William Pickering was supposed to be studying the stars. By the summer of 1892, he’d set up an observatory in the Andes Mountains of Peru to photograph southern skies for Harvard College Observatory. Instead of the stars, though, Pickering was mesmerized by a different orb: the planet Mars. That summer it was passing especially close to Earth, so it was big and bright — a beautiful sight through a telescope.
So Pickering watched and sketched Mars every night for more than two months. And he reported his findings to a newspaper. He sent regular cables to the New York Herald, which were picked up by other papers around the world.
And the reports were sensational. Pickering confirmed that Mars was crisscrossed by canals. He counted 40 lakes, and reported seeing snow coat mountain ranges, then melt and pool between them. And he monitored what he thought were areas of vegetation.
None of that was well received by Harvard Observatory’s director — Pickering’s brother, Edward, who scolded William for his reports. Edward had already relieved William of his post effective at the end of 1892, and the Mars telegrams didn’t help William’s case.
William later went to Jamaica, where he continued to monitor Mars — convinced of the reality of the canals.
Alas, the canals were just illusions, perhaps enhanced by the belief that they existed. Mars was cold, dry, and desolate — a dead world that captured the public imagination 125 years ago.
Script by Damond Benningfield