• Aeryn Avilla

Life on Mars: A Brief History of the Martian Canals

Mars, Earth's closets neighbor, has been the focus of astronomical research for centuries. More recently, unmanned vehicles roam its dusty surface hunting for traces of ancient life. These expeditions are rooted in a theory dating back more than a hundred years: There were and still are canals on Mars constructed by an intelligent civilization. Although this theory is proven to be wholly incorrect, it resulted in decades of further Martian research and exploration.

Percival Lowell's color map of Mars

Percival Lowell's color maps of Mars from 1905 (lowell.edu)

Our story begins more than 300 years ago when in 1719, Italian astronomer Giacomo Filippo Adaldi noticed Mars had seasons like Earth. This was confirmed by William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus along with its moons and other gas giants, in 1783. In the 1860s, French astronomer Emmanual Liais hypothesized that changes in the Martian surface were caused by changing vegetation. Although this was incorrect, his theory was the earliest idea of potential life on Mars. Along came Giovanni Schiaparelli, the director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy. He spent 1877 mapping and naming areas of Mars, calling the dark areas "seas" and the light areas "continents". Names for regions and features on the surface were references to history and mythology. Schiaparelli also noticed a series of grooves in the surface which he called "canali", the Italian word for "channels". That same year, American astronomer Asaph Hall confirmed the existence of Mars's moons, which he named Deimos (terror) and Phobos (fear) after the ancient Greek mythological twin sons of Ares [1].

Schiaparelli's color atlas of Mars

Schiaparelli's color atlas of Mars from 1888 (source: vividmaps.com)

When news of Schiaparelli's canali reached the United States, it sparked one of the largest and most controversial movements in the history of astronomy. Somewhere along the way, the Italian "canali" was translated into the English "canals". This new term brought the recently completed Suez Canal to mind for a lot of people, leading them to believe the canals were large-scale artificially built structures, also implying there was intelligent extraterrestrial life on Mars. According to NASA, the importance of canals and the industrialization of the US following the American Civil War "without a doubt influenced the popular interest in 'canals' on Mars."

Percival Lowell at his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona
Lowell at his observatory (public domain)

Although I was unable to find who made the initial translation and by what means it spread, proving this theory became the life goal of Percival Lowell, a wealthy astronomer and businessman from Boston, Massachusetts. He used his fortune to construct a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Mars was exceptionally visible in the night sky. This facility is known today as the Lowell Observatory. Lowell was fascinated by the notion of life on other planets, so the observatory was built specifically for Mars research. He made his first observations of the red planet in 1894 and confirmed the canals were real, mapping hundreds of them criss-crossing the surface. Lowell believed the planet was once covered with plant life and that these canals were created by intelligent "Martians" to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions, restoring the vegetation that once grew.

Lowell published his findings in a book cleverly entitled Mars in 1895. An 1989 article in The Atlantic Monthly consolidated the findings of Schiaparelli, Lowell, and other prominent contemporary and past astronomers and claimed that Mars might be in "an advanced stage of evolution" compared to Earth. His following two books, Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908) were also widely read. One of them stated the canals "run for thousands of miles in an unswerving direction, as far relatively as from London to Bombay, and as far actually as from Boston to San Fransisco." The astronomer remained at his observatory until his death in 1916.

Percival Lowell's Martian canals

Lowell's Martian canals (public domain)

1982 edition of "The Martian Chronicles". The cover art, which depicts the canals, was designed by Ian Miller
1982 edition of "The Martian Chronicles" [2.5] (isfdb.org)

Lowell's theories inspired H.G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds in 1898, launching a whole new sub-genre of science fiction— human contact with extraterrestrial life. Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1911 novel A Princess of Mars used Schiaparelli's names for regions on Mars and popularized the idea of Martians having green skin. A resurgence in fascination with space travel and tales from beyond after World War II saw the publication of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950), a collection of loosely-related short stories. The final story in the book, "The Million-Year Picnic" [2], features a family of humans who escape nuclear war on Earth traveling down one of Lowell's Martian canals in a boat. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is about a human born on Mars and raised by a race highly advanced beings while a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "People are Alike All Over" [3] depicts the unfortunate fate of an astronaut taken under the wing of Martians. Through these novels and numerous movies and serials, Mars became known as a dry, arid place with violent, or at least spiteful, Martians set on attacking humans, not the highly developed and possibly even benevolent race Lowell hypothesized.

The world found out whether Lowell's theories were correct, or held any credence at all, in 1965, seventy years after he first mapped the infamous Mars canals. When NASA's Mariner 4 probe became the first spacecraft to visit another planet, it photographed impact craters dotting the surface and a vast, barren landscape. But there were no canals on Mars. We now know these lines covering the planet's surface were merely a result of the human tendency to see patterns, an occurrence similar to face pareidolia [4]. The most famous example of this phenomena is Mount Cydonia on Mars, also known as the "face on Mars".

Viking 1 on July 25, 1976 Mars Global Surveyor in 2001

Even though Lowell was wrong in the end, he put a great deal of money and effort into real astronomical research, including an elaborate mathematical study of the orbit of Uranus. In 1930, a telescope at his observatory was used by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh to discover the planet Pluto, a search instigated by Lowell prior to his death. Since Mariner 4, dozens of probes and rovers from various nations have been exploring Mars and its history. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity Rover, and Mars 2020 Perseverance rover are currently roaming the dry and dusty surface on the hunt for traces of alien life. Are there currently living organisms trapped in the frozen ice caps of Mars's poles? Did life once exist and thrive millions of years ago? The truth is out there.

Author's note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!

[1] Ares is the Greek equivalent to Mars, the god of war.

[2] The story was first published in 1946 in Planet Stories.

[2.5] The cover art used for the 1982 publication of The Martian Chronicles was designed by Ian Miller and depicts the family from "The Million-Year Picnic" on the banks of a Martian canal.

[3] This episode, season 1 episode 25, was written by Rod Serling and based on a short story entitled "Brothers Beyond the Void" by Paul Fairman. The lone astronaut was played by Roddy McDowall, who is better known to sci-fi fans as Cornelius from the Planet of the Apes franchise.

[4] Face pareidolia is the phenomena of seeing faces in random objects or arrangements of light and shadows.



  • Alex. "A Short History of Martian Canals in Maps". https://vividmaps.com/martian-canals

  • Canright, Shelley. "The 'Canali' and the First Martians". Student Features, https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Canali_and_First_Martians.html

  • Chayka, Kyle. "A Short History of Martian Canals and Mars Fever". Popular Mechanics, https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a17529/a-short-history-of-martian-canals-and-mars-fever/

  • Milner, Richard. "Tracing the Canals of Mars: An Astronomer's Obsession". Space, https://www.space.com/13197-mars-canals-water-history-lowell.html

Mount Cynonia images belong to NASA

"Life on Mars?" by David Bowie, 1971

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