The 19th century was the period in which astronomers, armed with more and more sophisticated telescopes, began to make astonishing discoveries on the surface of Mars. One of those astronomers was Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli. He was someone who ultimately rose to the position of director of the Brera Astronomical Observatory, which is located in Milan, Italy and that was constructed in 1764; the work having been overseen by astronomer Roger Boscovich. Schiaparelli was enthused to the max by the prospect of learning more and more about Mars. While Schiaparelli was a well-respected astronomer, he was also someone who reached just a little too far when it came to the matter of trying to understand what, exactly, was happening on Mars. Certain light and dark portions of Mars were interpreted by Schiaparelli as oceans and what he even termed as "continents" – terminology that understandably suggested that Mars was not too dissimilar to our Earth. How very wrong he turned out to be. There is also the matter of the canals of Mars that excited the astronomer.
Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, Public Domain
During the course of his studies of Mars, Schiaparelli’s work led to a most catastrophic blunder; it was a blunder that would never, ever be forgotten. Granted, it wasn’t entirely Schiaparelli’s fault, but he certainly played a significant role in the development of the embarrassing matter. While scrutinizing Mars with his telescopes, Schiaparelli was sure that he could see unusual “channels” on the surface of the planet. He went on to refer to them as “canali.” When the word got out to an excited media, that word – “canali” – was one hundred percent erroneously translated to “canal.” It’s very important to note the time-frame in all of this: this was a particular era in human civilization when canals were rightly seen as vital components of then-modern day society. As an example, in 1869 the 120-miles-long Suez Canal was completed and connected the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It was a major development of engineering. Quite understandably, for many people of that era, then, the idea of canals on Mars near-instantaneously suggested they were the work and the creation of intelligent beings. After all, that we were constructing vast canals at the very same time, added more and more weight to the theory that Martians might be doing precisely likewise. Thus was born the myth of the Martian canals. It was a myth that didn’t go away.
The planet Mars (NASA)
Another astronomer who bought into the canal theory was Percival Lowell. He wasn’t just an astronomer, but a skilled businessman too – something that ensured him a sizeable fortune. Born and bred in Boston, Massachusetts, Lowell was the brains behind the Flagstaff, Arizona-based Lowell Observatory. Nineteen-Ten saw his book, The Evolution of Worlds, published. He had a deep affinity with Japan, having spent a great deal of time there and getting to know the people and their culture. And, yet, for all of his skills as an astronomer, Lowell also bought into the theory that there were canals on Mars – and not just canals made naturally, but canals created by intelligent Martians. Such was Lowell’s ever-growing fascination with Mars, he wrote three books on the planet: 1895’s Mars; Mars and its Canals, which was published in 1906; and Mars as the Abode of Life, which appeared two years later. The further that Lowell delved deep into his theory, so a larger, and far more elaborate, scenario came to the forefront. He personally weaved a novel and admittedly engaging picture that involved the Martians using huge numbers of canals to move massive amounts of water from the polar-regions to Mars’ equator. The whole thing was carefully, and even ingeniously, worked out. Unfortunately for Lowell, he was wrong. As in dead wrong. History, science, and the ever-growing increase in sophisticated telescopes and probes have since made it very clear that there are no intelligently-made canals on Mars. Anywhere. What was once seen as a major development in the quest to find Martians is now nothing but an embarrassing affair that is best forgotten. Forever.