What we know today as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) had its genesis back in November of 1961 when the movement’s first conference was held at Green Bank, West Virginia. At that initial meeting of brilliant, questioning minds, there were just 10 in attendance. Among them were Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. While today it has its critics, chief among them Ufology Elder Stanton Friedman, SETI is in any case generally considered the first serious attempt to reach out to the stars to answer that most fundamental of all questions: Is there anybody else out there?
Or is it? As we shall see, attempts to communicate with our interplanetary brothers far outdate that initial SETI meeting at Green Bank, West Virginia.
While peering at the Red Planet through his telescope in 1877, Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, observed long straight lines running across the equatorial regions of Mars. He called these canali and they appeared to be confirmed later by Irish astronomer, Charles. E. Burton, who made some of the first drawings of these canals. Schiaparelli’s discovery caused a sensation. If there were canals carved into the Martian landscape, who could have carved them?
Obviously, it could only have been the Martians.
Electronic genius and inventor extraordinaire, Nikola Tesla, postulated as far back as 1896 that radio could be used to communicate with these Martians. At the turn of the century, using a Tesla coil receiver, he apparently picked up repetitive signals that, at the time, he interpreted as coming from Mars. Marconi also believed that radio signals could be used to contact the inhabitants of Mars and claimed that his radio stations had in fact picked up radio signals from the planet.
In 1902, an Australian man, Will Redman, founded The Martian Scientific, Literary, and Debating Society (possibly the earliest exopolitical movement). In his inaugural address to the society, the far-sighted Redman expressed his belief that we would soon not only be communicating with our Martian interplanetary brothers, but visiting them as well.
"This society is to have as an object … furthering the idea of interplanetary communication with Mars … Does not the success of science make it probable that, in the near future, interplanetary communication with other worlds than ours, will be an accomplished fact; that some cigar-shaped vessel, launched by the explosive power of cordite … will voyage to the other world to explore the lands of Mars?
“Some of the dreams of [Jules] Vern have been accomplished. The tourist now circles the world in less than 50 days … But presently a more wondrous dream will come true, the dream of interplanetary passage. The messenger of earth, the wonderful ship of space, will speed across the wilderness of Ether, which lies between Terra and her brother world Mars, to come again and bring us the teaching of another sphere."
Sadly, it appears Will Redman was way, way ahead of his time … and we are still awaiting the “teaching of another sphere”.
During the winter months of 1909, Australia experienced what could possibly be the country’s first UFO flap with sightings of strange airships reported from the east coast to Western Australia. The proliferation of these mysterious reports led one newspaper, The Mercury, on 23 August 1909, to editorialise that: “People everywhere are seeing visions. Every fine night somewhere fiery cars are seen flashing across the sky like a Greek goddess on a mission to earth … It has been playfully suggested that the Martians are endeavouring to send signals to the earth.”
Perhaps, amid the sightings of “fiery cars flashing across the sky” and talk of Martians attempting to communicate with us, a Professor Pickering was prompted to write in October of 1909 that communicating with Mars was merely “a question of elementary mathematics” and that it could be worked out “by any astronomer in less than a quarter of an hour”.
Professor Pickering went on to explain his elementary mathematics:
“When Mars is a hundred millions of miles from the earth a signal made by a beam of light half a mile square would appear to the Martians as a star of the fifth magnitude.”
So, to communicate with the Martians, according to Professor Pickering, all that was needed was a really large flashlight.
Another suggestion for communicating with our interplanetary brothers on Mars was far less practical than the professor’s half-mile square flashlight. “At regular intervals and for considerable periods of time the dark side of the earth is turned to Mars. So, if a hole were pierced through the earth a beam of sunlight might be allowed to pass, and if intelligently interrupted would form a code of signals.”
Thankfully, a Mr Robinson of London appeared to have the right idea, proposing in 1928 that a wireless message be beamed to Mars from Britain’s most powerful wireless station when the two planets were at their closest. The only glitch: how could we ensure that the Martians would correctly interpret our terrestrial messages? Robinson’s answer was simple: he had already had “psychic communication with Martians, and they will understand his signals,” he explained. Naturally, this begs the question as to why the wireless messages were needed at all if Robinson already possessed the ability to communicate psychically?
A Sydney man, writing in The Mercury, did away with the redundant wireless messages proposed by Robinson altogether and simply paid a “psychic visit to Mars”.
"I can see them now tall, well-proportioned men and women, all dressed in vivid blue robes, and served by a most wonderful machine, unlike any machine I have seen on earth. Their language consists of a series of ululations [high-pitched sounds], similar to whistling. Their ears are enormous, and unevenly crinkled, but I differ from others in declaring that all Martians have well-developed trunks, which they use for conveying food to the mouth, and talking."
Nearly 50 years later, in 1974, the man responsible for postulating that there could be anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000,000 civilisations across the galaxy, Frank Drake, transmitted the first SETI message out into the cosmos from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Then, just three years later, on 15 August 1977, one simple word was scribbled on a computer printout at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. That word was “Wow!” and it was written on a printout of a 72-second signal that appeared to have the potential to show an intelligent radio signal sent out from the stars. As much as SETI has tried, a similar signal has never been found.
While we are still excitedly awaiting first contact with our interplanetary brothers (and sisters), at least our efforts have progressed from those early days of really large flashlights, holes through the centre of the earth and psychic visits.
Or have they? Perhaps our current attempts at interplanetary contact via radio signals are no more technologically viable than those proposed by well-meaning would-be messengers of a century ago. But then again, we need to try something.