Little Bits of History

Men in the Moon

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 25, 2013
Lithograph from the Great Moon Hoax

Lithograph from the Great Moon Hoax

August  25, 1835: The first of a six-part series runs in The Sun of New York City. The series was advertised on August 21 and was said to be a reprint from the esteemed Sir John Herschel as told to Dr. Grant and run in the prestigious The Edinburgh Courant. The famous astronomer supposedly made observations of the moon using a very powerful telescope and what he saw was astounding. According to the nearly 2-year-old paper, the moon sported fantastic animal life including unicorns, two-legged tailless beavers, and bat-like winged humanoids.

The creatures lived in huts, built temples, and played in the forests or on the beaches. Lithographs appeared with the articles to help readers see what life on the moon was like. The stories were filled with scientific evidence of “Vespertilio-homo” and all the wonders these winged creatures produced. Readership of The Sun dramatically increased as a science loving population learned about the men on the moon. So who was behind this fantastic fiction?

The most likely author is Cambridge-educated Richard Adams Locke although he never publicly claimed authorship. Two others, Jean-Nicholas Nicollet and Lewis Gaylord Clark, are also possible, but both are less likely to be the author than is Locke. If it was indeed Locke, he had two reasons to write the series – first and foremost was to boost sales. A second reason would have been to ridicule some of the more preposterous “scientific” claims of the time.

It took weeks for the articles to be revealed as a hoax. The Sun never printed a retraction. Circulation rose and remained higher than it had been prior to the feature’s week-long run. Herschel was at first amused, but he eventually tired of answering questions about life on the moon from people who took the articles as serious science. The series is said to have inspired Edgar Allen Poe with his own hoax about Balloons sailing across the ocean, also published in The Sun. Poe had published a life on the moon article in June of 1835 which was not as well received due to the satirical tone. However, it is considered to be one of the earliest science fiction stories. In it people sailed to the moon, also in a balloon, and met all manner of creatures living in the night sky.

“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 for war from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of horn and beard, but had a much longer tail.”

“Its hills are pinnacled with tall quartz crystals, of so rich a yellow and orange hue that we at first supposed them to be pointed flames of fire; and they spring up thus from smooth round brows of hills which are covered with a velvet mantle.”

“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.”

“The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creatures, gave us the most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal companion of our larger, but less favored world.” – all from Great Astronomical Discoveries or the Great Moon Hoax

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Sir John Herschel was an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, photographer, inventor, and botanist. He was the son of astronomer William Herschel. He was born in 1792 and studied at Eton College and St John’s College, Cambridge. He invented the use of the Julian day system in astronomy which is still in use today. He named the seven moons of Saturn and the four moons of Uranus. He instituted new and improved methods for photography and investigated color blindness. He was interested in the uses for chemical properties in ultraviolet rays. He traveled and wrote about his scientific interests. He was the author for a few scientific entries to the Encyclopædia Britannica. He married Margaret Brodie Stewart in 1829 and the couple had twelve children born between 1830 and 1855.

Also on this day: Swimming the English Channel – In 1875 Matthew Webb becomes the first to swim the English Channel.
I See – In 1609, Galileo demonstrated his telescope.
National Parks – In 1916, the US National Park Service was formed.