on the moon. There were "herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison," with hairy flaps over their eyes to protect them from extreme light; there were "gregarious" monsters, blue and swift, "the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn"; there were pelicans, cranes, bears, and "a strange amphibious creature of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach." All of these cavorted over pyramid-shaped mountains of amethyst, among 38 species of trees, or near a lake 266 mi. long.

But the biggest sensation was saved for the final article. Sir John Herschel had seen "4 successive flocks of large winged creatures," and later observed them "walking erect toward a small wood." Adjusting his lens so that these creatures were brought but 8o yards from his eyes, he saw them clearly at last. "They averaged 4' in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of the shoulders to the calves of the legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh-color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang-utan. . . ."

These articles were so rich in detail and scientific terminology that the greater part of the public and press swallowed them whole. The New York Times thought the articles "probable and plausible," and felt they displayed "the most extensive and accurate knowledge of astronomy." The New Yorker regarded the discoveries as "of astounding interest, creating a new era in astronomy and science generally." The Daily Advertiser considered the series one of the most important in years. "Sir John has added a stock of knowledge to the present age that will immortalize his name and make it high on the page of science."

Locke was gratified. The daily circulation of the Sun, a penny newspaper, had been 2,500. With the report of winged men 4' tall on the moon, circulation climbed to 19,000. And some of these readers, notably a club of women in Springfield, Mass., were stimulated to raise funds for sending missionaries to the moon. In pamphlet form the series of articles, entitled Discoveries in the Moon Lately Made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschel, sold 60,000 copies in a month, enriching Locke and his publisher by some $25,000.

There were a few skeptics. Philip Hone, a New York resident, noted in his diary: "In sober truth, if this account is true, it is most enormously wonderful, and if it is a fable, the manner of its relation, with all of its scientific details . . . will give this ingenious history a place with Gulliver's Travels' and 'Robinson Crusoe.'" Edgar Allan Poe, aware that no telescope could reveal such detail even at a visual distance of 8o yards, let alone 5 mi., branded the articles as fiction. He confessed that he found few listeners, "so really eager were all to be deceived, so magical were the charms of a style that served as the vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention. Not one person in 10 discredited it."

When Locke at last confessed the fraud to a fellow newspaperman on the Journal of Commerce, who exposed him, and when Sir John Herschel, informed of Locke's stories, laughingly denied the discoveries, the truth was out, and the "Moon Hoax" was relegated to the history of entertainment rather than that of science. Locke's motive, it turned out, had been more aesthetic than commercial. Bored with the speculations and popularity of Dr. Thomas Dick of Scotland, an astronomer whose books (advocating communication with the moon through use of giant stone symbols arranged on earth) were the rage in American society, Locke had intended to ridicule Dick's pompous pronouncements. Apparently, his satire had got out of hand.

Shortly after this, Locke left the Sun to start a periodical of his own, the New Era. Later, he became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and finally a customhouse official.

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