He was the man who launched a thousand imaginary rocketships to Mars — in the nineteenth century, before anybody knew the word "Martian" and War of the Worlds hadn't been written yet. Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian, spent his youth traveling Japan and Korea before having a nervous breakdown and recovering by falling in love with Mars. He built the Lowell Observatory in Arizona just so he could get a better look at the planet, and spent months staring at it every night, taking notes and writing books about how it might be possible that other creatures lived there. A mesmerizing speaker, Lowell gave lectures and readings all over the country, popularizing the idea that the Martian "canals" might be signs of Martian civilization. With the new Phoenix Mars Lander about to plop down on the Red Planet, the Boston Globe's Nancy Zaroulis has published an amazing and timely article about Lowell's life.
Apparently, Lowell's unconventional thinking went beyond his desire to convince the public that Mars was inhabited. He broke off a marriage to a proper Boston lady, and wound up marrying a middle-class woman many deemed "beneath" him. He wrote several books about Japan and Korea, including the first book for Westerners that included photographs of Korea.
But his books about Mars (the first one called simply Mars), filled with pictures he drew based on all those nights in the observatory (you can see one above), were the most popular. Zaroulis writes:
The appearance of Lowell's book about Mars in 1895 came at a time of canal-building on earth. The Suez had recently been constructed; the Panama was in the works. For both Lowell and his adoring public, the prospect of canals on a neighboring planet was too captivating to dismiss. Let the stuffy academic scientists and astronomers carp and criticize, let them proclaim that there could not possibly be life on Mars because the Martian atmosphere was too thin, its gravity too weak. Lowell knew what he knew. He envisioned Mars society as a kind of utopia, with a place for every man and every man in his place. On Mars, there was no nonsense about workers' rights or labor unions or Progressivism or Socialism or any of the other discontents in the America of his time.Later in his life, Lowell became convinced there was a ninth planet in the solar system, which he dubbed Planet X. Nobody believed him, but years after his death Pluto was discovered and became the controversial ninth planet (some still say the tiny chunk of icy rock is really just an asteroid at best).
The article is a great read — check it out.
The Man Who Invented Mars [Boston Globe Magazine]