Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Great Astronomical Discoveries

Lately Made
At The Cape of Good Hope.

So read the headline in the August 25, 1835 issue of the New York Sun, supposedly a reprint from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The article proudly reported that Sir John Herschel, the son of an astronomer who followed his father's footsteps, had built the most powerful telescope in the world. His discoveries were nothing less than amazing.

Throughout the series of six articles which ran daily through August 31, readers were told how Sir John aimed his powerful telescope at the moon. It was powerful enough, it was reported, that its view was "fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards." He saw there oceans, "treeless deserts" and forests.

In fact, he claimed that what he saw conclusively answered the question of whether or not the moon was inhabited. It was reported that "he classified nine species of mammalia, and five of ovipara," including a type of reindeer, elk, and a bipedal tail-less beaver which lived in huts and knew how to make fire. Most shocking was probably the bat-like creatures, as described in the fourth article:
We denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.
The article also tantalizingly notes that the author of the article faithfully suppressed parts of Sir John's observations by request.

Later nicknamed "The Great Moon Hoax," this article may or may not have really fooled many people (a retraction was never issued). Though presented as an account by Sir John's assistant, the article's real author is assumed to be a journalist named Richard Locke (Sir John Herschel, by the way, was a real astronomer, who likely wasn't pleased by his inclusion).

The story was certainly an influence on Edgar Poe, who became a renowned hoaxster in his own right. An early one included its own "great astronomical discoveries" and its first installment was published two months before "The Great Moon Hoax." The story, "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal," describes the title character's attempts to visit the moon in a balloon. Later, the same newspaper that published "The Great Moon Hoax," the New York Sun, published Poe's "The Balloon-Hoax" in 1844.

1 comment:

Poe Forward said...

Poe's fascination with the HOAX fascinates me. Perhaps, he worked out some of his elitist urgings by illustrating how stupid we humans can be. We did a reader's theatre presentation of THE BALLOON HOAX in our original production of POE HUMOUR.