Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Great Moon Hoax

Of all the giants of scientific endeavour, perhaps none are as significant to history as Sir John Herschel. Already an accomplished astronomer and natural philosopher - having written A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy in 1831, which in turn inspired many scientists including a young Charles Darwin - Herschel departed for South Africa in 1833 in order to chart the courses of the southern stars. It was there that he developed his greatest invention and made the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

The report delivered by the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25th, 1835. Its announcement read:
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe, and nearly akin to those with which a departed spirit may be supposed to discover the realities of a future state. Bound by the irrevocable laws of nature to the globe on which we live, creatures "close shut up in infinite expanse," it seems like acquiring a fearful supernatural power when any remote mysterious works of the Creator yield tribute to our curiosity. It seems almost a presumptious assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds.

We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity.

And well he might pause! From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them, there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying; and we are taught to believe that, when a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public, they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.

Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket which contained it.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of things; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.

This understandably florid prose led to the news of the greatest discovery by the accomplished Herschel: life on the moon!

An illustration of Herschel's discoveries.

These fantastic revelations by advanced telescope technology were, of course, a hoax. The perpetrator seems to have been reporter Richard Adams Locke, in a publicity stunt for the Sun. By the sixth and final installment on August 31, 1835, the public was inflamed, Edgar Allan Poe was incensed, Jules Verne was inspired, and the Sun's readership was permanently inflated. Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing. The Great Moon Hoax was to the 19th century what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast was to the 20th, and what the entire "fake news" dilemma is to the 21st.

The term "fake news" is itself a bit of a redundancy: anyone with the slightest glimmer of media literacy knows that all corporate media is fake news. In our modern media-saturated and media-savvy age, corporate media is seems particularly dedicated to discrediting itself. Polls from last year revealed that Americans, on average, trust corporate media even less than they trust Donald Trump. Before the rise of social media, corporate media held a monopoly over the means of production and distribution of information. That empowered them to present biased, even defamatory, articles about people, places, things, and movements with impunity, acting as gatekeepers and opinion-makers. But today, social and alternative media, which is nothing less than the democratization of media with all the opportunities and challenges of democracy, allows people to easily bypass the gatekeepers. The result has been that corporate media - 90% of which in the USA is owned by six corporations - is collapsing.

This movement towards skepticism of the media comes after a long gestation. History shows that it didn't take long for a new type of media to develop before someone tested the gullibility of its audience. Prior to the 1830's, it was uncommon for nascent newspapers in the United States to be independent of a political party or movement, bringing things effectively full circle today. Even the so-called independent media had its issues, which is what Locke chose to test in 1835 with his burlesque about lunar life.

1835 was also during the early stages of what would become Scientific Romance, and prior to the Great Moon Hoax, the lunar orb was often a destination for utopian fantasies, biting satire, and scientific thought-experiment. Of course, the moon had been a subject for mythology and folk tale since the beginning of time, but it was Johannes Kepler's Somnium written in 1610 and published in 1634 that used it as a vehicle to discuss astronomical theory. Kepler's sleeper was conveyed by spirits of the air, whereas Frances Godwin's explorer in The Man in the Moone (1638) was conveyed by a flock of geese. Cyrano de Bergerac had an even more arduous run at it in 1657's L'Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon), first attempting to use bottles of dew rising in the morning and, when that failed, a rocket. His was a more satirical voyage than his predecessors'. Daniel Defoe satirized parliament in The Consolidator (1705), Baron Munchausen lied his way there in 1786, and Washington Irving wrote The Conquest of the Moon (1809) as an allegory of the USA's conquest of Native Americans. George Tucker actually attempted something like a properly scientific explanation of lunar travel in A Voyage to the Moon (1827). This quasi-Science Fiction theme was picked up by Edgar Allan Poe in The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, published in the Southern Literary Messenger in June, 1835.

Poe had originally presented Hans Pfaall as a factual account and had intended to continue his hoax for several installments. Unfortunately for him, it was upstaged by the Great Moon Hoax, which was published in August. This enraged Poe, who considered the Great Moon Hoax to be a blatant plagiarism of Hans Pfaall, and not without reason. Richard Adams Locke had been his editor at the time, and would have been well acquainted with his work. Yet the Great Moon Hoax was far more convincing than Hans Pfaall, on account that the latter had a decidedly more absurd, comedic, and satiric tone than did the former.

One has only to compare the prior introduction to the Great Moon Hoax to the introduction of Hans Pfaall, in which "about noon, a slight but remarkable agitation became apparent in the assembly; the clattering of ten thousand tongues succeeded; and, in an instant afterwards, ten thousand faces were upturned towards the heavens, ten thousand pipes descended simultaneously from the corners of ten thousand mouths, and a shout, which could be compared to nothing but the roaring of Niagara, resounded long, loudly and furiously, through all the city and through all the environs of Rotterdam." An unaccountable balloon had appeared, of which no one could give an account, "not even the burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk", composed of "dirty newspapers" with "a large tassel depending from its apex, and, around the upper rim or base of the cone, a circle of little instruments, resembling sheep-bells, which kept up a continual tinkling to the tune of Betty Martin. But still worse.—Suspended by blue ribbons to the end of this fantastic machine, there hung, by way of car, an enormous drab beaver hat, with a brim superlatively broad, and a hemispherical crown with a black band and a silver buckle." The hat was recognized to have belonged to Hans Pfaall, which disappeared five years prior. The balloon's occupant, however, was a man who "could not have been more than two feet in height" with a body "more than proportionally broad, giving to his entire figure a rotundity highly absurd." He dropped a letter at the feet of the burgomaster and made haste to depart by emptying his bags of ballast, which "tumbled, every one of them, most unfortunately, upon the back of the burgomaster, and rolled him over and over no less than half a dozen times, in the face of every individual in Rotterdam. It is not to be supposed, however, that the great Underduk suffered this impertinence on the part of the little old man to pass off with impunity. It is said, on the contrary, that during each of his half dozen circumvolutions, he emitted no less than half a dozen distinct and furious whiffs from his pipe, to which he held fast the whole time with all his might, and to which he intends holding fast, (God willing,) until the day of his decease." Nevertheless, the letter was addressed to Underduk and "Professor Rubadub, in their official capacities of President and Vice-President of the Rotterdam College of Astronomy." Its contents contained Hans Pfaall's own adventure in his own words.

It was fairly obvious to everyone that Hans Pfaall was a work of fiction. Not so with the Great Moon Hoax.

The verisimilitude of the Great Moon Hoax helped its credibility, as did surrounding events. Herschel had actually gone recently to the southern hemisphere to study the stars. The hoax could piggyback off it and the comparative slow pace of communication from South Africa in those days. Some of the lunar descriptions employed in the Great Moon Hoax matched factual ones from Herschel's previous investigations, such as evidence of now-dormant volcanoes. The year before, Herschel had published a summary of arguments for and against life on the moon, ultimately reserving judgment and suggesting "Telescopes... must yet be greatly improved, before we could expect to see signs of inhabitants, as manifested by edifices or by changes on the surface of the soil." 1835 was also the year of Halley's Comet's return to our solar system, as well as a rare transit of the planet Mercury across the face of the Sun. Even though optics experts knew that the telescope described by the Sun would be impossible with current technology, the early 19th century was still an age of mechanical wonders where anything seemed plausible to the general public. 

Locke's hoax also built slowly, with amazing but relatively benign portraits of the moon in the first several entries. He built up slowly to the discovery of lunar life, and eventually to human-like beings. The second and third of the six daily columns describing the discoveries outline some of the fantastic, alien entities that populate Diana's crystal shores:
The whole breadth of the northern extremity of the sea, which was about three hundred miles, having crossed our plane, we entered upon a wild mountainous region abounding with more extensive forests of larger trees than we had seen before -- the species of which I have no good analogy to describe. In general contour they resembled our forest oak; but they were much more superb in foliage, having broad glossy leaves like that of the laurel, and tresses of yellow flowers which hung, in the open glades, from the branches to the ground. These mountains passed, we arrived at a region which filled us with utter astonishment...

In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears. We could most distinctly perceive this hairy veil, which was shaped like the upper front outline of a cap known to the ladies as Mary Queen of Scots' cap, lifted and lowered by means of the ears. It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Dr. Herschel, that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.

The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of horn and beard, but had a much longer tail. It was gregarious, and chiefly abounded on the acclivitous glades of the woods. In elegance of symmetry it rivalled the antelope, and like him it seemed an agile sprightly creature, running with great speed, and springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten...

On examining the centre of this delightful valley, we found a large branching river, abounding with lovely islands, and water-birds of numerous kinds. A species of grey pelican was the most numerous; but a black and white crane, with unreasonably long legs and bill, were also quite common. We watched their pisciverous experiments a long time, in hopes of catching sight of a lunar fish; but although we were not gratified in this respect, we could easily guess the purpose with which they plunged their long necks so deeply beneath the water. Near the upper extremity of one of these islands we obtained a glimpse of a strange amphibious creature, of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach, and was lost sight of in the strong current which set off from this angle of the island...

Dr. Herschel has classified not less than thirty-eight species of forest trees, and nearly twice this number of plants, found in this tract alone, which are widely different to those found in more equatorial latitudes. Of animals, he classified nine species of mammalia, and five of ovipara. Among the former is a small kind of rein-deer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire. Still its head and body differ only in the points stated from that of the beaver, and it was never seen except on the borders of lakes and rivers, in which is has been seen to immerse for a period of several seconds.

The most fantastic beings of La Lune were the sentient hominids that populated an area full with natural-coliseums lined with living gold and ruby, as well "an equitriangular temple, built of polished sapphire" that was "a fane of devotion, or of science, which, when consecrated to the Creator is devotion of the loftiest order; for it exhibits his attributes purely free from the masquerade, attire, and blasphemous caricature of controversial creeds, and has the seal and signature of his own hand to sanction its aspirations." These were dubbed by Herschel "Vespertilio homo"... the Man-Bat!
But whilst gazing upon them in a perspective of about half a mile, we were thrilled with astonishment to perceive four successive flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds, descend with a slow even motion from the cliffs on the western side, and alight upon the plain...

Certainly the were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified... They averaged four feet 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 their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of simia genus...

Whilst passing across the canvass, and whenever we afterwards saw them, these creatures were evidently engaged in conversation; their gesticulation, more particularly the varied action of their hands and arms, appeared impassioned and emphatic. We hence inferred that they were rational beings, and although not perhaps of so high an order as others which we discovered the next month on the shores of the Bay of Rainbows, they were capable of producing works of art and contrivance...

A print sold by the Sun depicting Vespertilo homo and the Sapphire Temple.

Herschel's lunar revelries and revelations came to a tragic delay in the sixth installment: "A singular circumstance occurred the next day, which three the telescope quite out of use for nearly a week, by which time the moon could be no longer observed that month. The great lens, which was usually lowered during the day, and placed horizontally, had, it is true, been lowered as usual, but had been inconsiderately left in a perpendicular position. Accordingly, shortly after sunrise the next morning, Dr. Herschel and his assistants, Dr. Grant and Messrs. Drummond and Home, who slept in a bungalow erected a short distance from the observatory circle, were awakened by the loud shouts of some Dutch farmers and domesticated Hottentotts (who were passing with their oxen to agricultural labor), that the "big house" was on fire!"

Luckily, the destruction of the observatory was not absolute. Even though that would bring a nice conclusion to the story, a new observatory was built post-haste, Herschel turned to observing the rings of Saturn until the moon was once again fully visible, and concludes the report with a few final observations before promising a complete volume of the orb's natural history.

By that time, the overwhelming majority of readers had figured out that they had been hoaxed. Though these hoaxes are meant to test the credibility of media and gullibility of the audience, what they most end up revealing is the naivety of posterity. For example, "everyone knows" that there was mass panic about an martian invasion on the night of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast... Yet, in fact, there was not. There was some panic among those who tuned in late and missed the introduction (specifically, at the start of a musical interlude in Edgar Bergen's show on another station, which led a portion of the audience to channel surf at exactly the moment the Martians emerged and started attacking), but even among the few who panicked on that Halloween evening in 1939, it was the belief that the "Martians" constituted a Nazi invasion. It was newspapers the next day who sensationalized the event. People in past are smarter than they are often given credit for, and with the Great Moon Hoax, the invention of flying bat-people was a straw too heavy.  

Other than newspapers in general, who was the target of Locke's satire? The target, or at least the inspiration, may have been all the wild and varied guesses about life in outer space. One notable possibility was Rev. Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and amateur astronomer. In the nascent days of modern science, the occupation was largely taken up by gentlemen of education and leisure who enjoyed incomes from other ventures. The first man to scientifically describe dinosaur bones in England was Gideon Mantell, an obstetrician by trade. The clergy were not uncommon scientists, and the list of 19th century notables includes Michael Faraday (electromagnetic theory), Samuel Vince (Cambridge astronomer), William Buckland (geologist), Gregor Mendel (genetics), Temple Chevallier (founder of the Durham University Observatory), William Kirby (chemist, physicist, meteorologist, and introducer of atomic theory to chemistry), Joseph Priestley (discoverer of oxygen), William Whewell (mineralogist and coiner of the terms "scientist" and "physicist"), and Lewis Carroll (mathematician and writer of Alice in Wonderland). Rev. Dick took it upon himself to speculate and calculate that the solar system was capable of supporting in excess of 21.9 trillion inhabitants, with 4.2 billion on the moon alone. Earth's population was a little over one million at the time.

Poe gave it another go in 1844 with The Balloon Hoax, which was published in the New York Sun despite his own misgivings about whether the Great Moon Hoax plagiarized Hans Pfaall. His second, and more credible-sounding hoax, would go on to inspire inveterate Poe fanboy Jules Verne in writing Five Weeks in a Balloon and Around the World in 80 Days.

Sir John Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing.

A full and fascinating account of the Great Moon Hoax, including the original text, can be found at The Museum of Hoaxes.

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